I recently finished reading an excellent book about how to read Russian short stories: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders. Of course it is about much more than this, drawing on George’s 20 years of experiences of teaching a creative writing course at Syracuse University and his own writing experience (primarily a short story writer, he won the Booker Prize for his first novel in 2017: Lincoln in the Bardo. It has caused me to think more deeply about my teaching (I teach some mathematics, economics, professional skills and communication skills) as a result. The two pages where George talks about finding his literary “voice” are, for me, worth the price of the book on their own – I never really understood how critical this was and why noone I had read had talked about it in very clear terms before. I can also, at long last, see the point of literary criticism. This book is all about the fight for meaning, and a bare-knuckled fight it is at times.
I think finding your own voice can apply in any field, not just the creative ones. George describes realising that he did not belong on Hemingway Mountain and the process of finally accepting his own “Shit Hill” with huge power. But at least as a writer you know you are supposed to be finding your own distinct way of writing. I sometimes think that, in many professional careers, this is not widely encouraged.
However it is, in my view, massively important. Finding your voice in a professional career is about discovering what you are good at and what you are interested in and trying to bridge the gap between the two. It is about being prepared to learn from those around you, although not necessarily the thing they think they are trying to teach you. It is about being prepared to spend time, sometime considerable time, on mastering things which are important to you, even if they seem to have no importance to anyone else. In this way you will develop an independent professional career where you have something interesting to say in your chosen field.
This may sound very utopian to some, particularly those in the early years of a career where you may have little control over your workload or the structure of your working day. However that will not be the case for ever unless you choose it to be and, provided you do not lose the habits for finding your own voice in the meantime, the opportunities to do so will only grow.
What you may have gathered from this is that I see finding your voice, not as some quick process that takes place over a short period at the start of your career (at least not in the pursuits I have been involved in so far), but as a lifetime’s search. Mine didn’t really start until I was 40 and, health willing, will carry on for many years to come (I still have no real idea what my voice as a writer is yet).
Let’s all wish each other good luck on the quest!