While discussing how a writer develops his voice the other night with one of my Ananda College of Living Wisdom creative writing students (quick answer: through A LOT of solitary hours of writing, experimenting with words and reading), I hit upon what I believe is the most understated factor: Our speaking voices. Or, to be more exact, the types of phrases, terminologies, colloquialisms, dialects, accents, and other aspects of language we hear and assimilate during our lifetimes.
Think about it: By the time we’re 30 years or older, nearly all of us have lived in more than one place — and more than one part of this or another country. We’ve gone to school, been exposed to a variety of dialects and accents, picked up sayings in our travels, perhaps worked with people from other countries for a period of time. In addition, some of us have lived in foreign countries.
In writing classes, workshops and in writer interviews, we talk often about how this type of exposure results in true on-the-ground life experience necessary to write most authentically. However, how many writers and readers stop to think of the many spoken-word influences, along with studies of other writers’ works and our own tireless practice, that we assimilate and later manifest in our actual writing voices?
Readers will see the answer to this question most often in narrative non-fiction, memoir and essay collections. Why? Because these are the most personal and direct-to-soul forms of writing. They live and breathe a writer’s direct experience with self, setting and circumstance or situation. Thus, the language that pours from the pen will be the closest thing to what I would call the author’s soul or heart language — their truly native language. A person’s soul or heart language is like a snowflake or a DNA strand — no two are exactly alike.
By reading these works with a watchful eye for nuances of language, we can not only appreciate the writer’s voice, but also the combination of life and people experiences from which he or she put it together. What a great way to better know the subject, the writer and the context of the story! I am forever fascinated when I read true first-person stories, and see how the writers’ experience wove into the articulation of his/her voice on paper. Talk about deeply authentic writing!
Here’s a self-example of how it works. As my friends know, I’m a walking, talking amalgamation of many different ways of speaking. (We all are; I’ve just identified them for teaching purposes). So when I write narrative non-fiction, you will see, if you look close enough, terminologies, imagery, and figures of speech consistent with: surfing and bodysurfing; yoga; sports (particularly running); slang and colloquialisms native to Great Britain, Australia, Hawaii, Italy, as well as Southern California, New York City and the South (and I know about 20 different regional dialects within the South); pieces of German, Italian and Spanish; and words consistent with writing, filmmaking, astronomy and astronauts, academia, a deeply seated love of ecology and the wild, business and Internet-based communication. That’s not everything, but there it is: the linguistic cross-section of my personal and professional life for the first 51 years.
Some linguists say it takes anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million words, from kindergarten through the “A-ha!” moment, for a serious writer to find his or her voice and move beyond mechanical techniques to seamlessly flow words and stories on the page. I’d like to add a caveat to that: 500,000 to 1 million words and the ability to convert assimilated dialects, vernacular, accents and figures of speech into narrative prose. As a writer, we know we’ve arrived when the right words happen in the right moments, and we’ve accessed our entire life experiences to get there.
As a reader, this makes for the kind of literary deep diving that is more fun than you can imagine. Try it the next time you pick up a memoir, narrative non-fiction or essay. See what you can learn about the author’s past — and then look them up. It’s an incredible way to get to the good stuff, the humus at the base of the forest that makes the tree grow.
Which reminds me: the next time I conduct an author interview, or have one conducted with me, we’re getting into this subject. I want to know where all the rich language in an author’s repertoire originates.
The answers are likely to lead to some fascinating stories of their own.