Active Voice

Melissa Todd is a writer, performer and the director of Hags Ahoy theatre company. She writes reviews, opinion pieces and short stories, and is currently working on a literary project with award-winning poet Matt Chamberlain.

“I read your story”, my friend Richard told me last week, before pausing to add, gently, “Is everything OK?” I’d sent him a fine, moody piece (Morning Handsome – maybe you could chuck in a link here if it’s out), the last line of which suggested I didn’t much care if I lived or died. But of course everything’s OK, Richard. It’s a fine story with a particularly good ending, and I was feeling absolutely cock-a-hoop when I finished it. It had been inspired by a gloomy thought, admittedly, but I wrote it away and promptly felt better. However miserable a piece, if you can write it down there can’t be that much wrong with you. Hope is creativity’s oxygen. I write about depression and despair quite often, but I can’t experience those sensations to the point of paralysis in the act of composition. I observe the feelings like a scientist, aligned with an excitable puppy enthusiasm. Yes, that’s it! That’s exactly how tortured wretched misery feels; precisely its colour and shape. Go me!

When you write as yourself – in an opinion piece or poem, perhaps – there is nevertheless a distance between the everyday you and the you-as-writer. Everyday life is pretty boring; it needs to be edited or be hopelessly dull. Probably unwise to mention that the day your dreams got smashed to crumbs it was a bit chilly and your favourite bra was in the wash and you used up the last of the milk at breakfast – unless of course these quotidian concerns are utilised to highlight how suddenly and ruthlessly life can destroy your dreams. Your writer self will be more consistent and focussed than your ordinary self. It’s concerned only with telling the story rather than enduring it – and telling it in a way that will best engage a readership.

In Morning Handsome I was writing as a man, and a man whose voice was quite distinct from mine. Occasionally I do sicken of hearing my own, ludicrously posh, slightly sarcastic tones blethering on, and choose instead to inhabit someone else’s vocabulary. (I used the word ‘fizzog’, for instance, which is actually Richard’s word: I didn’t even know how to spell it). This is one of the great joys of writing; exploring someone else’s modes of expression, and, thus, their personality. Active voice is a powerful tool to explore and express your characters’ histories and psyches. It’s the quickest way to show rather than tell. When writers start out they often adopt a formal, drab, cod-literary style which probably reflects the worthy books they were forced to read in school. That might work if you’re trying to emulate Jane Austen – although why would you bother to do that? – but if you’re writing a piece set in 21st century Margate, do take time to hang out there and hear how your characters might express themselves, then replicate it. Eavesdropping is fun and useful. In many ways our language has been impoverished; few of us speak as if we are in a Noel Coward play, nor prize eloquence and fluidity of expression in the way a renaissance man might. Moreover, for the last fifty years we have tended to distrust the smooth tasing eloquent type, often assuming him to be arrogant or dishonest. But that very impoverishment can be turned to your advantage; making use of cliche, slang and jargon can be an effective way to set characters apart from the all-knowing, all-powerful authorial voice.

Exploring difficult feelings or situations in someone else’s voice and mindset can also be psychologically healing, as well as creatively intriguing. Projecting your feelings on to someone who very much isn’t you, then seeing how they deal with them, can give you an intriguing new perspective. If you’re feeling depressed or anxious, try to hear that feeling be voiced by someone entirely distinct from yourself; exploring someone else’s mind may liberate you from your own, at least temporarily. And you get a story out of it: that should cheer you up too.

We are taught there is a correct mode of expression, grammatical, earnest, formal, literary. While that may be true in academic writing, in creative work anything that helps the story live and breathe is justified. Break the rules. It may not be “correct” or “good English”, but a robot can replicate that. It will instead be uniquely part of your voice, and that has unparalleled value.

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