Imitate, Imitate, Imitate Until You Locate Your "Writing Voice"
Updated: Feb 27, 2021
This post was created in updating my online writing portfolio at www.joshoaktree.com/portfolio
If you're a writer starting out, maybe you're aware of the elusive concept of a writer's voice. Workshop teachers always emphasize the importance of finding it. So, how do you find it?
Let me be clear. I don't have definitive answers or steps to take for you to find yours. This is more of a philosophical entry where I share my experience finding my "voice" and what I believe is the real reason that you should find yours.
I've included this entry in my portfolio's comics section because my creativity stems from all the comics I read as a kid. Growing up, I wanted to be a cartoonist. I read the newspaper comics section every day, often, in the upstairs tub where I soaked up its aesthetics, sensibilities, and humor.
I was in middle school when I first started drawing my own comics. My first ones were optimistic imitations of my favorite strips. You can see below that my first few were heavily influenced by the one-panel animal antics of Gary Larson's comic strip, The Far Side:
By high school, I had moved onto imitating my other favorite comics, mainly Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes.
There's an amazing Ira Glass quote about artists first starting out. If you've heard the quote, you know exactly what I'm talking about because it's that memorable. If you don't know the quote, check out the Zen Pencils' comic that illustrates it. The gist of the quote is that everyone has good tastes from the get-go. The reason you want to tell stories is because you've read and watched literature that you love and you want to recreate that experience in your own way. But it takes time to learn the craft of storytelling. At first, your work has the right intent, but the execution doesn't live up to your vision.
In my experience, it took me years of trial and error, imitating, imitating, imitating until I located what I consider to be my voice. Some might worry that those years of imitation is wasted time, but they're essential to your growth. Even now, dissecting my favorite authors' work is an important part of my process. Imitating isn't a bad thing. It's proof that you're interacting with the world around you.
The difference between my earliest work and my stories now is NOT that I stopped finding inspiration in my favorite authors' work. The difference is that I can walk down a library aisle, and I now know which shelf my books would call home. From years of experimenting, I know that I can write horror, historical fiction, or any genre, but those aren't necessarily the stories that feel like who I am. Those stories aren't the ones I wish to tell.
In my opinion, your voice has very little to do with the actual execution of your writing. Your voice isn't the decision to write in first-person or third-person. It's not your syntactical choices or knowledge of literary devices. Your voice is the stories that you enjoy telling.
I love journeys that deepen my imagination. I crave characters who make me laugh one moment and cry the next. I like adventures that make me feel during the course of watching or reading and move me to take action, in life, when I leave the story's world. These are not the only types of stories I like, but they are the ones I seek to write.
I encourage you to experiment, imitate, imitate, imitate, and stumble. Write something you end up hating, so you can learn, "That's not me." Only by embracing the journey of becoming a writer can you eventually discover who you are and what you like to write. Only then will you begin to know the answer to the question, "What's your voice?"