The title for my blog today is ‘Finding Your Voice As A Writer.’ Why I have chosen this title will be announced shortly. First, a brief, personal background.
I have been writing for 30 years at a professional level. Starting in BBC Radio Drama and today I write documentary screenplays and treatments.
So, I’m a writer. Or to put it crudely, someone who makes his living writing words. Cruder still, a scribbler. And in speech when I say ‘writer,’ I tend to think ‘singer,’ because I am paid to perform in front of an audience.
I’m not afraid to declare that writing for money is a branch of psychopathy, because sometimes, I have to blunt my feelings along the way. Somehow, it didn’t feel natural when you added coinage. But here I am and by the way, hello.
As you read this piece, hopefully from soup to nuts, many of you may think that you simply can’t write. I am here to prove that you can. I have six proofs to make my case. Let’s enter the court of writing to see if I can tug you in my direction.
Proof One: A quick poll. Do any of you write diaries? Not a trick question, it doesn’t matter if you don’t. My point is that writing is a personal thing. And even if you don’t have a diary, let me put it like this: if you can think, you can write. And I’m sure that you can think, because you’ve got this far, without any help from electrodes.
My conceit here is that as a thinker, you are also the right person to be a writer. That’s because to write, you need to be as intimate as you can with your subject. The ‘I’ is everything. Write for yourself – or as Salman Rushdie said: “Don’t try to be a crowd-pleaser.”
There’s no better starting point, other than a strong cup of coffee in the morning.
Proof Two: The signature proof. The other way to convince you is to ask you to think about your signature and how personal it is. That is writing. It’s the same thing. That slant, the flourish on the ‘y,’ the weight on the first ‘c,’ that’s the writer in you breaking out. The connection between who you are and the endpoint of a material expression, even if we’re only talking about a signature, you take my point. And we’re off to the races.
Proof Three: We all hesitate in front of cameras. So far so normal. Those who are apparently comfortable in the glare of the lens, like newscasters – well, that’s all technique. What makes this queasiness in the fascia of the recording eye, is that you are in the presence of a medium of immortality.
In that sense, pictures and words are similar because they both outlive us. We subconsciously know that.
I will recite a familiar phrase: “I have a dream.” You instantly hear the voice, know the name of the voice, the time frame and geolocation of those four words which pack so much. That’s down on earth immortality.
We are humble in front of cameras because they capture us and keep us and we are particular about how we want to be remembered. The way we hesitate in front of cameras is no different to the reasons why we hesitate in front of words and paper.
Proof three is here to help you jump that uncertainty, if you have any. You now understand where your hesitancy is rooted.
Proof Four: The singing analogy. When I say ‘finding your voice as a writer, I’m alluding to the notion that we are all pattern seekers. We have our favourite singers and by extension, favourite writers. Why do we enjoy specific writers? And why some writers but not all?
It’s because of fidelity and recognition. I have favourite writers, and I go back to them time and time again. As Martin Amis said: “…you don’t read fiction, you re-read fiction.”
And because you like them so much, it’s likely that you’ll be able to guess an author by the signature embroidered within their writing styles.
‘I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.’
The opening lines from Bill Bryson’s ‘The Lost Continent.’ Here’s my pen, so you can tick-off proof four.
Proof Five: Writing is also a conversation. We start with a signature and we elongate to the point of exchange. How long is your average conversation? A double-spaced page of A4 is maybe two minutes of speech at 150 words per minute.
Your epiphany here is that the ten-minute conversation you had this morning with your neighbour over the fence, represents a weighty tome of 1500 words. One and half times the length of this blog. If the conversation was rooted in anger, that’s fine! Whatever gets the engine started.
At this point, you may be sprinting toward the finishing line for proof six.
Proof Six: Authority. Writing is a manifest expression of thought and honest intent. If you want to write about a specific subject, research is everything. It’s the whole game. Don’t even begin to put pen to paper until you are smarter than the reader on the subject.
Recently, I had a commission with twelve days to write a documentary treatment about eco-restoration in Somalia. Yes, I know. Without fear of my immortality being rocked, I’ll admit that I was in the basement here on the subject. Without a light on.
Deliberately hiding my pen in a drawer, I spent the first six days just reading around the subject before starting to emerge and make my way towards the light. Only after six days was I in a position to write from authority.
To cast away that pall in your brow, I want to leave you with a living, recorded example of how a non-professional writer can produce striking and original work. I used to produce the eponymous Pause for Thought series on BBC World Service, in the early ‘naughties.’ I want to share with you a remarkable piece written for the strand entitled, ‘Yellow’.
Listen to it and tick off all six proofs as you do. It’s only four minutes.
Along with me, celebrate the unique tenure of the piece. How it strikes the right key, simply because the writer is being personal and authentic.
And of course, let me know how you get along with your writing through this blog. Writer to writer.
What do you think of Christopher’s reflections? Share your thoughts with him in the comments below.