Voice, as a writer, is probably the aspect of my craft I have had the greatest struggle with. While I have given far more attention, here and elsewhere, to the related concept of persona, the two are not interchangeable, even for a writer of personal narrative nonfiction.
For years I wrote easily in a manic, breezy, preposterously pretentious, first-person prose style. It was that style, already nascent, that crystalized into the very first issue of The Floating Egg back in 1997, and that carried it along nearly to the end of our print run. I do think it is to my credit that I kept that voice so consistent for so long. But it was a also a contrivance, and whatever shards of my actual self that it reflected were those horribly distorted pretensions that I had actively encouraged to accrete, like barnacles, onto the ossifying hull my youthful personality. That is to say, although I shared a great deal of myself on those years in my writings, there was very little honesty in the representation of my voice in the pages of the Egg; I was not speaking in my natural voice either on the page or in person. If I was not honest with myself, it became impossible to be truly honest as a writer. I had contrived a persona, and had expended so much energy in the years-long process that it would be a long, painful decade before I was able, with a great deal of help, to emerge again as my own plain self.
I didn’t really think about voice in my writing until my last year of college. I was taking a course with a professor I had previously had for my very first English course three years before. She had taken me to task then for the absurdly grandiose style of my prose: an adolescence spent primarily reading Dickens was bound to leave a mark. Now, nearing the end of my major, I had done a lot of writing and growing, yet I remained largely unrepentant when it came to my prose style.
In one of the first class meetings that last fall of the second millennium, we were sharing our written reflections on the reading (probably Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek if memory serves) when the conversation turned to style: first Dillard’s, and then, somehow, my own. I was loving Dillard’s prose, and I am sure I had expressed this is some over-the-top metaphor that took up half of a handwritten page in one long artistically-tortured sentence. The instructor took this up and commented, first on my statement, but then on my words themselves.
“I remember that back in 190 [the freshman course] you had difficulty controlling this voice,” Professor O’Reilley told me, and the rest of the class, too. While I was gratified by the approval implicit in this damning with faint praise, I was also a bit mortified to have her judgement on my writing baldly pronounced in front of my peers like this. I well remembered the conversation she and I had had back then, and while I had taken some of her words to heart at the time, I was also deeply attached to the grandiose rhetorical flourishes that had been my steady diet for so long.
But at twenty-one I was considerably more willing to reflect upon my personal craft of writing than I had been at eighteen. I started to get what she was saying, and to recognize there was validity to her citicism. And with years of reflection, and a good deal of practice, and many other factors, I have been gradually — and painfully — to develop what I hope is a largely natural, honest voice in my writing. This post, or this blog in general so far, may not be shining examples of that hard-won integrity of expression. Old habits are hard to break, and grandiosity still comes as naturally as breathing to me when I puts words into print. But when I am honing my prose these days, I am looking hard at what I am saying, striving to make every word tell, as Strunk and White would have it.
It is a struggle to be myself upon the page, a struggle made no easier by the yet-unfinished discovery of who my true self is. But writing toward that self-awareness is as good a method as any other I could think of. And I think it is working.