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‘All I have is a voice,’ writes W.H. Auden in his famous poem ‘September 1, 1939’. In a sense, of course, Auden is absolutely right: as writers, all we have is a voice.

Whether or not that voice is ours, however, is another matter entirely.

‘My least favourite received idea about writing,’ writes Sarah Manguso in her book 300 Arguments (2017) – as good a guide to the writing life as any – ‘is that one must find one’s voice, as if it’s there inside you, ready to be turned on like a player piano’.

There are no preprogrammed tunes inside you waiting to be played – is Manguso’s point. Your voice is not already somewhere in there. It is not an expression of some essential self. You don’t find your voice. You make your voice.

Which is all well and good, but how does one make a voice?

One way to think about how we might make a voice is to think of ourselves as ventriloquists – creating and mimicking the voices of others, both real and imagined. This is what George Saunders does in his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, for example, when he tunes into the imaginary voices of the dead. Yiyun Li does something similar in her recent harrowing novel Where Reasons End (2019), which consists of a series of conversations between Li’s unnamed narrator and her 16-year old son, who has committed suicide. (Li’s own son committed suicide, alas, so the book is both a series of imagined conversations and a record of what might have been said.)

Your voice – or your voices, rather – are going to be the voices of everyone you’ve ever known, everything you’ve ever heard, everything you’ve ever read, everything you’ve ever said, or might have said, and much much more besides. You might think of your voice as a kind of super-sampled mega-mix. As a writer, you’re the producer as well as the artiste.

The great thing about learning to mimic and imagine other voices is that it makes you aware of your own limited subject position: inventing and imagining voices allows you to invent and imagine lives. (Which of course raises all sorts of interesting ethical questions. Is this voice mine to possess and inhabit? Is this appropriation? Imagination? Discuss.)

Sometimes of course you’ll get lucky: a voice will just turn up, unbidden. In her memoir Hope Against Hope Nadzehda Madelstam recalls how her husband, the poet Osip, was subject to strange auditory hallucinations. (‘He would toss his head as though it could be shaken out like a drop of water that gets into your ear while bathing.’) And Marilynne Robinson has described how the voice of John Ames, the pastor protagonist of her novel, Gilead, came to her one day while she was staying in a hotel in Provincetown, at Christmas, and she had time on her hands – and it just sort of arrived. ‘I was happy’, she says, ‘for the company.’


This article is from a series of ‘How To...’ guides for emerging and developing writers, written in 2019/20 by Ian Sansom.

Ian Sansom is the author of the Mobile Library and the County Guides series of novels. He writes regularly for the Guardian, the TLS, and the Spectator. He teaches at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. iansansom.net

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