Do you have a definitive voice in your work?
Starting a post with a question is supposed to hook you, the reader, in. I learned this after a former boss requested that I read 38 pages of saved emails from the Copy Cure, Marie Forleo’s online copywriting course, that he signed up for. He wanted me (or rather, the stuff I was writing) to start sounding like Marie Forleo, and like her emails, so people would read his website. Slowly, my work did start to echo those 38 pages. A few months later and all of my blog posts had searchable titles, bolded sub-headings to break up the text, and ended with calls to action.
Studying 30 plus pages of emails was tedious. But I learned that I could learn how to write like someone else. As a copywriter, it’s my job to speak in a different voice for every project. I’ve come to think of copywriting, and even some editorial writing I do, as a game. I imagine what it’s like to be someone else. I become an expert on a host of random ideas, objects, and people. I try new ways of expressing ideas, connecting to audiences. This type of writing is a fascinating challenge, in part because it involves sifting through what people say they want for what they really want; as you can imagine, the two are often quite different. It’s a challenge I enjoy, and I’m grateful to be able to help other people tell their stories. Over the past 2 years, I’ve come to appreciate my ability to adapt to specific voices. I see my stylistic malleability as an asset: an ability to listen and intuit; to research, learn, and then create.
But in my everyday work of writing for other people, where does my voice go? Does my voice become the other’s? Do the voices merge, to become a pastiche? Or does my own voice fade to a dull beige, ever ready for a transformation, never essential in and of itself?
It’s hard to say. Inevitably, stuff seeps in—like the opening line of this post. In asking myself these questions, I realize that I cannot define my personal voice because I have not done enough work for myself. It’s not that there’s a transposition from the way I write for myself and the way I write for clients. There’s just an absence, a natural discrepancy between how often I speak for other people and how often I speak for myself. It’s an absence I want to fill.
So why not do more work for myself?I have done some personal projects in the past, but over the last few years, they’ve paused for many reasons. The main one is that I started getting paid to write, and that fills most of my days. The others are mental and physical limits, and fear.
I really enjoy the kind of work that I do, and am very grateful that I get to do it. But it’s hard to do something in my free time that I spend all day doing. It’s hard to balance intellectual work with the work of caring for my body, my relationships, my home. It’s hard to switch mentalities, to silence key words, to completely wipe a brief from my brain to start writing creatively. It’s hard on my eyes to stare at a computer after logging eight hours at the screen, and the continued typing is hard on my wrists and hands. After a few months of physical therapy, I feel like I have some control over my tendinitis. But there’s often a pull between my desire to keep working and my body’s limits. If I push through, there’s a chance I’ll be useless the next day.
And then there’s fear. For me, there’s a certain safety in writing for other people, in telling other people’s stories. Criticism can come on the quality of my work, but for some reason this still feels distant enough to keep my spirit intact. When I write for myself, I’m vulnerable—especially without an editor. Self-publishing on Medium—even on Twitter—is a precarious blessing. I can say what I want, but there won’t be anyone to help make sure I’m saying it in the best way until after the post—and then it’s too late. Perhaps the answer to this is to try and write prolifically, so that a barrage of work can obscure lesser attempts. But really, I know that everything is just a Google search away, and I fight this neuroses every time I try to write or say something.
I can only speak for myself in outlining these blocks; I imagine I can’t be alone in having them, and I know others have worse limitations. By listing them, I don’t mean to lament; I want to identify my own hang-ups so I can start working through them more intentionally. To work on what I could call “work-life” balance, although the real balance I’m trying to achieve is one between professional and personal work.
It’s hard to know how to achieve that balance. It may mean testing the limits of my body and time, and adjusting accordingly. It means accepting that I may fail, and being ready to release the embarrassment that comes with that. I may need to ask for help. I would like to be more open to criticism, to new ideas, to other people. Of course it will be a process, but it’s one I’ve delayed starting, waiting for the perfect moment.
I know that there will be no perfect moment. I made the time this week to take off work and partake in a residency at the Sou’wester Lodge in Seaview, Washington, to work on a personal project for the first time in a long time. I’m starting to write a musical; I’m here to research and read and outline the plot and maybe write some songs. It’s lovely and scary and pensive and lonely to be here working. I feel very lucky to have been given the opportunity, to be able to afford to take the time, and to have understanding bosses. And I’m also proud of myself for just starting.
Because no, I don’t know how to write a musical. I’ve never even been a fan of musicals, if we’re being honest. But I love words. I love rhyming. And drama. And for some time now, I’ve been recording voice memos of song snippets and ideas, alone in my car where no one can hear me. It’s hard to say why, and why I think I can turn all of these scattered phrases into a cohesive narrative that involves choreographed dances and also...music.
After a quick Google of “How to Write a Musical,” I think I found the answer. www.musicals101.com offers a surprisingly blunt and cautionary perspective on entering the field, and poses a crucial question from producer Stuart Ostrow (1776, Pipping): "The greatest question musical dramatists must answer is: does the story I am telling sing? Is the subject sufficiently off the ground to compel the Ened emotion of bursting into song? Will a song add a deeper understanding of character or situation?" When I ask myself these questions about this idea I have, the answer is yes.
And after all, writing in this style is just like writing in another voice. But this time, it’s for me.