I always said I wouldn’t teach creative writing. There are too many ways to be a successful writer, and my taste only encompasses a small percentage of them.

But over the past year or so, I find myself more and more interested in ‘Voice’.  Not ‘voice’ as in how-to-write-like-a-man-or-a-baby-or-a-penguin. No.

Voice in the sense of the authentic, essential, individual, unique expression of who you are. What You Have To Say That’s Different From Anyone Else.

 

 

 

 

Explaining what I mean by Voice takes time — but once people get the hang of it (that it’s who they are, not what their sentences look like), everyone wants to know, “how do I find mine?”

And I’m guessing they mean besides five years of psychoanalysis.

I taught five 90-minute sessions at the Guardian this weekend, and we talked about the pivot points in life, the places where everything changes due to joy or despair or catastrophe.

Those places hold a great deal of emotional weight, and looking at them can help you figure out what’s important to you; where your deepest interest lies, what your subject is.

One group began to talk about people they’d lost and how it affected them. An older man, a retired doctor, told us that he’d lost two sons — one many years ago at the age of two, and one last year as a grown man (leukaemia).  “I write,” he told us, “because otherwise I would stand on the pavement and howl.”

It may have felt more like group therapy than creative writing, but I don’t think anyone in the room will ever forget that hour.

Today, I talked about Voice to a bunch of 14-year-olds in Kent. Their pivot points are less vivid because (being young) they haven’t had much opportunity to pivot.

But when I asked what animal they’d be if they couldn’t be human, something happened.  “I want to be a cheetah,” said one pretty, shy girl.

“Do you see yourself as strong and speedy?” I asked her.

“No,” she said, quietly.  “The opposite.”

Ah.

Another girl wanted to be a crocodile.  “A crocodile?” I was aghast.  “But they’re terrifying!”

She nodded. “I’m scared of them too. That’s why I want to be one. Because they’re scary and tough.”

And I got it.

“I’d be a wolf,” said a boy with a sweet, open face. “Because they travel in packs. They have friends and relations all around them so they’re not alone.”

Yup.

I was so touched by those kids. I’m not sure how clearly they understood that they were offering glimpses of their souls, but the glimpses felt like a powerful form of magic–an alchemy, where a simple answer to a simple question becomes the story of a whole life full of barely defined wishes, hopes and desires.

They teach me everything, my students.

 

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14 thoughts on “Finding A Voice

  1. Peter Bryenton 5 years ago

    Yes, it’s “voice” for a writer, “style” for a painter and “sound” for a singer. All artists strive to find their uniqueness. I learned this when friends described some of my photographs as typically “Bryenton”. Little Peter had to wait many years until big Peter showed him this!

  2. from an anonymous student in worcester 5 years ago

    This is really interesting. I had to go off and google pivotal points because I wasn’t sure what it meant. You’ve given us a lot to think about. Thank you.

  3. bookwitch 5 years ago

    I’ll just go off and cry a little now.

  4. Kate 5 years ago

    You also said, in the December 2011 Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special: ‘The thing with writing is you have to be quite clear about who you are before you can be a proper writer, and I don’t think I was ready before.’ I’m guessing that’s another way of saying something about where your voice springs from?
    I’m going to ask my children tonight what animal they would be … before they read your blog!

  5. Maxine Moss 5 years ago

    ”I write,” he told us, “because otherwise I would stand on the pavement and howl.”

    wow. Impact.

    How interesting, and wonderful, and thank dog (if there were one) that out of life’s agony, there is so often a greater access to raw creativity.

    And the agonies needn’t be tragic or huge in the usual sense I guess, just moments that make us look around in shock a bit.

    So, stop saving for our children’s future education, save for future therapy..;-)

  6. Christina Wilsdon 5 years ago

    Thanks for a lovely post. The kids’ answers are indeed such a telescope into their souls. As for voice–your ideas call to mind for me a friend who one day announced she was going to “dabble” in writing and was looking for grants to support this. I privately thought this was a bit premature but said nothing. But, bless her, a year later when I asked her how the writing was going, she chuckled and said she realized she had zero interest in writing; she just wanted to be published. Such a big difference between the two, and she knew it and chucked the effort aside. I loved the self-knowledge she came to by NOT writing 🙂

  7. Shelley Souza 5 years ago

    Children’s reasons for their animal choices…poignant.

    At times, I’ve been able to find my voice, at others, I’ve floundered (as a non-swimmer, I’ve almost drowned). But last summer, when I was ill and couldn’t do much in the way of reading or writing, I was inspired by something I heard. It made me question why I loved books so much as a child. Finding that belief in books again, in myself, reoriented my approach to writing back to the reasons I wanted to be a writer to begin with. What you say here:

    “We talked about the pivot points in life, the places where everything changes due to joy or despair or catastrophe.

    Those places hold a great deal of emotional weight, and looking at them can help you figure out what’s important to you; where your deepest interest lies, what your subject is.”

    This encapsulates the discovery I made last summer and has informed my writing, since.

    Another wonderful post, Meg. Thank you. xxxs

  8. Abi Burlingham 5 years ago

    What a lovely, fascinating post, one that really resonates with me at the moment and made me go goosebumpy. The reactions of the children are so revealing and I think they probably learnt a lot about themselves through that exercise. Wonderful post!

  9. Hannah 5 years ago

    Voice is my absolute most favorite thing about your books. And most books, I’m coming to realize. Thanks for making it stand out. 🙂

  10. Scott 5 years ago

    Don’t we all wish we could approach those pivots with the ferocity of the animals we wish to be? Sometimes we can, sometimes we can’t, but somewhere in it, we can surely find our own Voices. This was a good reflective read to my day. Thank you!

  11. Ayse 5 years ago

    …’voice’ indeed – frustratingly though sometimes, even the slightest hint of the common ‘cold’ prevents one from being clear and coherent and in a worst case scenario one can suffer with laryngitis, if you know what I mean! Best cure for such times is reading, listening and learning….thank you for a lovely post!

  12. Suranne Keynes 5 years ago

    I would be a goldfish because having a two second memory I could approach everyday with refreshed optimism, and not be whittled down by the things I’d rather forget…

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