Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Writer’s Voice

By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 18, 2009

How do you find your writer’s voice? A lot of humbug has been written on this subject. The myth is that in finding that voice, the writer achieves a kind of personal enlightenment. She discovers “who she really is.”

Not in my experience.

This is not to say that voice is unimportant. It’s crucial, make-or-break. Without it, we’ve got nothing. Let’s examine this.

Movies versus books

The reason why books are often hard to translate into movies is that the very act of moviemaking destroys the writer’s voice. Maybe what was great about the book, what you loved about it, was that voice. Hemingway’s voice. Philip Roth’s voice. Joyce Carol Oates’ voice.

By definition, when you make a movie of a book, you lose the writer’s voice. We’re no longer reading the writer’s words on paper and hearing them in our head, we’re looking at images on film. It’s a whole different vocabulary. The filmmaker can try using a voiceover, but that rarely succeeds. The one act that does work is when the director’s voice is as strong as the writer’s, as Richard Mulligan’s was with To Kill a Mockingbird, in which his filmic voice equaled or even surpassed Harper Lee’s voice as the novelist. But usually what happens is you lose the writer’s voice.

The role of voice

The writer’s voice casts a spell. The right voice makes the work accessible; it gives us the tone and point of view that best illuminate the material and make it shine. The magic of Hemingway’s prose is that it describes events the way the human eye sees them. He taught himself this technique as a journalist and he used it very consciously and deliberately.

The door opened. Brett stood there. Behind her was the count.

Hemingway’s technique creates the illusion of seeing. He designed it that way. The way the human eye works. That voice also carries an undertone of despair, of willfully fabricated detachment and objectivity. It gives us Jake Barnes, the narrator, and through his specific pain, the Lost Generation’s desolation. The genius of that voice is that it creates its effect using only words on paper. As soon as we make a movie of Hemingway’s stuff, the camera destroys that. It can’t help it. What was brilliant when it was painted using only words becomes ordinary when it’s filmed by a camera. That’s why Hemingway’s books rarely work as films. What’s left is characters and story. Excellent as those may be, what made them great was the voice.

How do you find your writer’s voice?

The critical fact to remember is that the writer’s voice is artificial. It’s an act of artifice, crafted by the professional to achieve a specific effect in a work of the imagination. It’s not the “real” writer’s voice and if you try to find your own, you’ll drive yourself crazy. Because “you” don’t really exist. I don’t either, no matter how convincingly anybody tells us that we do or how much we choose to believe it. But that’s a subject for another chapter.

The writer’s voice (or director’s, choreographer’s, photographer’s, entrepreneur’s) arises from the material itself and acts in service to that material. It can, and often does, change from book to book, dance to dance, album to album, business venture to business venture.

This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come for lunch. I know what this means. Since I go there every Sunday for dinner and today is Wednesday, it can only mean one thing: she wants to have one of her serious talks.

That’s Walker Percy, the opening lines of The Moviegoer.

Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn.

Hemingway again, from The Sun Also Rises. To me, both are pitch-perfect: character, vocabulary, tone of voice. And, perhaps not coincidentally, both are unfilmable.

How do you find your writer’s voice?

Alas, the finding is a mystery. Sometimes the voice pops into your head without effort, a gift of the Muse. Other times you have to pound your skull into the wall for months. Sometimes it never comes at all. My great old friend Robert Bidner once showed me his painter’s studio in his brownstone in Brooklyn. It was huge room with canvases in progress all over the place. Then he took me to a corner in back. A sheaf of paintings stood propped against the wall, one in front of the other. “These are my clinkers.” Some were half done, others 90%. Bob just couldn’t lick ‘em. Couldn’t find the voice. I asked him how he felt about these. Was there hope of resurrecting them someday, making them work thanks to some future inspiration? “It almost never happens,” he said. “They’re just clinkers.”

