In a Room Full of Voices

She is inconstant and so is her writing self.

Young writers often ask me how I found my voice as a writer. This is the question they’ve been taught to ask, the appropriate, million-dollar question, the one M.F.A. programs and English teachers and writing instructors set up as the Holy Grail, over and over again. But as a writer who’s supported herself for twenty years by writing essays, cartoons, TV criticism, radio commentaries, a memoir, book reviews, reactions, recaps, rants, and riffs of every stripe, I find the notion that you have to locate your one true writerly voice patently absurd. “How did you find your voice as a writer?” feels like a skin-deep outcropping of self-help culture, the What Color Is Your Parachute? of the literary world. And just as no human being over the age of seven should be expected to pick one favorite color, no writer should be expected to choose a single, bulletproof “voice” and write in that voice forever and ever.

I also hate the implication that this mythical “voice” needs to be “found,” that it’s not something you simply invent or cobble together under pressure. There’s a dangerous sort of magical thinking in the mix here, as if all writing should be deliberate and profound and predestined by the gods before you even pick up a pen. The search for this elusive “voice” seems to hint at a valiant quest devoid of improvisation, confusion, cleverness, desperation, whimsy, self-doubt, and pure unbridled self-hatred—all of which are the bread and butter of a writer’s life, by the way. The myth of “voice” suggests that a voice can’t be constructed out of thin air as the clock ticks down. Somehow, instead, you have to locate it wherever it’s hiding, fully formed, under the bed, or tangled up in your sock drawer. And there’s only one of them! This makes it extra romantic and extra doomed, like a bad ultramodern love story: If you don’t happen to find The One, you’ll be damned for all time! 

The whole notion of writing with one voice strikes me as rigid and tedious. Every day when I wake up, I feel like a different person than I was the day before. This means that I’m also a different writer every day. I am inconstant. My voice as a writer is actually a room full of voices, all of them yelling at once. Some of my voices doubt themselves constantly, and others are hopelessly arrogant. Some of my voices are optimistic and full of hard-won wisdom that might just be characterized as sentimental by some of my other voices, which are scathing and merciless.  

Early in my writing career, I would try to force my room full of voices to sing just one melody. Sometimes they’d all go silent instead, resentful of my efforts to tame them. But these days, I stand in the middle of the room and listen to who is yelling the loudest. Sometimes it’s the voice that’s frustrated—or resentful, or giddy, or angry, or melancholy—that drowns out all of the other voices. This is also the writing I like best: work that evokes strong emotion, language that flows straight from some turbulent spring, words that bubble up from some primordial source. By respecting my mood as I sit down to write—even when it’s a little stubborn or nihilistic—I tend to get more ambitious, tackle more complex or nuanced ideas, and risk more.

But then, what strange sort of person stands for only one thing, or thinks only one way, or has only one mode of addressing the world? As E.L. Doctorow wrote, “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” To transform the mundane into something brilliant or riveting or divine, you have to embrace your own madness. 

Havrilesky '92 is a columnist for New York Magazine and the author of Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead, 2011) and How to Be a Person in the World (Doubleday, 2016).

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