Fiction, creative non-fiction - whatever it is you write, once you've found your unique voice, there'll be no holding you back. Lee Kofman, author of memoir ‘The Dangerous Bride’ spoke with Writers Victoria intern, Michelle McLaren about getting in touch with your voice as a writer.
Lee will be running a Memoir in a Year: Voice & Narration workshop at Writers Victoria in November 2017.
Why is voice so important in fiction?
Voice is not important, but crucial, in any work of creative writing. This is because if a writer has a distinct, powerful and entertaining voice, then she or he can write even about very mundane stuff, such as about having breakfast, and still readers will be riveted and will get something out of it emotionally and intellectually. But if a writer invents the most fascinating plot, but can’t tell it in a charming and unique way, the work won’t affect the reader, because readers won’t be able to imagine the story and won’t be moved by it. Voice is the magic wand that turns written words into an artwork. It is the very basis to any good piece of writing.
How should writers approach writing in the voice of a narrator radically different from themselves – for instance, a character with disability, or a character of another race?
A character’s voice is a related yet distinct concept to the writer’s voice, and it is the latter that I will be focusing on in my forthcoming workshop. So in answering this question, I’d rather focus on explaining the difference. When we think about fiction writing, in those instances where the story is directly narrated by a character, it can be indeed difficult to separate between narrator’s and writer’s voice. But they are not the same. Roughly, writer’s voice is the writer who envisioned the work, with her unique personality, worldview, experiences, biases and opinions, and these will underlie all else, even the voices of all the different characters the writer may portray in one work. But of course good writers always write individuals rather than case studies of race, etc anyway. Still, every writer of fiction who writes very different characters will write them according to how he perceives the world and this what makes the concept of writer’s voice so interesting.
Is establishing a voice as important for writers of non-fiction - like memoir writers or essayists, for example - as it is for fiction writers?
Absolutely! As long as we’re talking about creative non-fiction. As I was saying before, any piece of creative writing succeeds or fails first of all on the account of voice. In creative non-fiction though it is easier to see what we’re talking about when we’re talking about writer’s voice, because there the narrator and the writer are the same.
How can you make sure your narrator’s voice is authentic?
I will respond to this question in relation to creative non-fiction, because as I said before, in fiction narrator’s voice does not equal writer’s voice. For creative non-fiction writers, the most important thing is not to shy away from putting on the paper all those things they often hide in social interactions - those quirks that are unmistakably theirs, those hidden thoughts and eccentricities that set them apart. There are many silly superstitions, for example, which belong to the realm of magical thinking that I hold that I feel embarrassed about, and these are exactly the things I need to excavate, no matter how confronting it might be, when I write creative non-fiction. Often in fiction, too, I distribute my idiosyncrasies between my characters. The difference between living and writing is that in the latter you should never aim to blend in, in order to be liked. Another trick is to try and imitate our natural rhythms and patterns of thought and speech in writing, and to ensure we make the kind of vocabulary choices that are most natural, and delicious, to us.
What are some of the most effective examples of voice you’ve read?
I read for voice mainly, so all my favourite authors have powerful voices. To name a few - Joan Didion, Jonathan Franzen, Vladimir Nabokov, Robert Dessaix. Recently I read for the first time Raymond Chandler - his first novel ‘The Big Sleep’ - and was blown away by the power of his voice. Even though the plot was gripping, it was really the voice in the novel that, when the story is directly narrated by a character, made me keep turning pages even while my frustrated toddler was throwing extraordinary tantrums to get my attention. Listen to this sentence, for example: “Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness.”
About Lee Kofman
Lee Kofman is an author of four books, including the memoir ‘The Dangerous Bride’ about non-monogamy. Her short works have been widely published in Australia, UK, Scotland, Israel, Canada and US, including in ‘Best Australian Stories’, ‘Best Australian Essays’ and ‘Meanjin’. Lee has been mentoring writers for over ten years. She is the blogger-in-residence for Writers Victoria and her personal blog was a finalist for Best Australian Blogs 2014.
About Michelle McLaren
Michelle McLaren is a Program Intern at Writers Victoria. She works as a freelance copywriter and blogs about all things literary at Book to the Future.