Finding Your Writer's Voice: Tips from Alison Dubois
Familiar yet elusive, like a dream we can’t quite remember or that shadow we catch from the corner of our eye. For many of us, this would describe our writer’s voice. The more we try to grasp it, the more difficult it is to hear. Ask any group of writers for a definition of Voice and you will probably have just as many answers. It is as if the definition must be felt, not explained; as if finding the answer is a rite of passage. Alison Dubois is ready to guide us through this passage with her course entitled Finding Your Writer’s Voice which begins August 2nd.
Freelancer, ghostwriter and award winning poet, Alison’s writing career spans over 30 years. It includes six books, an Associate’s in Journalism, a Bachelor’s in Literature and a Master’s in Creative Writing. She is with us today to shed some light on this mysterious Voice.
Hi Alison, you’ve had such an eclectic writing career; I can’t think of anyone more qualified to discuss the writer’s voice.
Some say our voice just naturally is who we are, something that develops over time. Why should we focus on developing it?
Alison: To a point what you just said is true, our voice is who we are, or at least a part of who we are. But it is important to understand that defining our voice is every bit as critical in our development as a writer as honing your writing skills are to becoming a successful writer. In some ways it’s even more important because one’s “voice” is what sets one apart from everyone else.
It is what makes each of us unique and memorable as writers. And this uniqueness often translates into salability which is tantamount to one’s commercial success. Think about how one author’s book will sell millions and another author’s book will be left unread. What makes us keep turning the page in one and close the book in the other?
It is more than just good writing. And what is good writing anyway? It is that ability to transform words into such a way as to connect to its intended audience. Good writing elevates us. A good voice however, mesmerizes us.
Or think about it this way, a person who has a “raw” talent for singing…ask them the same question why should they “develop” it? Because natural (or raw talent) ability in and of itself is rarely enough to make one successful. But when we develop our gifts and learn how to apply the skills we learn along the way, that’s when we are most successful.
True, stodgy books are rarely curled up with (smile). But before we can develop our voice we first need to define it. One of the ways you help students do this is by giving them a “series of mini writing lessons designed to elicit strong emotions”. This is intriguing...
Alison: Yes. The point of these exercises is to help the students tap into their emotions while working on their specific assignment. By using a forum (in this case students are asked to describe themselves) that is intimate and personal, the students (ideally) will be very involved with their writing and hopefully their answers will reflect that.
Would you say, then, that our voice is hidden or guarded?
Alison: I wouldn't say it's hidden, more like a shy person's personality doesn't always reveal who or how they truly are, so sometimes they have to do things to help them grow and blossom. The same theory applies here with one's writer’s voice, sometimes you have to work on it and do things to help you realize your full potential.
Alison, you’ve worked as a ghostwriter; how does this knowledge of voice help a writer in that field?
Alison: It helps a writer to be able to step in for someone not sure of their writing voice, much like a substitute teacher will help a teacher in their absence. But interestingly enough being able to ghost a body of work requires a particular skill set, in that, often you (as the ghost) have to be able to “ignore” your own voice so that you can help the author’s personality (voice) to shine through in the work.
It sounds like an important part of the ghostwriter’s toolkit.
You urge your students to find their marketing niche, markets receptive to the student’s type of writing. Talk to us a little about this.
Alison: Most students who take the class already have an idea of what type of writing they want to do. For example, one student wanted to write travel pieces so I guided her towards travel magazines that I thought would be a good fit for her style of writing.
But many writers want to write in several arenas; a little NF, some short fiction, etc... What are some tricks or tips to holding our voice while branching into multiple areas?
Alison: That's a good question. And sometimes it does get a little tricky, especially if your genre is nonfiction but you are doing technical writing. Some forms of writing are going to allow you to express yourself more, some less. But even if your particular project or work doesn't allow you to be creative, utilize your writer’s voice as you'd like, you can still keep your voice by taking the time to write in your voice when you can.
It's like a gymnast that doesn't get to train or does some type of work that doesn't allow them to maintain their physical flexibility, the gymnast then makes time on their own schedule to keep them flexible, on track, in shape Writers need to do this too.
Don't let any one tell you or persuade you not to write under the premise (and lie) that you can "always write". You cannot always write. But if you set time aside for your writing, it will happen. Writing is the kind of career that the more dedicated you are to your craft, the better your writing will be and reflect your devotion. Likewise the stronger your voice will also be.
Alison, are there any other little tricks or tips you can share here...common mistakes, pearls of wisdom, etc...?
Alison: A couple of things, read a lot, write a lot. But always write your own work. That's critical. Sometimes a neophyte tries to imitate their favorite writer and thereby loses sight of their own voice. If there is one particular author you like, ask yourself why. But be yourself. Sometimes those we admire most in a profession help us to mold ourselves professionally and there's nothing wrong with that as long as we use our work and are true to ourselves. Sometimes finding one's voice is a long journey but getting there makes it all worth it.
What would you like your students to come away with?
Alison: Confidence and clarity, confident they know their own writer’s voice and are clear on how to utilize it. It’s the fundamentals of learning who we are as writers, of being comfortable in that knowledge and then using it as a tool to successes in our life.
Well said. Thank you, Alison.
Finding Your Writer’s Voice begins August 2nd, 2010 and runs for 6 weeks. Limited to 10 students. Please visit our classroom page for information and enrollment.
Interview by Robyn Chausse