Last week, after a lovely night out, my daughter and I came upon a busker in Brighton's Lanes. It was quite late, very cold, and a young man was sitting on a pile of blankets, bundled up in a heavy coat. He was also playing a guitar and singing an old Van Morrison song, "Crazy Love."
He had a wonderful voice--the kind that forces you to stop and listen, no matter how cold it is or how tired you are, and stay until the end of the song, even if it means missing the last bus. There was no other audience for him--the Lanes were empty--so I did what seemed appropriate at the time. While my daughter dropped a few pounds into his guitar case, I dropped in some harmonies.
Yes, I'm a sometimes singer, and the writing "break" I blogged about a few months ago happily re-kindled my desire to sing and perform. Once I started writing again, I stopped, though--seems I can only exercise one type of "voice" at a time.
Well, the late night, back alley singing felt good. I think it probably sounded OK, too, but mostly it felt good (at least to me!).
Re-wind to a few weeks earlier, when I was at the launch for SCBWI's Undiscovered Voices 2014. It was a great chance to meet up with fellow UV winners, all of whom are now friends, and to meet other writers and illustrators, who hope to be chosen for the next edition of Undiscovered Voices.
The selection panels were there, too--editors and agents (including my wonderful agent, Sallyanne Sweeney) giving helpful information about what makes a good book, and what they hoped to find in a writer's (or illustrator's) work.
For the writing panel, it all came down to one word--voice.
They talked about other things--personal preferences in genre, types of books they didn't particularly want to read--but really, the only thing that truly mattered to them was voice.
As writers, we hear this time and time again. But what is a writer's "voice"? How do you know if you have one? If you don't have one, what can you do?
At the launch, several suggestions were made--you can read them on SCBWI's Words and Pictures Online Magazine (and get information about SCBWI and UV2014--the competition opens 15 July!)
For me, my writer's voice comes from the same place that my singing voice does--the inside. Harmonising with the guy in the Lanes reminded me of how singing "feels", as much as how it sounds. It reminded me where my brain has to go, what my body has to do, and helped me remember the magical, strangely intimate thing that happens when two or more voices "connect".
Singing requires a kind of suspension of self, where your body and the words and the music create something that comes from you, but isn't you...yet is.
I think the writer's voice is similar. There's a stillness that has to occur, a concentration, an internalisation, a connection to be made if the voice is to resonate.
But who or what is a writer connecting to? The imagined reader? An editor?
Like other artists, writers have to use their own lives and experiences, but then shake off the the shackles and limitations of self so that something else can play out on the page. This "something else" doesn't happen all the time--it takes hard work, perseverance plenty of practice. But to me, this is the "connection" that makes characters and stories seem true and alive, and makes the elusive writer's "voice" take off and sing.