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.]