What kind of writer are you? What do you write? Questions that authors are often asked, these. What do I say when someone asks me? It depends, really, on however I’m feeling that day, I think. Sometimes I say I write fantasies set in the visible world, or sometimes I’ll say that I write about everyday people and their struggles, or sometimes I say I write imaginary autobiographies, the paths I didn’t take but might have. But an answer that I’ve never said when asked this sort of question is, I write voices.
I’m thinking about this because, for me, writing is largely a voice driven activity. It’s a practice in listening. Before I can write anything, I have to be able to hear the voice of the story. Even if I have the idea, imagery, a setting, characters, a general direction for the plot to go in (because I am so not a plotter but a follower of where the voice of the story leads me). If I don’t have a voice, none of the other aspects of telling a story can go anywhere, and when I try to force it, it all comes out looking like everything a story needs is there, but I can’t seem to love this sort of making. It’s still missing something, an engine.
But what exactly is voice? I think it may be something like what Virginia Woolf is quoted as writing in a letter, that it isn’t until she knows the rhythm of her words, her sentences and paragraphs, that she can write a book, and after that, everything else seems to just come to her. This makes sense to me. It’s how the process of writing most often feels to me. When I’m controlling, when I’m deliberating consciously and making choices before I’ve allowed the voice to come to its own conclusions, it all feels hollow, and I lose interest. That is a sort of mind for me to be in after I’ve found my way to the end of something, when I am ready to go back through the wilderness the voice created for me, and then, after touring the wreckage of a dream, can I begin to make sense of it, deliberating consciously, making choices, selecting, controlling. Taking possession of what the voice gave me.
It’s the voice that brings the rhythms, and the rhythms that bring the setting, the characters who inhabit it, who are shaped by it, and the imagery and tone and subtle shadings, and the direction of the story, the plot and general vision. It is a way of seeing, listening. When I listen and hear the voice of the story, everything else seems to just come to me.