Writer’s Voice: Can You Hear Me Now?

Genius is at work for anyone, who can explain the term ‘writer’s voice’ in fewer than 750 words. I’ll try.

I’ll begin by saying it takes a lot of courage to write in your own voice. Writing in your own voice means writing as though you are having a conversation with your best friend.

We all speak in many different voices. We pitch high when speaking to a gurgling baby. We speak differently when we coo to a beloved dog as compared to the one we use to talk to the cat — or when acknowledging the presence of a spider.

We speak to the boss — or the caller from the IRS — in a different tone from the way we address the person behind the counter from whom we are asking for half a pound of Swiss, please.

So the voice we employ for writing an article, or a book, or a blog posting must be the true one you really mean. Otherwise it’s like lying; it’s hard to remember how to keep your story straight. You establish credibility with your readers by being true to yourself.

Julia Child

I remember a writing student, who desperately wanted to be a successful cookbook author. She thought she could do this by counting the specific number of words Julia Child used in the head notes to her recipes — and replicating them. (Note: I wouldn’t customarily use the word “replicate” so I should have said “using” the same number of words.)

It was impossible to convince the student that it was Julia’s ideas, the accuracy of her recipes, her formidable physical and television presence that made her a national folk hero (not her actual voice!) with a voice.

Where do you find this thing called ‘voice?’ First, stop looking! You’ve already got it. Now all you need is the courage to believe your own unique way of expressing yourself is interesting.

Here’s a fine example of the distinctive voice that belongs to Diane Ackerman, the author of A Natural History of the Senses:

“Nothing looks more contented than a resting alligator. The mouth falls naturally into a crumpled smile, the eyes half close in a sleepy sort of way. The puckered back looks as harmless as the paper-mache maps of the Alps that children make in elementary school. The thick toes hog the mud like tree roots. Alligators, because their massive jaws curve upward, appear to be laughing even when they’re in repose. They seem caught in a great big private chuckle…”

Isn’t that simply brilliant writing? Every word is composed with infinite care. Diane Ackerman paints a picture in her own words. The description is factual yet evocative and stylish.

Compare this with the voice of Andy Rooney, complaining on 60 Minutes about advertising:

“The word ‘new’ appears in about half of all printed and broadcast advertising. Usually, the product is not only new; it’s ‘new and improved.’ If it’s going to be new and improved again next year, you might want to wait.”

Or, Alan Richman, of GQ, and multiple James Beard Foundation Award Winner, describing his job as a restaurant critic as “perceived as similar to ‘test driving a Mercedes or helping chorus girls in Las Vegas to get dressed…”

Jerry Della Famina

And, Jerry della Femina writing about my favorite subject: The Heyday of the Three-Martini Lunch:

“We called them silver bullets — they were six-ounce martinis made up of six ounces of gin, a drop of vermouth and a thin strip of lemon peel floating on the top, surrounded by a handful of silvery slivers of ice.

‘Straight up’ was the way most people drank in the 1960’s; ordering ‘on the rocks’ was seen as sign of weakness, as was the substitution of vodka.”

Absolutely marvelous! I can experience the sensation of the first sip!

Now you try. Paint a picture of an event; write a book review; describe the smell of an onion or the pain of a toothache in your very own, beautiful voice.

Next Wednesday: the topic is how to write a book review.