How Johnny Depp did it

The coolest instance I’ve heard of an artist finding a voice (it’s so good, I pray it’s not apocryphal) is of Johnny Depp preparing for Pirates of the Caribbean. He tried this, he tried that; nothing worked; he couldn’t find his way into his character. Then one day he had a flash of Keith Richard. Presto: Captain Jack Sparrow!

To me the trick is getting your own ego out of the way. What voice does the material want? Find that. You the writer are not there to impose “your” voice on the material. Your job is to surrender to the material–and allow it to tell you what voice it wants in order to tell itself.

[This was "Writing Wednesdays, #5." This week's winner of a signed War of Art is David DuChemin, whose quote was "The pro views her work as craft, not art. She masters how, and leaves what and why to the gods." Thanks, David! Everybody, please keep the quotes coming.]

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

13 Responses to “The Writer’s Voice”

  1. August 18, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Yesterday I rushed out of the shower with shampoo in my hair, nearly slipping to my death, for one word. “Nightstand”. A few days previous, I, awakening suddenly in the night, sat upright in bed and uttered aloud, ‘he must remain anonymous’, before falling back asleep. I can describe several similar incidents, which occur daily in my life since I sat down and committed to writing a feature length screenplay. They mean nothing to anyone but me. They are the details of a complex plot, which is slowly revealing itself one brilliant miracle at a time. I am merely a conduit for a story that exists already and has matured to the point where it feels ready to be told. In the meantime laundry goes undone and social plans are forfeited on, while I, too busy to notice any of it, enjoy a deep, uninterrupted contentment.

    So my quote for ‘Writing Wednesday’ is as follows:

    “Chaos itself is self-organising. Out of primordial disorder, stars find their orbits; rivers make their way to sea.” Continuing … “This is why artists are modest. They know they’re not doing the work; they are just taking dictation.”

  2. JC
    August 18, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    Steven, thank you for this. Best article on voice I’ve come across to date, and distinct in its assertion that the material gives tone and timbre to the voice, not the writer. Liberating as hell! And it helps keep closer the distance to the Muse… Wonderfulness!

  3. Man Ink
    August 19, 2009 at 7:23 am

    Anyone watched the movie ”High Fidelity” , is based on a British novel by Nick Hornby. I think this movie keep the writer’s voice. John Cusack is a really good actor.

    A new moive I’d like to recommend- ” The YES Movie” .The film producer Louis Lautman interviewed today’s young entrepreneurs, telling their sucessful stories. Go check it out , it will surprise you.
    http://www.TheYESmovie.com

  4. Printer Bowler
    August 19, 2009 at 11:48 am

    What a relief it is to read your confirmation that I “don’t really exist.” Seriously, the burden of trying to “find oneself” is such a heavy pile of mud on one’s shoulders, better off thrown into the compost pile. If there is an “I” identity, it can only be our self-consciousness, our awareness of being alive amid the chaos and order of this infinite universe.

    My image of being alive is that we’re like radio receivers/transmitters. We were born with genetic filters–and new filters shaped by our unfolding experiences–that process this ocean of thought forms and other formless energies we’re living in. We see, feel and respond each in our own way. We’re like the endless variety of plants, each one complex and unique, conceived and nurtured by the sun and other more distant radiant energy centers. It seems like we are nothing but individualized extensions of the physical sun and the invisible sun of infinite energy. The only “I” possible is the one Source, the Great Spirit, God, Yahweh, the Primal One—or whatever you name you have for the instigator of the Big Bang and the perpetrator of this wild parade of beings entering and exiting the stage ever since.

    Truth is, I have no life of my own. The little “i” I thought I was is only an illusion fabricated by my human mind. The Big Gardener actually is living through me. “i” will be gone in a flash when the Source had no further use for my bio-chemical body unit and pulls out of this human form. It’s like the plants and animals who melt back into the sod when their time is up. We call it death, and we create all kinds of soap operas about it. But only illusions die, and life moves on to new forms created for new purposes. If we identify ourselves with the human “i” we die. If we see ourselves as life energy, we’re alive forever in the ever-changing experience of boundless adventures that will never end.

