A few weeks ago I watched the French version of The Voice – pronounced ‘Ze Voice’, of course – for the first time. I hate programmes in which people are expected to work as teams when they know perfectly well that their team ‘mates’ will be eliminated; or, even worse, when they have to eliminate each other. It’s psychological cannibalism. These programmes destroy the whole notion of what makes a team strong. They set a negative example for the audience.
Anyway, rant over. I sat down to share a few minutes of TV with my teenage daughter, who is crazy about music (having first ranted so she understood the problem with the model the programme presents).
The first thing that struck me – apart from Mika’s magnetism – was the high quality of the voices. I’d expected the producers to choose some appalling singers and make a cheap show of the audition. But no, this wasn’t the case. And I liked the idea of the judges choosing their favourite voices without being swayed by the singers’ appearances. The cynical side of me pointed out that the judges had probably seen everyone beforehand and just given the illusion of a blind audition for the filmed show. Nevertheless, I found myself listening to the singers and trying to identify what it was the judges were looking for and whether a singer possessed it or not.
Yes, you’ve guessed it. Voice. Being able to sing perfectly is the minimum, the starting point. What the judges want is something more than technique, something in the singer’s interpretation that makes the song they’re singing become their own. They’re looking for that little extra that makes the listener shiver in response. As I listened, I realised that it’s exactly the same in storytelling. Isn’t that sad? I can’t even watch a popular TV programme without thinking of work.
In writing, we call it Voice. It’s difficult to analyse Voice. Although I’d understood it to be the writer’s style – their own, personal way of telling stories – I’d always found it difficult to pin down exactly what it was, and to know whether I’d ‘got it’ or not. I was especially worried when a writing colleague confessed disappointment with a story I wrote because they couldn’t hear my voice in it. ‘But I don’t want you to hear MY voice,’ I remember thinking. ‘I want you to hear my character’s voice.’
In listening for that little extra in the singers’ performances, I found a parallel to the writing Voice. It helped me understand what agents, publishers and readers look for in stories. It goes beyond the voices of the story characters: it’s a hidden layer that infiltrates your story, makes it more meaningful and touches your reader.
Writers talk about finding their Voices. We learn writing techniques and practise writing until we can tell a story convincingly. But Voice isn’t a technique we can apply. Writing guides won’t help. It’s something deeper, something linked to our life experiences. It underlies the story we’re telling and seeps through the fabric of its structure. As with the singers, our Voice is our interpretation of what we’re communicating. It is so inherent that I don’t think we necessarily know when we’ve found it. But readers recognise it, even if they can’t always name the source of their emotive response.
I believe that to find our Voice, we must learn to trust ourselves to say what we want to say in the way we feel is best. Perhaps this is why we are told to write about what we know – because then we write from experience. Our Voice sits on one shoulder and guides our fingers on the keyboard. Technique sits on the other.
Is Voice the same as talent? I don’t know. All the singers were talented. But not all of them made the hairs on the back of my neck rise. And none were as irresistible as Mika!