M Train, Patti Smith’s new memoir is out now. I loved Just Kids, Patti’s first memoir. It was a revelation to me that she could write prose that felt so thoroughly her. Disdaining many of the supposed rules of contemporary writing, her style fit perfectly with her persona. You could almost smell the musty pocket out of which she'd yanked her notebook.
Thinking about the way Patti writes so perfectly out of time led me to consider the struggle we who write face to find and keep our voice.
Lively, confident, friendly
When you write for the corporate world, you’re expected to stick to a brand’s tone of voice. If you’ve been writing for a while, this is not usually a challenge. Most corporate style guides give very little real thought to creating a unique voice for a brand.
There are exceptions. The guidelines for St. Regis hotels, for instance, are wonderfully detailed and offer a writer lots of room to use intensifiers (adverbs that give force or emphasis). They also offer up satisfying challenges like not allowing the use of the word ‘luxury’ because, in this case, it’s redundant. The tone of voice has to convey a sense of luxury, not state it.
The disciplines usually imposed on me when I’m writing corporate do have their advantages. My sentences are not more than 30 words long and I try to keep them under 20. I never write more than three sentences per paragraph.
Even if I don’t stick to them, I bear these rules in mind when I’m writing anything. They give clarity. But, as you know, rules are made to be broken. Or, at least, bent.
Brand you and tone of voice
I personally hate the idea of being a brand. But if I want to get my voice heard in Cyberbabel, I have to create a persona I’m comfortable with and turn up the volume. (I also have to attract readers to me, which is another story.)
If you’re doing what’s called life writing, memoir or blog, you need to do the same. Using today's rules of clear writing can only help. So, once you’ve mastered those, how do you make your writing yours?
Steal don’t imitate
When Steve Jobs used the phrase ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal’ he was misquoting Picasso who lifted the phrase from TS Eliot.
All writers begin by imitating someone. But we discard what doesn’t work for us simply because it feels wrong. I like copywriter Dave Trott's machine gun style but if I wrote like him it would be a parody.
What remains of what we imitate becomes ours. We’ve hidden what we stole so well, we’ve forgotten it’s even there.
A writer’s voice
When you’re writing serious prose it’s much harder to find your own voice. I’m not convinced I’ve found mine yet. People I trust have read my stuff, swooped on a piece of writing and said ‘That’s you. Write like that.’ but I’ve ended up in a different straitjacket.
There’s a famous literary story about American writer Ray Carver (Cathedral) who became known for his terse, pared down prose. After Carver died, it turned out that this had been the creation of his editor. Carver's real voice was far more florid.
I think that all you can do is keep going until you forget that it’s ‘you’ writing. You've found your voice when you feel the words are coming through you, you're being written.
If you’ve ever seen Patti Smith perform, you’ll know that she’s found a way to let go, to channel some force which both is and isn’t her. In her prose she does the same, only in a more stately manner.
Not read her? You should.