Finding Your Writing Voice Through Self-Awareness
A screenwriter’s voice is often discussed, but has never been fully defined. Many writers discuss their writing voice in terms of a point of view and the types of characters, themes, and stories they write. While these aspects are important determinants of your voice, screenwriters must dig deeper into themselves and start thinking about WHY they want to write the stories they write. It’s an exploration of the totality of your screenwriter psyche – conscious and subconscious.
Max Timm, who runs The Story Farm consulting and development service for screenwriters expands this definition of voice in terms of defining life experiences termed “Voice Pressure Points.” I’ve been asking professional working screenwriters the same question. What is voice? I ask them virtually the same exact question, verbatim, and I always get a different answer. Sometimes the answers are remarkably different, and almost always do I get some new form of insight.
The answers were far from perfect. Writers knew they didn’t know everything, but they knew exactly who they were within the context of everything that happened to them. That is such an important note to make, and when I realized that this was a common thread between successful people, I realized that there must be something in there that’s important.
They know exactly who they are within every situation, and every situation is different, but again, within whatever they’re doing,
they know their role and how their VOICE can work within that role.
It took me a while to really get that, but it’s also just the nature of discovering yourself – it takes a while.
I learned a ton from the actress who was so quietly brilliant. She was always willing to not just do the work, but listen, consider, and then make it her own. And let’s emphasize that term right there – make it her own. Because what does that mean, exactly? To be honest, I really don’t know how to exactly define the term, “make it her own”, because it’s completely relative to everyone who happens to be making it her own. But generally speaking, it means that you know who you are. You’ve accepted who you are. And you’re working with who you are in order to become even more than who you are. A better you.
Whew… that make sense? And yes, we’re getting a little deep and esoteric, even, but it’s essential, really. In order to understand and breakdown the word “voice”, especially in a writing context, we have to dig much deeper than just the quality of the words we choose to write down.
It’s the why we choose those words, and in what situation, when, and by whom the words are spoken… and even then,
we’re still just scratching the surface of that question, “what is voice?”
Let’s break down my voice, and maybe this process will help you do the same. I’ll likely get a little personal here, but it’s the personal things in someone’s life that defines them. And since we’re trying to define something completely personal to each and every one of you, I’m happy to use myself as guinea pig.
So let’s look at me – we’ll start with some basics. I was born in a tiny town in the southeastern corner of Wisconsin. I was the youngest of four children, the three older kids were all girls. So, I grew up with three older sisters. My parents were very active in my life – my mom being a stay-at-home mom, and my dad worked his butt off just to put food on the table. And as I’m saying this, I’m realizing that most of the definition of what my personal voice is can basically end right here. So much can be gleaned by just the mere fact that I’m from a small town in farm country with three older sisters and two parents who loved me.
So let’s take a second to break that down. I was the only boy and my dad desperately wanted one. After having three girls in a row, he was getting a little worried. So that, alone, naturally put a little pressure on me, especially since my dad was an All-American athlete at Notre Dame and I had some pretty huge shoes to fill.
So, if we’re making a list and lists usually have headings…that could be called, Voice Pressure Point #1.
What might be Voice Pressure Point #2?
My three older sisters. All three of them are very unique in their own right. They all talk so much that it’s nearly impossible for me to get a word in edgewise. They’re domineering in a loveable kind of way, have opinions that often times can be construed as complete and utter fact as far as they’re concerned, and…they loved me more than I’ve seen any sister love her brother. This then resulted in, and here’s something I’m sure I will regret saying, my fingernails and toenails being painted on a fairly regular basis between the ages of two and three, and since I didn’t have anyone to play with but my three sisters, my He-Man action figures were driving around in Barbie cars, and there were curtains fastened to my Castle Grey Skull.
Are we seeing how these two points might have an affect on who I am? Let’s now move ahead to Voice Pressure Point #3 and see what we have there.
By the time I was in high school, I was an athlete on the verge of some pretty excellent success. Team MVP, Conference and Regional Champion in track. A state qualifier with my mile-relay team my freshman year. But as my high school years moved forward, I noticed that I was hesitating in nearly everything I was doing, not only sports. I didn’t consciously know I was doing it, but I was holding back. As I look back on it, I lost the love for the sport, but even more so, I was thinking too much. Deep down, I truly wanted to be a professional athlete. Since the age of three I expected to be the starting shortstop for the Chicago Cubs… and really, some days, I still want to be the starting shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, but like I said, I for some reason, lost the love for competitive sports. It got too hard, and I gave in. I was over-thinking everything.
But at the time, I didn’t realize that thinking and analyzing was exactly what I was supposed to be doing for the rest of my life. Athletics, especially at a high level, need a level of complete unthought. If there is such a word. I’m not saying that I don’t have the ability to let go (even though I am admittedly not very good at letting go, still…), I certainly don’t have the ability to let go like a professional athlete does. And, in some ways, most professional athletes don’t think at all! They do.
