Thursday, April 2, 2015

"Writing In Your Own Voice"

On those rare occasions when somebody I actually know peruses these ramblings, the first words out of their mouths are invariably,

“I feel like you’re talking to me.  You voice comes out loud and clear.”

What comes to mind on such occasions, being highly sensitive to criticism – and the transparent avoidance of criticism, like when you go backstage after a play someone you know is in and you say, “You seemed like you were having fun out there.” – is the nagging question:

“Yeah, but was I any good?”

Communicating in a distinctive voice is dandy. 

But what about the content?

“It’s like I could really hear you.”

I got that.  But saying what?”

The essence of the communication is not the “voice.”  That’s like, “I got your letter.  Great handwriting.”

Something is missing in that assessment.

It’s funny, in a bemusing rather than a “Stop, please!  You’re killing me!” kind of a way.  When I began sitcom writing, I often worried about not speaking in my own voice, that I was instead simply parroting the voice of my employers.  (Which was actually desirable, my neophyte tendency fitting the unspoken show runner instruction:  “Write like me.”)  

“Write like me.”

I wondered back then if I was writing or just skillfully mimicking.  It really shouldn’t have mattered, the primary consideration at that juncture in my career being, “Do you have a job?” 

The thing is, worriers worry.  Not having not having a job to worry about, I worried alternatively about my voice.

Or the troubling absence thereof.

I should never have worried about that.  (Although if I hadn’t, I would certainly have worried about something else.  Even if it was, “I am not worried about anything.  What am I missing?”)

In truth, even at my most imitative, my personal voice was recognizably present, if not prominent, in my material.  That’s one reason they kept me around.  I wrote like “them”, with an invigorating substratum of “me.”

Looking back, as happens with many congenital worriers, it now occurs to me that I was worrying about the wrong thing.

Instead of concerning myself with not sufficiently speaking in my own voice, I might have been better off worrying about my personal voice limiting my literary range – “Every character sounds like Earl” – and of its overpowering the content – “Too much ketchup; can’t taste the steak.”

In other words, not not enough voice but, ironically, too much.

This is no longer a consideration because blog writing is currently the only writing I do and blog writing is defined by speaking in your own voice.  So you can hardly speak with too much.  Still, worriers are not averse to worrying retroactively.

A voice – and for voice, read: personality – is not just how a character sounds.  It’s the entire package – what they think, how they feel, the way they process their experiences, the unique way that they respond. 

The problem is, if your personal voice is too dominant, you may be insufficiently cognizant of any voice other than your own. 

If you are always talking, then you are never listening.  And if you’re not listening, how can you create – meaning reproduce – any character beyond the one you are exclusively familiar with?

Meaning yours.

I knew writers who in the writer’s room were extremely quiet.  If there were “Geiger Counters” measuring personality, you would think the machine was broken.  These were inevitably the best writers on the staff.  Because their own voices were either subdued or entirely absent, our response to their surprising efforts was inevitably,

“Where the heck did that come from?”   

It came from a writer not infatuated with their voice.

More often than their voicier co-workers, these recessive writers went on to successful movie careers, where fully drawn characters are more important than a “personal stamp” or some attention-grabbing wordplay. 

Writers speak most powerfully when projecting the distinctly varied voices of their characters.

Something I was never able to pull off.

That’s what I should have been worrying about.

Though for a first class worrier,

It is never too late.


Canda said...

Of course, in a writers room, you sometimes need the person who can pitch a joke, regardless of voice, when you really need one.

A smart show runner should let the quiet ones go off and work on their own, or develop stories, rather than have them stuck in a room trying to compete with the "funny" people.

PIdge said...

"A voice – and for voice, read: personality – is not just how a character sounds. It’s the entire package – what they think, how they feel, the way they process their experiences, the unique way that they respond."

I think you got that sort of thing really well in the 'olden days' when characters actually had distinct personalities! Most shows today feature characters whose personalities are interchangeable, one dimensional and stereotypical, so that sort of thing doesn't really long as the 'voice' that's being conveyed should have its mouth washed out with soap!

Gwiff said...

I watched a couple of your Cheers episodes today and, no, not edgy. Sam's Women and How Do I Love The...the latter maybe with a bit of an edge when Sam says something along the lines of being 'surrounded by a bunch of strippers with their wallies in your face.'

Sam's Women, unusual when it's revealed that Debra is Sam's ex-wife. I don't recall her being in any other episode, or any reference to her from that point on.

And in light of today's post, you were key in finding the voices of all the Cheers characters. Sam's Women was episode 2, so you didn't have a lot of work to review and help you write for every character. And yet, in my mind, they were just as they should have been. It was especially nice to see Coach again - you worked in a nice piece for him.

Anyway, the search shall continue for The Edginess of Night time TV according to Earl.