When people talk about finding their “voice,” you might get the impression they looked down one day and there it was — lying on the ground, fully formed and functional, just waiting to be used. In my experience, though, finding your voice is more about hard work. And time. Lots of time. Our voices are built, not found. It seemingly takes forever. A decade or more. And here’s the frustrating thing: you can’t rush it. There are no shortcuts to finding your voice. You have to go the long way — slowly accumulating influences, trying on different styles, finding a voice that feels natural — and then refine it slowly, project after project, year after year. The good news is that while there isn’t a shortcut, there is a path.
Most creative people move through similar phases on their way to finding their voice, and it can be very helpful to locate yourself along this path if only to get your bearings.
Here is the most common path I’ve watched artists of all disciplines follow as they’ve developed their voice.
1. Develop Your Taste
We start with our taste. For a while, our taste is all we have. Some innate sense of what is good and bad, what works and what doesn’t. We can’t articulate why yet. We don’t have the artistic vocabulary or technical know-how to pinpoint what’s going on. We simply react to art like we react to food. It happens somewhere inside our bodies. Art makes us feel something. These early experiences are often what lead us to become artists or creatives later on in life. And somewhere within these experiences is the raw material of what will one day become our voice.
The important thing to remember about taste is that we should hold it loosely. Our bodies aren’t as smart as they think. Our ideas about what is good and bad will — and should — change, especially when we’re young (i.e., before age 40). Poet W. H. Auden put it this way: “Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are … When someone… says, apropos of a work of art, ‘I know what I like,’ he is really saying ‘I have no taste of my own but accept the taste of my cultural milieu,’ because, between twenty and forty, the surest sign that a man has a genuine taste of his own is that he is uncertain of it.”
If your taste is going to develop into your voice, you have to give it some space to breathe. You’re going to have to admit that you don’t quite know what you like yet. For instance, I’ve heard it takes 50 years to appreciate gefilte fish.
2. Move Beyond Your Talent
Stephen King says, “Talent is cheaper than table salt.” Maybe so. But there’s no real substitute for it. You either have it or you don’t. And whatever amount you have, that’s all you get. “What separates the talented individual from the successful one,” King continues, “is a lot of hard work.” In other words talent, in whatever amount, only gets you so far. You’ll have to get out and walk the rest of the way. This is the second stage I’ve noticed people passing through as they develop their voice. In the beginning, there is a kind of coasting. People see how far their talent can take them (sometimes it’s super far, sometimes they don’t make it out of the driveway). They operate on whim and instinct, optimism and enthusiasm; but at some point — inevitably — they hit an incline. They start repeating themselves. They see immaturity in their work. The gap between what they want to be making and what they’re capable of making becomes all too apparent. It’s a frightening moment for any creative: the point when you wonder if you will ever find your voice. If you’ve gotten as good as you’re going to get. It’s this very anxiety and dissatisfaction that often leads creatives to the third stage: education.
3. Get Educated
This stage is when people “go pro,” to steal a phrase from author Steven Pressfield. Not in terms of whether they’re making a living at their craft, but in terms of the quality of their work. This is the phase when people decide to go behind the curtain of their creativity and find out what makes it tick, learn what actually makes things work. They study, read, watch, ask questions. This phase can be thrilling. It can also be paralyzing. When you start to understand what you’re doing, it can lead to a debilitating self-consciousness. I’ve seen it plenty of times and even felt it myself. You’ve traded magic for knowledge and there is no going back. This ends up being the toughest phase of all.
Pressfield explains: “The passage [from amateur to professional] is often accompanied by an interior odyssey whose trials are survived only at great cost, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. We pass through a membrane when we turn pro. It hurts. It’s messy and it’s scary. We tread in blood when we turn pro. What we get when we turn pro is, we find our power. We find our will and our voice and we find our self-respect. We become who we always were but had, until then, been afraid to embrace and to live out.”
4. Keep Growing
On the other side of the crisis is what we were looking for all along: our voice. The voice that comes effortlessly and unselfconsciously. Our “true” voice — our no BS voice — built from years of practice and pain. This voice is like a tool. You can use it at will, not just when the mood strikes. It’s a mature voice, both aware of itself and unfazed by how it sounds out loud. Think of it like an investment. Even as you continue to grow and change and experiment (which you will), it will always be within the context of your voice — always within the context of who you really are.