On learning how to write with your own distinctive voice, Doug Wilson urges,
Read widely… The point is to read widely enough to know what delights you, what you would like to imitate, and what you want to stay away from. You will want to become like some writers, you will want to cherry pick from others, and you will read others as a salutary warning… out of that, your voice will be born and will be able to grow naturally (Wordsmithy, 31, 33).
The amazing thing is that every author has a somewhat distinctive voice, at least the authors we’d actually spend time reading. If you would develop your own personal voice, one worth reading, you’ve got to spend a lot of time listening to others. So there’s a conscientious effort as you digest other books to imitate, borrow, and flee from what you dislike.
Wilson hits on this striking aspect of human nature that we are by design creatures of imitation, so in specific application to writing we’ve got to choose what to imitate. It’s quite fascinating, enough to make me consider,who would I spend my life trying to write like, steal from, or avoid altogether?
No doubt everyone interested in writing or thinking has developed a voice based on what they’ve read. But the trick is to make it a mindful awakening and actively work to distill your voice. So, a brief collection of my own personal admirations and disdains on a brief journey through a few books.
First, the authors whose voices I’d like most to embody. As a sportswriter, I’ve always been fascinated with the fathers of that genre, who have in my opinion contributed to some of the best journalistic, easily readable, yet great writing available to the common man. And what I love best about them, perhaps, is that they still have that old world sense of wit and humor which seems to be much lost in our times. Among my favorite are Rick Reilly, Peter King, Kenny Moore, Bill Simmons (before Grantland) and Ted Kluck.
What I love about their style, though different in each author, is the ability to involve creative storytelling, humor, weighty truth, and earnest experience in a way that sucks you in, is easily pleasurable to read, and makes you wonder how you just blew two hours of your life without a second thought. Another characteristic? They simultaneously make me laugh and drive my wife crazy. I enjoy that too.
On that list too I’d put the Puritans, who wrote biblically with great pastoral heart in the midst of real life—among whom I’d include J.C. Ryle and John Piper—David Powlison, C.S. Lewis, and not really in their category at all, Alexandre Dumas, for his grand ability to tell stories that grip your soul.
In the borrowing category I’m gonna have to take a rain check, but in the “staying away from box” I’ll quickly throw Hunter S. Thompson. Why people enjoyed his vulgar, crass, and ill-formed style will never make sense to me, especially when reading him was like listening to a thug teenager try to impress you with his foul language and obscene conversation. In my mind, saying “what the hell” (and much worse) in your writing makes you unbearably annoying and childish, not clever or funny. That’s me, anyway.
I’m tempted to put Cormac McCarthy in that box too, not for his style but for his ability to depress you. His knack for playing certain strings of the human psyche is paramount, but he seems to me always to do it in a way that would make Nietzsche proud—which also is the way, incidentally, that makes me sick.
But I digress. What about you? Who would you most like to become as a writer/thinker, to take from betimes, and to altogether avoid? Who has most shaped your voice? Comments welcome.