Guest Post: Finding Your Voice

by Leo Babauta

Creators of any kind must find their voice.

We are writers, musicians, designers, programmers, parents, builders of anything. But we are not truly expressing ourselves, and speaking the truth, until we’ve found our voice: the tone, style, tenor, pitch, personality we use to express ourselves.

Our voice is our essence, writ plain for the world to see.

A reader and fellow writer asked me how I found my voice. And I have no easy answer — I’m not even sure I can say I’ve fully found my voice yet. It’s a quest that doesn’t seem to end — not a Grail quest, really, but a constant retuning as the essence of who I am neverendingly changes.

But I feel I’ve found something that has the texture of truth, even if only a tactile approximation. I’ll share some of my thoughts, but keep in mind I don’t hold the answers firmly at all.

I’m learning, and I hope my learning helps yours. This is written for writers, but the ideas are the same for anyone who creates anything.

Write a lot.
This is almost all I need to say, as nothing else matters without the constant practice of writing a lot. Write blog posts and letters, booklets and diatribes, letters to the editor and book reviews, love poems and short stories, novellas and manifestos. The sheer mass of your writing becomes the raw matter from which to chisel your voice.

Experiment boldly. Rip off the greats, and the goods as well. Mimick and make it your own. Try and err.

Learn to hear yourself.
My writing voice is really the voice in my head. It’s not how I talk aloud, but how I talk to myself, in the noisy cavern of my skull. I listen to myself talk, inside, and that’s the voice I try to get down in writing.

Getting that voice from your head to the virtual paper — that’s the trick. It’s not easy, but again, do it often, and you’ll get proficient at it. It’s a rewiring of the synapses, so that your head-thoughts shoot down into your fingertips and come out as typing motions, as bits and pixels. Most people don’t do this enough to get good at it, and so there is low fidelity.

Find what feels true. You’ll write a lot, and most of it will be bullshit. You need the bullshit if you want to find the truth. Sort through the bullshit until you learn to recognize the truth, by feel, not by any logical criteria. The truth looks remarkably like bullshit.

Find clarity. Good writing, it’s been said often, is clear thinking. If your thinking is muddled, your writing will be. I’d recommend a self-taught course on logic, but really I’ve found it’s a matter of simplifying. Practice removing extraneous ideas and words until you have only what’s needed to express a simple thought.

Remove the noise. It’s a process of subtraction more than addition. Most people end up with too many words, because they never subtract. The noise gets in the way of your voice, so pare it down, trimming the noise from the bush until you’re left with truth. I subtract in my head, these days, but that’s from years of practice. After you write, edit, and remove the noise.

Most people also have too much noise in their lives to hear their own thinking. Too much is going on around them, and online, and they have no time for solitude. You can’t hear your thoughts, your voice, without solitude. Remove the noise in your life as well.

Use your voice. You don’t embark on a quest for your voice just for the sake of beauty — a noble pursuit, but it’s not enough.

You must use your voice. Use it to express yourself, to help others, to change the world.

I write of simplicity in a world that’s needlessly complicated.

I write of minimalism to stem the tide of consumerism.

I write of contentment because too many feel a lacking.

I write of veganism because my heart breaks at the cruelty of our food system.

I write of unschooling to show kids they need no teacher but themselves.

I write of anarchism in a world increasingly totalitarian, especially in the growing private sector.

This is how I use my voice. How will you use yours?

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This post first appeared on Leo Babauta’s award-winning blog: Zen Habits, a meditation on finding simplicity in the daily chaos of  life.  Leo is married with six kids, lives in San Francisco (just moved here from Guam), is a writer and a runner and a vegan.

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