Earlier today, I found this binder from my senior year in high school:
The horrible curly-lettered cover hides a stack of my first attempts at creative writing. I'm not exaggerating when I say they're truly awful. Just imagine a poem with lots of italics and talking animals. A short story about roadkill. Guilt-ridden religious prose. There's even an autobiographical piece about...dare I say it...poop.
I wish I were kidding. It's just awful.
I didn't make a serious attempt at writing again until about four years ago when I took a creative nonfiction class. Since there was nowhere to go but up, it's not bragging to say I'd improved over the years. But as bad as those early tries were, there is one striking similarity between the way I wrote in high school and the way I write now. The voice--the cadence, attitude, tone, style, approach--though it has grown to be more subtle and controlled, the voice I use now is strongly hinted at in the old writing.
Voice is one of the great mysteries often discussed in writing classes. But I think the connection between my old and current writing sheds some light. Perhaps every author has an innate writerly voice. That's not to say she can't put on another voice very successfully or that the innate should always be used. It's just to say that a natural and consistent voice exists within a writer and will become stronger over time (with hard work, practice, lots of editing, and consideration of constructive criticism).
But I don't think the critical point about voice is that it exists within each writer--it's that a particular voice exists, one that no one else has. Knowing what you want to say--plot, problems, characters, themes--those are just details. Voice is the glue that holds them together. Voice is your special ability. It's taking your unique viewpoint and communicating it with words. It can make your story stand out from the countless others. Yes, originality of plot can do wonders (and is an amazing feat), but a strong voice can even carry a recycled structure to amazing heights. Take Harry Potter for example. That's no original plot structure. It's not even an original premise. But it's a good story with its own uniqueness. And it's engaging. Really engaging. In my opinion, that's because of two things: universality and the storyteller's voice. Universality is available to all. But your voice is yours alone.