To avoid sounding like everyone else, focus on the details
Welcome to The Draft, an advice column about writing and life from Eileen Pollack, former director of the University of Michigan MFA Program. We’re here to answer your questions about storycraft, writing, and telling the truth in words.
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Writers say you have to “find your voice.” But I sound like everyone else. Or no one. When I try to pump things up and sound like a WILD AND CRAZY GUY, I come off as a jerk. Besides, that feels fake, and aren’t you supposed to be your real self when you write nonfiction? The trouble is, I don’t know what my “real self” sounds like.
Frog in My Throat
The voice that sounds like everyone else is the voice you developed when you learned to write essays in high school. The voice you thought would impress your teachers. Even as an adult, you might be trying to fit in with other people writing on the internet — by calling someone out or voicing an opinion. Too often, such essays speak in an abstract way, relying on phrases everyone has agreed to use to convey their communal outrage.
Rather than tapping into the intellectual part of your brain to get across an abstract idea, try writing spontaneously, from your own experience. Imagine telling your friends the story of the worst day of the worst job you ever worked. Be as angry, funny, or irreverent as you please. Or think of an emotion that once consumed you. Maybe you got so frustrated putting together a coffee table from Ikea that you hurled the pieces against a wall. Or so furious at your toddler for slapping your glasses off your face that you slapped your toddler back. Or so joyful at seeing your son walk across the stage at graduation that you fainted and had to be revived by a worried aunt.
Don’t think. Just recreate for the reader the specific time and place in which you felt that emotion. For a model, you might read Jamaica Kincaid’s “On Seeing England for the First Time,” a rant about how angry she felt visiting England the first time after having been taught as a child in Antigua that all things English were superior to all things West Indian. Or read David Sedaris’s account of his humiliation working as Crumpet the Elf at Macy’s over Christmas.
The secret to finding your voice is to focus on the details only you would use to convey what only you have experienced. Don’t sum up a person or an event in a general phrase: “the boss from hell” or “the perfect storm of disasters in the kitchen.” Instead, use details to convey the specific ways your boss was evil. Close your eyes and relive the sights and sounds and smells of the kitchen in which those disasters occurred.
As you read Barbara Ehrenreich’s description of the restaurant in which she worked while researching Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, notice how much fun she has using metaphors to get across the smells that otherwise might be difficult to convey to readers who’ve never worked in a dishroom:
The kitchen is a cavern, a stomach leading to the lower intestine that is the garbage and dishwashing area, from which issue bizarre smells combining the edible and the offal: creamy carrion, pizza barf, and that unique and enigmatic Jerry’s scent — citrus fart.
The first time I read E.B. White’s essay “The Ring of Time,” I was stunned by his description of the humidity: “Envelopes seal themselves. Postage stamps mate with one another as shamelessly as grasshoppers.” You may never have encountered an envelope or a postage stamp that required licking. Those details come from Florida in the 1950s. But they still bring alive the oppressive weather and eerie mood the author is trying to convey.
If you practice describing the world in which you do live, comparing what you see and smell and hear to sights and sounds and smells that might be more familiar to your readers, your voice will arise naturally from the rhythm and tone of the words and phrases only you would choose.
Don’t forget that your voice actually is a chorus, inflected by the rhythms and syntax of the family that raised you, your neighbors, classmates, friends, the pastor at your church, the imam at your mosque, and the characters on the TV shows you grew up watching. When you imagined describing the worst job you ever worked, did you imitate the worst customer you ever had to placate? That customer’s voice is part of your own voice as a writer.
Think of the best storyteller you know. Then capture that voice on paper. Let us hear your uncle describe what it was like to be a gay Asian-American in the Marines in Vietnam. Or your neighbor as she complains about the mealy bugs in her garden. Do you live in Portland? Boise? Decatur? Tune your ears to delight in the phrases the people around you use. I once heard a woman at an ice cream shop in Michigan say to her daughter, “Doesn’t that just roast your liver?” When my father, a Brooklyn Jew, didn’t want to take on someone else’s problems, he would say, “That isn’t my valise.” Capture fragments of distinctive dialogue and dialect in your notebook, and then, when you orchestrate your next essay, use those voices to complicate, texturize, and enrich your symphony.
Most of all, don’t try to write what everyone else is writing. Write about what truly obsesses, baffles, or inspires you day to day, whether it involves postage stamps mating in a drawer or the smells emanating from the kitchen where you wash the dishes. Then find the most precise details to convey what is maddening, beautiful, puzzling, or enlightening about the world of which you sing.