Probably twelve years or so ago, before my first book was published, I sent a query letter to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. I got a very nice if perfunctory reply from an editor telling me that they do not consider authors until they have established their voice. This was a polite way of telling me that I needed to be writing magazine articles and/or publishing with a small press before I could hope to be taken seriously by a major player like HBJ. Still, it was advice that I took to heart and, as this post makes clear, have continued to ponder up to today.
Looking at all my books, I think the ones that capture my voice most fully are, ironically enough, the two Idiot’s Guides. It’s almost as if I needed the structure of a formulaic writing format to give myself permission to just set my voice free. I love puns, gentle sarcasm, and being irreverently reverent, and the Idiot’s Guide format actually encouraged all of the above.
I don’t know if I’ll ever write another Idiot’s Guide (about once a year my agent mentions to the editor there that I’d love to write The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Christian Mysticism, never to any avail), but I am working on two projects currently: an introductory book on Christian Mysticism (if the Idiot’s Guide folks won’t publish it, somebody else will, and without a title that is subtly insulting to both author and reader); and the memoir of my conversion from Paganism to Catholicism. Both of these projects are dearly important to me and so the question of my voice remains as important to me now as it did when I had never been published.
An author’s voice is his or her own; no once can do it for you. Still, one way to find “your” voice is to read other writers who have a strong voice of their own. Here’s a partial list of works by authors whose voice I especially admire:
- Revelation of Love by Julian of Norwich (the John Skinner Translation);
- The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton
- Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
- Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
- The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog by Patricia Monaghan
- Grace is Everywhere by James Stephen Behrens
- The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs
- A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren
- The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris
I don’t know if Metatron acts as the Voice of God or not (although he is assigned that role in Kevin Smith’s irreverently reverent movie Dogma), but assuming he does have that responsibility, here is my prayer:
Angel of the Voice, help me to find my own. With clarity and authenticity, and gentle humor and honesty, with vulnerability and care, and most of all — with a keenly honed sense of fun.