A Writer’s Voice

27 May
"Words have the power to both destroy and heal.
When words are true and kind, they can change our world."
—The Buddha

Or they can, you know, kill somebody.

I’ve gotten a sequence of complements and critiques on my writing lately, mostly complements, and it has led me to a mode of metacognition. That’s thought, about thought, and in this case an analysis of its mechanisms. The discovery that it has led me to is that, while I might not be capable of it yet, this mechanism can be documented.

There’s an old model, established by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers”, called the 10,000 hour rule. I haven’t personally read that book yet, but the phenomenon has wound its way into much of the text that I have, particularly in the realm of social psychology and cognitive neuroscience. The concept is that in order to acquire a fundamental precision and beauty in any art or technique, you need roughly 10,000 hours of practice. That’s just an estimate; some people reach their goal much sooner than others. However, no one is born knowing how to play a guitar or program a computer, and in the way of talent development and the learning process it’s more or less the case.

I have been writing since I was ten. I’ve indubitably learned a hell of a lot since then. My first independent attempt was to write down an idea I had, which struck me as valid for a novel format. I reached about two pages, from the beginning, before I got tired and had to stop. It was in crayon.

Come on, I was ten years old.

Whether or not that began a trek into literature that has accumulated 10,000 hours I do not know; I’ve had a lot of other things that I’ve been doing. However, I obviously wasn’t committing anything to memory at the time; my focus was on writing something down that could be committed by someone else, to their own memory. It hadn’t occurred to me that the sheer practice of the action could be teaching me something. The more important point, even if a secondary one, is that what I learned I may have learned on a subconscious level. I may not know that I know it.

Every writer has something known as a “writer’s voice“. That is, a specific dialect and personality that finds its way into their writing, by which they can be identified, like a psychological fingerprint.  I read a rather enjoyable book once, a combination effort of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet, titled “Good Omens“. There was an afterword, not a part of the story but a story about the story, discussing the beautiful obsession that Neil and Terry pursued their work with, hammering away at every idea they had until they were too physically tired to continue. Neil took nights, Terry took days, on a clockwork schedule. All the same, I could feel the difference in the writing; when Pratchet was writing, I could tell, because he followed a specific pattern, whereas Gaiman followed a rather different one. There was a seam in the book, not a painful one but to an analytical writer it was noticeable. They were not the same man, their experiences and their base dispositions were different, their subtle lessons of the trade had been given by differing circumstances. The rules they followed were sharply distinct.

Guitarists have been described to me, in casual conversation, as having a “guitar voice” defining the way the guitar sounds in their hands; a difference in picking or the way they hold the string down that ever so subtly changes the timbre. It may not be limited to art. Perhaps programmers have a programmer’s voice, changing the nature of the code on the basis of experiences, good and bad, that they have had in the past. Mathematicians may have a mathematics voice, altering the way they approach problems on the basis of what they have done in the past. This is an innate part of our humanity.

So, as I walk home from my (dreaded but accepted) 4:00 AM job the other day, I begin to wonder, in idle meditation, about the metrics of my pursuit of short stories. If semantics can be measured quantitatively, regardless of whether it has, and through it potential story content is compared to story length, could a statistical relationship be formed? Could a thermodynamics of the creative mind yield usable results? Could I use it to better my own writing?

One such psychology text, “Introducing NLP“, by Joseph O’Connor and John Seymour, was on the subject of the communication of a thought from one mind to another. It presented me with four levels of technical capacity: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and finally unconscious competence. If I could roll back the lesson that jumped through raw experience into unconscious competence, the final stage of talent, to conscious competence and have it exist in both states at once, then I would have a manner in which to pursue a more academic study of my work. I could amplify my methods, and document the intricacies of the method for the rest of the world. How this is to be done, remains to be seen.


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Posted by on May 27, 2013 in Meta-Media


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