The first time I surveyed my students to see what more they may want to learn about writing, their answer surprised me. They said they wanted to know how to create their own writer’s voice. In discussing this with them it was clear to me that they had decided that this was very important. Many were concerned that they didn’t have one yet. I was surprised at this anxiety because I was sure, up until then, that I had experienced every anxiety and insecurity connected to writing that there possibly was. How could I explain voice to them? Let alone how to direct them to find one?
After some research, and pondering, the most true and complete answer came from a movie. It is one of my favorite movies. ‘Round Midnight is from the great French director Bertrand Tavernier, about a Jazz legend in the 1950s and 60s who was played by a contemporary, and since passed, jazz legend saxophonist, Dexter Gordon. Tavernier chose a great jazz legend to play a story about another great jazz legend because, in the case of Dexter Gordon, he had all the life experience right there. The movie is both a fictionalized tale and almost a documentary about Gordon and other African American musicians and artists of that period who went to Paris to escape racism.
But in a broader sense the film is also about artists who are always working on their own art form and expanding it.
In the film, Gordon tells a story which is likely true. He says that after a gig, some guy comes up to him and introduces himself as a fellow musician and saxophone player. Then he starts to brag. He tells Gordon that “I play you better than you do.” Gordon smiles sagely at this incident, knowing the difference between style (voice) and technique. He then tells us, in his slow, husky, bebop rhythm voice:
“Style isn’t something you pick off a tree one day… it grows inside you…until it is ready to bloom.”
And so it is with a writer’s voice. You cannot teach it. You cannot learn it. You may, and you will, beg, borrow, steal or genuinely create a few things of your own, but it will all contribute to what will become your voice and you will not need to force it, or worry about it. Just follow where your likes, dislikes, and passions take you, and then just accept what comes out of it. And that’s what I tell my students. Keep writing, explore, have faith and voice takes care of itself.
Excerpt from Writing with Cold Feet by Kathrin Lake