    I believe every thought we think, every word we speak and action we take is orchestrated by our soul, our real identity. Even when we pray or summon our Muse, it’s our own soul placing its order with the universe for the next step in our lives. If one accepts this notion as true, it can take a lot of heat off our running concerns about who we are, the justice and injustices of the world, the nagging questions that cling to us like barnacles. It can free us up to be who we are and follow our own unique flow of inspirations and ideas with confidence and no worries.

    We experience, as souls, the laws of cause and effect, the law of attraction, and all the other constants of this world. Our souls move us to do this and that, as we experience what it’s like to live on this planet of polarities–good and bad, light and dark, up and down, etc. We can willingly participate in the unfolding soul-directed expression of our lives, or fight it by blaming others for the condition we’re in. Arjuna’s illuminating conversation with Krishna in the “Bhagavad Gita” shines a light on the subject of why we are compelled to do what we do. (Check it out–it’s a classic battlefield story from God’s point of view.) That’s also the theme running through “The Legend of Bagger Vance” written by the instigator of this blog. Even if you’re not a golfer, you’ll find it an absorbing tale (I’ve read it four times), way more interesting than the movie.

    If this all sounds like a bit of blather, I must hold Mr. Pressfield responsible for creating such an interesting, inspiring web site. From the daily grind of battling insurgents in Afghanistan to questions of who and why we are . . . it’s a helluva fascinating gamut of information and ideas to ponder. Thanks for keeping the lights on, Mr. P!

    • Steven Pressfield
      August 19, 2009 at 1:16 pm

      PB, can I lift your entire comment please — and insert it into my blog post at the appropriate point? Thanks for a great detour into the cosmic dimension. That’s just what I would have said if I had been as smart and articulate as you, Big Guy!

      • Printer Bowler
        August 20, 2009 at 7:29 am

        SP, you always have my permission to do whatever you want with my mental extrusions. Most of them should be tossed into the compost pile anyway! I did feel a moment of hesitation to post this critter. But then, a little voice from the back room said, why the hell not? You’re my ultimate editor, so plunk it where it best serves, and that very well could be the round file. I love this web site!

    • December 9, 2009 at 9:02 pm

      Interesting concept. Printer. I think our real identity is thoughtless. Or without thought. Take thought away and all we’re left with is observation.

      Excellent post, Steven. One of the best posts I’ve seen on the subject.

  5. Wisner
    August 19, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    One of the most influential comments made to me as a young whelp was that we make ourselves not find them. I think Steven has just taken the burden off many a frustrated writer. I believe there is a parallel to this in life outside of Art. Quiroga and Borges, Latin American duo, whose charcters’ voices I can hear in my head and see in my mind when I read their works. This is a little off but, the genre of horror/mindbending suspense films has been terrible since the departure of Alfred Hitchcock. Story telling substituted for graphics….Thoughts are a bit scattered here but I at least got past the friction of getting them out.

  6. December 14, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    I read The Moviegoer years ago! Excellent little book. Depressing ( to me). Uplifting.

    Sometimes, I wonder if I have my writer’s voice yet. Sometimes, I worry about it.

    Then I get back to writing, figuring that if there’s a voice in me, it’s going to have to find it’s own way out. Because I’m too busy writing to worry about it.

  7. December 22, 2009 at 10:30 am

    “To me the trick is getting your own ego out of the way. What voice does the material want? Find that. You the writer are not there to impose “your” voice on the material. Your job is to surrender to the material–and allow it to tell you what voice it wants in order to tell itself”
    -by Steven Pressfield
    Steven, you have answered my question in the very quote above. Thank you.

    With Appreciation.
    Moira Gardener
    PS May I post this quote on my blog.