Years ago I watched some kids in a heavy metal band play a reality T.V. show that made me think of high school and autumn fairs and American Idol.
All the kids were about 12 years old and four feet tall, hilariously precocious and extremely talented. The crowd loved them, but the judges often gave measured, restrained feedback.
After one performance, a judge who was also the singer in a relatively successful rock band from the ’90s and early 2000s, gave a simple critique.
He said, in effect, that when he heard the kids play, he heard all of their influences, but he couldn’t hear them. He couldn’t hear a unique sound that set them apart from all the bands that came before them.
The kids had lived long enough to figure out how to play their instruments better than many adults. They were a great cover band. But they hadn’t lived long enough to figure out who they really were.
We writers have the same problem. When we begin our practice, we mimic our heroes. We want to sound like Hemingway or Kerouac or Truman Capote.
If we are serious about this, however, we must find what makes us unique. We must find our voice.
As a kid I modeled my writing after the magazine columnists Allan Fotheringham, Rick Reilly and Scoop Jackson.
Fotheringham was a political writer for Maclean’s who got away with murder because he was so good. He was pompous and brash, but also funny and a brilliant storyteller. When he skewered a politician, the politician sometimes took it as a compliment.
I thought: I’d like to do that.
So I tried. My earliest newspaper columns were imitations of him, but they fell flat. Fotheringham was one of a kind. He had found his voice, and my attempts to be like him weren’t worth reading.
Reilly, as you know, was for many years the back page columnist in Sports Illustrated. He found stories no one else had and told them with humour and grace.
He had a knack for analogies, some of them so brilliant they made me laugh out loud.
When I started writing columns, I tried to do the same thing and couldn’t. My analogies never fit, and if they did, they weren’t funny.
I kept coming back to a line from The Simpsons: “like a yak in heat.”
Nothing cleverer came out of me, and eventually I realized I had to stop grasping for analogies if I wanted to start meeting deadlines, so I did.
Scoop wrote for SLAM, a basketball magazine I read religiously. He mixed the cadence of a hip-hop emcee with what seemed like a genuine love for the game and a willingness to experiment.
He put Michael Jordan on the same level as God. He wrote that Larry Bird played so well it gave him an erection. He got away with writing two-word sentences.
Scoop was so rare, so remarkable, so cool that it seemed inadequate to write about basketball or hip-hop in any other way, so I tried. And failed miserably.
Then, when I was in my mid-twenties, I took a job at a newspaper in the small town where I went to high school. This was a place where many people had known me since Kindergarten.
They knew who I really was, so it was hard to pretend. Eventually I stopped trying to be anyone else on the page but myself, and that’s when I found my voice.
When I write as myself, the prose is simple and carefully crafted. I try not to be fancy. The focus is on the story I’m telling, and the purpose of the story is to convey an idea.
The truth is, I have an ego. I want you to think I’m a good writer. But most of the time I’m trying to make a thoughtful point in an artful way. If I do that, I’ve succeeded.
If you poke around the Internet, you will find courses aimed at helping you find your voice as a writer. I haven’t tried any of them, so I can’t critique them in any meaningful way.
All I can do is offer these tips to try before you spend any money:
- Be honest. A non-fiction writer’s first responsibility is to the truth—both the facts, and the deeper lessons they contain. The truth will lead you to your voice.
- Try to be yourself. If you pretend to be someone else, we’ll know.
- Use the vocabulary you already have. It’s important to grow your vocabulary, of course, but don’t go searching a thesaurus every few minutes. Trust that you already know most of the words you need to say what you want to say.
- Small words are better than big ones. I stole this from Fotheringham, who often ignored his own advice. Aim to write simply, so people engage with your ideas instead of getting distracted by your prose.
- Take risks. Be ambitious, and push the boundaries of whatever form you practice. Some editors will let you get away with it and some won’t, but the cliché is true: You never know unless you try.
It’s not easy to be authentic on the page, but it can be done. All it takes is time and practice. As writers, we can build upon our influences and find our true selves, just as those precocious kids in the heavy metal band may eventually have done.
Start with the truth, and see where it leads.