But this level of over-thinking and over-analyzing led me to become a screenwriter and work in the arts, because I was able to break down the meaning of things. But let’s go back to my point that I recently made about my hesitation. Like I said, I was doing it in nearly every aspect of my life, and it ended up shaping most of my high school and college years. There was a very real level of fear and self-consciousness going on there that spawned the hesitating. And that self-conscious behavior kept me from achieving things that I really wanted to achieve. It kept me from being things I really wanted to be.
Every single one of you listening right now has dealt with and is probably currently dealing with some form of self-conscious behavior. I do, you do, we all do, and we always will. Curbing the self-consciousness as much as possible is essential in finding success, but… my being a self-conscious, ex-athlete, with three older sisters who went on to find a ton of success in their own right, and two parents who wanted the world for me but couldn’t always provide it, leads me to what?
Another aspect of my voice and this so-called Voice Pressure Point #3.
How can those things I just mentioned define my voice? Well… those aspects of me melded together a young man in his 20s who
A) was subconsciously scared of success and blamed others when things didn’t go the way he planned,
B) a romantically hopeless guy (and not necessarily a hopelessly romantic) guy who had his heart broken far more times than he should ever have allowed, and
C) someone who had an opinion on it all and that opinion usually came out through some form of a complaint.
Think about those three things for a second. What did I just describe? A character. A flawed character, at that. But it isn’t a character in a movie, it’s me when I was in my 20s. But what is this entire episode all about? Voice. Right? So what is voice? It’s character. It’s really that simple. You are your own character, and when you’re breaking a story – whether it’s for a feature or a TV series – what do you do? You brainstorm all of the stuff, all of the personal character elements of your hero.
Her flaws, emotional blocks, obstacles, even all the way down to the kind of clock she has at her bedside.
You’ve got it. You know who she is. You know your character… what? Even better than you know yourself! But folks… that’s a problem. In all of the work we do, all of this screenwriting practice, and tools, and deadlines, and classes, conferences, consultants, my God, I could keep going… in all of that work, we’re leaving out the most essential aspect of it all. Us.
It happens all the time, and I do it far more often than I would like to admit, but we are constantly looking outside of ourselves for the answers. We’re waiting for someone else to bring us joy as if joy can be packaged in a neat little box, or slipped into a syringe and we can inject it into our blood stream. We’re waiting for someone else to define us and to define our own success. We’re constantly ignoring our own personal voice and relying on someone else to define it for us.
If there is anything I learned from my 20s, it’s that I’m far from perfect and I have a ton still to learn. I’m in my late 30s now, and I’m still far from perfect. I’ve made decisions and have said things, especially in relationships, that have pushed girlfriends away. I’ve reverted back to my self-conscious 22 year-old self more often than I would like to admit, but ya know what? Oh well. Oh well, man. All of these experiences – all of the good ones and the bad ones – have shaped me into who I am, and have helped sculpt my own personal voice. Am I working on being better? On being less self-conscious, less fearful, less hesitant? Every single day.
But that doesn’t just evolve my personal life, but it allows for a continued evolution of my voice.
So how I would define my own personal voice? Hopeful with far too much cynicism, but all the while believing that good things can happen if I just overcome one fear at a time. It’s optimism and blind faith meeting a destructive amount of realism. Just within that one sentence, there’s enough conflict to tell a story, and it’s our job as writers to infuse our stories with how we define ourselves. With messages and themes we’re still trying to figure out ourselves, and holding on to the hope that maybe our next story will answer the questions for us. Maybe the next script will reveal a little more about ourselves than the last, and maybe even help someone else see a little of herself in it too.
There is a little slogan or tagline, if you will, I’ve created for my book. It’s, ”Don’t wait for someone else to grant your wishes for you.” Like I said earlier, we can’t rely on an outside force to define who we are. It’s our job to discover our own personal voice, what we have to say and how we can say it differently than anyone else. You just have to find it yourself.
So do the work. Break yourself down, and get to know who you are – not necessarily who you wish to be, or who you plan to be, or what you intend to manifest, blah blah – but to completely come to terms with who you are now, and how that then defines your own personal voice.
Know Thyself – Socrates
I could have probably detailed at least three or four more Voice Pressure Points for myself, but I don’t need to go too deep into my personal life, here. So come up with your own pressure points. Things and events in your life and about your life that have shaped you – the good and the bad. Even if you think you already know, I’m pretty sure that it would be a challenge for you to completely define what your voice is if someone asked you outright. So get working on yours. I’m still working on mine.
I implore you to do the work on yourself. I promise that that work will result in not only a stronger sense of self, but a stronger voice and more powerful and focused writing.
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