A writer’s voice

When I was in high school I remember coming across a quote by Walt Whitman. The quote, as best I remember it, went something like this: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

That quote fascinated me when I first heard it, and it fascinates me still, because it put a positive cast on one of the strange, little noticed occupational hazards of writers and other creators.

If you would truly be a creator, you must be willing to move unashamedly between voices and points of view. In Whitman’s words, you must be able to contradict yourself, both in style and sentiment.

As an author, I understand this all too well. I live a life of many voices. But they do not all sound the same and they do not all give voice to the world in the same way. Some are spiritual; some are cynical; some are sociological or political; and some are clever and humorous. But they are all me.

This often causes disappointment and confusion in readers when they meet me, because they want me to speak in the voice that they have come to expect from my writings. When I do not speak in that voice they feel betrayed. “You’re not the man I expected,” is the sentiment that can easily be read in their eyes. What they fail to realize is that the sensibility of the writer does not change from writing to speaking, but the voice through which that sensibility is expressed, does.

What I thought I might offer you tonight is a glimpse of two of the voices in which I have recently been writing. Some of you will know one; some will know the other. Some of you will know a different voice altogether. But no matter which voice you know, hearing several together is an interesting study in the artist’s craft, and one that any aspiring artist or writer would do well to consider.

Here, then, are snippets from two of my literary voices – two of five, ten, or more, that live inside me and come out as the circumstances warrant. Is one truer than the other? No. Do I like one better than the other? No. They are both children of my mind and imagination, and no parent I know would ever choose one child or another.

Excerpt from a letter to a young woman:

“A person like you who feels more deeply, sees more clearly, or has a voice that cannot be used in daily discourse is destined always to feel alone. It is simply part of the inheritance of those who spend time in places where others do not tread. Your task in life is, and forever will be, to find a way to make that place of loneliness into a place of refuge and solitude, not a place of terror and isolation.

You will succeed, because you are a spiritual person, and that place, that deep well of utter aloneness, is one of the surest places to find God.

That you have not yet done so, at least not to the extent that it wards off your despair, is not surprising. You seek absolutes, and though God is surely an absolute, God’s presence often is not. It is hidden in intimation, or cloaked in metaphor, as subtle as a whisper or a rustling of wind, at first almost inaudible and imperceptible, inseparable from ourselves. Only gradually does it burst forth full throated into music and song. And even then, it can recede at a moment’s notice.”

Opening to an essay that never got finished:

“Hi. It’s Jesse. I’ve got to talk to Nick.”

I was about to make a laconic comment like, “Tough staying apart, huh?” since it had only been about an hour since Nick had returned from Jesse’s house, where he and another boy had spent the night. But it wasn’t very funny to start with, and the tone in Jesse’s voice made me think he wasn’t in a joking mood. I handed the phone to Nick and went back to half-heartedly watching a Sunday afternoon baseball game.

The game progressed at the indifferent pace of mid-August ball. It was really little more than background noise while I scanned a road atlas trying to decide how to make a trip over to Wisconsin that I had promised Nick.

Before long he came into the room. I pointed out the route we could take, and asked what he thought about the idea of camping rather than spending the night at some friends’ house along the way. He seemed strangely pliant and disinterested, expressing no strong opinion either way. I went on extolling the virtues of this one state park when he interrupted me.

“Dad?” It was a tone of voice I knew well. It meant something of consequence was about to be placed upon the table.

“I just got off the phone with Jesse and I guess we’re in deep trouble, so I thought I should tell you about it.”

Two very different voices, each chosen because of its capacity to animate a moment or express a sensibility. Musicians do much the same thing, choosing orchestrations, instrumentations, keys and tempos to suit what it is they are trying to say.

So, next time you’re reading, think about the voice the writer is using. If the writer is good, and not merely a person who strings words together to make a point, he or she has quite consciously chosen the voice you are hearing in your mind

And if you are someone who writes yourself, or dreams of writing, think about the voice you use. Whatever it is, you must hone it and clarify it. It is the instrument through which the music of your heart or mind is played

4 thoughts on “A writer’s voice”

  1. I had never heard of you – I read “The Art of Giving” on the side of a Celestial Seasonings tea box this morning and immediately searched for your website…amazing how God works. I will definitely visit it often.

  2. Dear Kent:

    (Forgive my familiarity, but feel like I actually know you.}

    I am teaching 2 sections of a fairly new gen ed course called First-Year Seminar: Searches for Truth and Meaning.

    I used Neither Wolf Nor Dog for the first time this semester. We just finished it and my students loved it.

    They have a question for you: Did Dan and/or his grandaughters and Grover read the book and were they pleased with it?

    We only have 2 more weeks of classes and I hope to hear from you in time to report to my students.

    I have a question too: Are you on the lecture circuit and, if so, what are your fees?

    Yours truly,


    Ted Paul McNeilsmith, Ph.D.
    Professor of Interdivisional Studies and Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching

    Adams State College
    Alamosa, CO 81102

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