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Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash

I worked with BBC Light Entertainment for six weeks in 2015 on Vote Now Show during the 2015 election.

The work culminated in an all-nighter as the results came in and half a dozen sleep-deprived writers attempted to get our heads around a Tory landslide, and then make jokes about it.

There weren’t enough biscuits.

One meeting stuck with me from this time. Various comedians were being discussed with a view to casting them to write monologues on various topics for the show. An exec producer described an act as having ‘found her voice’ recently.

I was immediately fascinated by this idea.

What is a voice, and how do I get one?

This morning, reading Maria Popova on voice, “the waveform of the soul in writing”, I found this from poet Jane Hirshfield:

Voice … is the body language of a poem — the part that cannot help but reveal what it is.

Everything that has gone into making us who we are is held there. Yet we also speak of writers “finding their voice.” The phrase is both meaningful and odd, a perennial puzzle: how can we “find” what we already use?

The answer lies, paradoxically, in the quality of listening that accompanies self-aware speech: singers, to stay in tune, must hear not only the orchestral music they sing with, but also themselves.

Similarly, writers who have “found a voice” are those whose ears turn at once inward and outward, both toward their own nature, thought patterns, and rhythms, and toward those of the culture at large.”

– Jane Hirshfield

So the good news is you have it already. It’s just a case of listening, paying attention to yourself and the world, and of course practice, dedication and discipline.

This American Life’s Ira Glass has a soothing explanation for why the first few years of making creative work is so frustrating:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this.

We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.

Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

― Ira Glass

And when he says the first ‘couple years’ he means 10.

By Rachel Wheeley

Comedian, podcaster, based in London, UK

2 thoughts on “Trying to find your voice? Listen”
  1. Every now and then I feel like I’ve “found” my voice – but then I start feeling that it’s **just** a facet of myself that I’m deliberately presenting to the world in that context. Not to mention the fact that as I’m constantly changing and experiencing new things, my voice will be changing too.

    I wonder whether “voice” is something that’s easier to recognise in other people than yourself, in the same way that when writing it can be easier for other people to believe in your characters, as they don’t have the experience of writing them. This suggests that it might be advantageous to get some distance in time from your work before listening back to it to find your voice (as well as getting a sense of whether that work was good or bad).

    1. This is an excellent point. It’s exciting to think that you can listen to a set you wrote 3 years ago and hear a distinct voice and to realise it’s not the one you write with now!

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