How to Become a Better Writer (3): Find Your Voice

Back at the beginning of September, when I started this series of posts, I had been triggered by a video discussing musical practice, and what makes a good musical practice. On the one hand, I thought that the video was generally right: everything it suggested would help if someone were to incorporate it into their practice.  But I also felt that it was missing something crucial—something that has been central in my understanding of practice for a long time.  That missing element, which I rarely see discussed, is the element of personal motivation and satisfaction—which, in this post, I’m going to link to the idea of finding your own voice.

To recap the somewhat wandering narrative of this series of posts: My starting place was the intention of exploring/discussing how to become a better writer, but I immediately got on the tangential question of what it means to say that someone is a good writer.  There were, I argued in three posts, several different criteria for what counts as a good writer, suggesting consideration not only of the quality of writing produced (in the first post), but also the writer’s own perception of the process (in the second), and the long-term impacts of the writing process on the writer (in the third). By the time I got through these, I wrote a couple of more specific posts about practice that were responding to specific ideas that I had come across while working on the three “good writer” posts—one about approaching revision (whether to piece together drafts from fragments of old work—what I called “Frankenstein-ing” a draft—or to take the good ideas from old work but to try to find completely new expressions—what I called “growing a draft from the cloning vats”), and one about dealing with criticism, and particularly about moving on despite criticism.  Because the narrative has started to wander, I may close the series with this post, especially because, in a way, the whole subject of my blog is how to become a better writer, so it doesn’t really make sense to dedicate a separate series of posts to that subject.

For this post, I want to focus on what is perhaps the most important tool in becoming a good writer: finding your own voice. By this, I am not referring to tone or style, but rather to discovering or recognizing your own values—what really matters to you—and your own sense of value in what you do.  In this sense, I am linking the idea of finding your own voice with the idea that the process of writing can be rewarding at a personal level.  This linkage is crucial and is what I think is missing from discussions of practice that focus on specific types of exercise or discipline.

Speaking and Writing

How many people do you know who prefer writing to speaking? How many people do you know who find it easier to write?  How many people do you know who hate to write? And how many people do you know who hate to speak?  Because of the difficulties of writing and also the context in which writing is usually learned, writing becomes something that many people hate to do, even if they love to speak.

But writing is just another tool to express ideas.  People use writing for the same basic reasons they use speech, and it wouldn’t be surprising to find that people would use writing with the same enthusiasm they use speech—if only writing weren’t so darn difficult.  And, actually, it turns out that people will use writing—a lot—if it feels easy and natural. The whole world of text messaging and social media shows that many people are perfectly happy, even enthusiastic about writing, given the right context.

Learning to write involves a lot of trial and error, and often a lot of correction.  Writing in schools, where most people do most of their early writing, is often centered on assignments and grades and criticism/correction of the many errors that early writing projects entail. None of that is much fun to deal with—at least not for most people.

But if you get good enough, writing is less difficult, and more like speaking in the sense that the technical difficulties related to communicating become less significant, and it is easier to focus on the ideas being communicated. Which hopefully means getting to communicate about the things that are important to you.

Following your passion

Speaking of following one’s passion is something of a cliché of new age philosophies, and as such, it is often dismissed as being impractical—“woo woo” as the barista at my local coffee shop might put it.  That is, however, a mistake.  It’s taking the worst extremes of a suggestion as representing what is typical, and then rejecting the typical on the basis that it’s too extreme.  Yes, sure, when considering the idea of following your passion, it’s easy to imagine people pursuing some artistic career with little ability and little chance of turning that pursuit into any practical means of supporting themselves.  But because we can imagine such examples, doesn’t mean that we have to live them ourselves.  It is entirely possible to be passionate about something important or lucrative or both. Many medical professionals are following their passion.  Many teachers are following their passions.  Most of my work is with scholars, many of whom have or aspire to the Doctor of Philosophy degree, and for many the search for knowledge is a passion, and also something of great value to wider society.  The idea that philosophy is a pursuit of passion isn’t a new-age idea, though.  It’s an idea that was present in Ancient Greek culture, in which the pursuit of knowledge was literally called “love” (philo-) of “wisdom” (sophos-).

If we consider a basic claim of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, that the best moments of people’s lives are when they are engaged in the difficult challenging activities that lead to the flow experience, then we can believe that following passion is not so much about pursuing some whim, but rather about trying to succeed in difficult and often valuable endeavors.

Most people care about real things.  Even people engaged in activities that might be considered frivolous can be doing something valuable to multiple people.  What might seem ridiculous to one person might, in fact, be extremely valuable to another. Just above, I offered the example of someone pursuing an artistic career with no hope of supporting themself, as if that were a frivolous thing, but that’s a problematic example.  For one, it’s not sensitive to specifics of context that might matter to the individual—perhaps the artist gains a real  and necessary personal therapeutic benefit from pursuing art.  And, for two, it’s not hard to find examples of artists whose work was derided in their own time but are respected now.    

Following your passion can sound impractical, but the realities of following passion are far different.  People who follow their passions are often driven to become very good at what they do. Writing happens to be one thing that people can become passionate about.

Passion and Practice

People who are passionate about something, often work on that thing.  They practice.  And practice is the crucial factor in becoming good at something.  This connection between passion and practice is another old idea.  There is a quotation from Sir Philip Sidney’s “Apologie for Poetrie” on this point that I have long appreciated: 

For suppose it be granted — that which I suppose with great reason may be denied — that the philosopher, in respect of his methodical proceeding, teach more perfectly than the poet, yet do I think that no man is so much [a lover of philosophy—“philo-philosophos”] as to compare the philosopher in moving with the poet. And that moving is of a higher degree than teaching, it may by this appear, that it is well nigh both the cause and the effect of teaching; for who will be taught, if he be not moved with desire to be taught?

(From Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1962/1962-h/1962-h.htm; Project Gutenberg is an excellent resource. Please support it.)

Sidney highlights the importance of motivation—of the desire to accomplish something, in this case to learn—in the accomplishment of goals. The key assertion, which he phrases as a question, is that people who are motivated to learn will learn (and regardless of whether their teacher is the better or worse).

Passion leads to practice.  Practice leads to skill.  And skill leads to greater satisfaction in the activity, while also sparking enough dissatisfaction to continue to grow.

Conclusion

Do you want to become a better writer? Why? What ideas do you want to express? What stories do you want to share? What knowledge? What ideas?  What is it that you really care about?  What, to refer back to this post’s title, do you want your voice to be saying?

As you find your voice, and begin to understand what is important to you, it becomes easier to write because you have greater motivation to deal with the difficulties involved in expressing yourself clearly.

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