Think of it like this. When the hard rock band in Gilmore Girls is asked to play an Air Supply song, they’re horrified. Air Supply??? But then they decide if Jimmy Hendrix rocked out “The Star Spangled Banner” they can rock Air Supply.
Just as a song can be sung to different beats, a story can be told in dozens of ways. The way you tell your story based on your tastes and personality is voice.
The key is making a story your own. Who are you? What do you pay attention to? Are you leisurely as you study your surroundings or do you charge through life with purpose? Are you optimistic or cynical, lyrical or all business? What have you experienced firsthand? How do you carry on a conversation? This your nature and it should show up in your writing.
Maeve Binchy had a voice – chatty, like someone telling the juiciest gossip or giving you encouraging advice across the café table. I have a strong suspicion this is how she was in real life. Wendell Berry has another kind of voice altogether. He is a poet as well as a novelist, so his writing is spare as he finds the marrow of character, setting and theme in the details. If you were to pick up any of your favorite authors’ books without seeing the cover, you could probably identify the writer by the character of their sentences.
Reviewers and agents often given certain novels high stars because of voice, so new writers try to write with voice, whether that means being flowery or punchy. Whatever they’ve decided voice means. But if you want to write with a compelling voice, don’t try to “have” a voice. Find your own.
The trick is knowing who you are and what is important to you. I think I became comfortable with my own voice after writing a blog about growing up with a sensory “disorder.” It was after that I began writing with more sensory language. Additionally, I’d tried my hand in several genres, but learned that I didn’t feel at home in any of them. As I began writing the kind of fiction that came naturally to me and exploring themes that were most important to me, I found my voice.
Writing with voice does mean putting yourself on to the page for all to see. It’s a little daunting being so authentic, especially if you’re a private person. But who you are is where the value of your story lies. Let your thoughts, your words, your vision, your self flow into the storytelling, and finding your voice will be unavoidable.