Finding ‘your voice’ seems to be the literary equivalent of going through adolescence. Time and time again, the topic crops up at various literary conventions – you can have a brilliant plot, but without that authentic voice – forget it; the story is dry and the characters are stuck on the page with little desire to be there. But what are the practical elements of finding your voice? And can this process be applied to areas other than writing?
In his brilliant book Writing a Novel and Getting Published, Nigel Watts emphasises that ‘to know your characters know yourself.’ This means stripping away and cross-examining the elements that make you. These can be family traditions, culture, sexuality and fundamental beliefs – anything that you have always believed in by default. This process will make you understand what is truly authentic and fundamental about you. As well as knowing yourself, it will help you to understand your characters, and the people around you, better - and to develop more empathy for them.
But rebelling against your long-embedded views can be challenging. The process can cause guilt, especially in the case of an authoritarian family or religion. Alom Shaha’s The Young Atheist's Handbook is a heart-tearing example that captures the process of stripping away religious beliefs, as the author goes from being a Muslim to Atheist. To clarify, I am not telling you to give up on your faith; I am just saying that you should believe in something because you want to not because you've been told you have to. And, no doubt, it can be challenging and even alienating at times. But, just like becoming an adult, it is a process that must take place if you want to become a writer. You need to know what it is you want to say and have the guts to say it.
So what can you do to start the process? As well as reading and thinking a lot, you can use your first draft to help you. As the author William Konigsberg put it, you need to give yourself the licence to write badly, as if no one is peering over your shoulder. Working out what your characters’ emotional journeys are can also help you understand yourself better. Perhaps this is why the first novel is often an amalgamation of the author’s own life events, experiences and thinking processes.
The next step is to develop the guts. And this can only be achieved if you start to discuss your views or show your writing to others. Nothing will happen if you keep your writing locked away in a drawer somewhere, just because you’re afraid it’s not good enough. Get someone to read what you’ve written, perhaps even join a writing community. This is also one of the fundamental stages, suggested by Dr Kate Gale, the managing editor of Red Hen Press, also the author of five books of poetry, a novel and six librettos. (So she really does know what she’s talking about!) This is the part where you, after many cringe-worthy moments – after loving, then hating, then hating your work again – will develop the guts, and start to truly see yourself as a writer.
But this process need not only apply to writers. Maybe you have a dream which has nothing to do with writing. I strongly believe that following that dream is just like finding your voice as a writer. Therefore, the same process applies – examine your system of beliefs with a cool head, as if you were examining someone else’s thought patterns. Write things down, for example, in a diary. But don’t do it just when you have a need to moan. Come back to your writing, edit and re-shape as your opinions change. It may seem like a waste of time, but it will sharpen your thinking beyond recognition. And, if it hasn’t already, somewhere among all that editing, your dream will crystallise. And, once you’ve grasped what that dream is, don’t settle for a Plan B. Don’t believe anyone who tells you to even consider it. You will need confidence to shoo them all away.
I used to believe that confident people are those who never fail; until I realised that it is those who fail almost all the time, but manage to pick themselves up quickly, and learn from their mistakes. Just like having a good writing group around you, it’s important to have trustworthy friends who can help you pick yourself up from your failure; so look for people who make you laugh, are respectful but also painfully honest; don’t look for flatterers who will agree with every word you say and won’t help you progress at all. Don’t know any people like that? No, sorry, that’s not an excuse – strive to become like the ideal friend you’d like to have, embrace change and opportunity, and – most importantly – remove expectations from others and give without ceasing. You will be surprised how soon things will change, and you will be surrounded by great people, because light radiates and attracts more light! Forget botox and liposuction; those are only short-term remedies - and extremely expensive for that. True confidence comes from within and is for free; nothing will make you more confident and sure of your place in this world, than following your dream.
If you are still worried of making that leap at pursuing your dream or calling yourself a writer, just remember that failures can only hurt us while we bottle them up inside. As soon as we unleash them, they become our armour and guard us against future pain. Remember that person you always wanted to ask on a date, but never dared to because you feared they will reject you? That fear haunted you every time you saw them; they may have said yes or they may have said no but you never got to find out. Either way, if you had asked them, just once, and not expecting either answer in return, it could have liberated you from that fear. And if they had turned you down - well, at least you would have known they're not interested, and you could have started to move on! And it could turn into a funny story that you share with a friend – so choose friends who will laugh with you, not at you.
So, to summarise - whether you are a budding writer or simply a human being, follow the advice of the bestselling author Paulo Coelho’s words in The Alchemist...
(Surely he, too, knows what he is talking about!)