One of the greatest challenges for any developing artist is not only painstakingly discovering their own voice, but then courageously taking the risk of stepping into the unknown to share it with the world.
Numerous studies, books and workshops on the topic of finding a distinct voice reveal this raw nerve has always existed. Do we find our own voice by going it alone and striving heroically to be original? Or do we simply copy someone else?
A great paradox
Here’s one of the great paradoxes of every artist’s life: “the way to originality is through imitation.”
This is what poet Billy Collins says when it comes to imitating other writers:
…You can take intimacy from Whitman, you can learn the dash from Emily Dickinson…you can pick a little bit from every writer and you combine them. This allows you to be authentic. That’s one of the paradoxes of the writing life: that the way to originality is through imitation. – [you can find the full transcript of a great talk below on Austin Kleon’s blog]
Imitating or “stealing” ideas or creative flair from others can be successfully transmuted into originality, and indeed is where the struggle of finding yourself truly comes in. But unless we have integrity, it’s all too easy to vacillate between imitating and conforming as we slide shyly under the protection of another’s cloak.
On fighting the temptation to be everyone but yourself, E.E. Cummings says:
To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.
Though being true to yourself and imitating others can seem contradictory, they are not. On a deeper level they fit together perfectly. We mimic and learn from others, absorbing what resonates, then making it our own. Turning, combining, collecting and assimilating all within our own experiences. The process takes arduous work and a lifetime commitment – we see this common thread in all the artists we have come to love and admire.
Author Oliver Sacks puts it this way:
All of us, to some extent, borrow from others, from the culture around us. Ideas are in the air, and we may appropriate, often without realizing, the phrases and language of the times. We borrow language itself; we did not invent it. We found it, we grew up into it, though we may use it, interpret it, in very individual ways. What is at issue is not the fact of “borrowing” or “imitating,” of being “derivative,” being “influenced,” but what one does with what is borrowed or imitated or derived; how deeply one assimilates it, takes it into oneself, compounds it with one’s own experiences and thoughts and feelings, places it in relation to oneself, and expresses it in a new way, one’s own.
Letting go into selfhood
Then after years of angst, sculpting, sweat and soul searching, the artist can strip away all that is extraneous and discover within themselves their own beautifully influenced, yet unique pearl to contribute to the world.
Musician Ben Folds in his memoir, A dream about lightening bugs: A life of music and cheap lessons writes:
By artistic voice, I’m referring to one’s artistic thumbprint — the idiosyncratic stuff that makes an artist unique. It’s not a precise science, and finding it is always a painful process. I think it has to be about subtraction. It’s not a matter of cooking up a persona or style so much as it is stripping away what’s covering up the essence, what was already there…Sometimes it’s just growing out of the imitation phase. Most artists have a period where they sound like their favorite musician, and once they’ve learned from that they can shed that effort. Sometimes the subtraction is about casting off a misconception about how music is actually performed, or how art is made. No matter what your particular subtraction is, the artistic voice you will discover will ideally be something you haven’t seen or heard before.
Finally, there’s no escaping
In genuine pursuit of the creative life, there’s no escaping the interior battle that has at its core the continuous yearning for unique self expression. The heart won’t tolerate being ignored if you want to live authentically, and so the path of becoming true to yourself is a lonely and demanding one. However, there’s a strange comfort in knowing we’re all struggling “alone together” and encouraged to climb to the shoulders of countless artists gone by. With them, we continue the journey of brave exploration into the world of art within ourselves and without – collecting, shaping, mirroring, transforming, and sharing.
For a few quick reads
For some practical insights on finding your voice, check out the following posts:
Austin Kleon offers a transcription of a talk given by wonderful poet Billy Collins at a Whitehouse poetry workshop. His poetry and genuineness have been a gift to many aspiring writers over the years.
Take a look at Cloth, Paper, Scissors for some practical exercises to help discover your artistic style.
Johnathon Fields shares a small section from his friend Lisa Congdon’s book Art, Inc. in his blog post below. She recalls an analogy that will resonate with everyone who’s felt the grueling and painful process of self-expression:
“My painting teacher used to talk about the “painting curve,” a line that looks like the letter U. He said that when you begin a painting (or other form of art), you are at the top of the U. Things look clean and wonderful in the beginning. But as you develop a piece of work, it often gets messier; that is the bottom of the painting curve. He insisted that working through the bottom of the painting curve—the point at which we think our work looks horrible or awkward—is critical to making good work. Working through the complexities of a piece to the point where it looks and feels wonderful again—rising back up to the top of the U—helps develop your technique as well as your unique voice.
Read more of the excerpt here:
And Jeff Groins offers 10 helpful steps to help sort out some confusion to finding your voice. Check out his article below: