We’ve talked a lot on the podcast over the years about finding your writer’s voice. How difficult it is to know how to do that, or indeed what it actually is.
Recently there’s been a fantastic course on this exact topic. It’s the kind of thing you’d normally have to pay hundreds of pounds for but this one is absolutely free – and I’m not even sure the teachers were aware they were participating.
Tim Ferriss is the author of the 2007 non-fiction bestseller The Four-Hour Week. Catchy titles don’t always deliver but this was a book that managed to be entertaining and informative about putting genuinely effective work systems in place to make our lives manageable.
It was the kind of counter-intuitive psychological approach that spawned a host of imitators. Ferriss followed it up with equally useful health and nutrition manuals The Four-Hour Body and the Four-Hour Chef.
Nowadays he concentrates mostly on interviewing psychologists, scientists and showbiz stars. The shows are of such length and breadth he’s in danger of writing a follow-up called The Four-Hour Podcast.
Ferriss is a polymath. As well as writing books and podcasting he’s an entrepreneur, start-up investor and health guru.
Recently he began admitting on his podcast, coyly at first, that he was exploring the possibility of writing fiction. We all know someone who has said that. A recent YouGov survey asked 15,000 people what job they would most like to have. An astonishing 9,000 chose “writer.”
When we want to learn a new skill, you and I read books and watch You Tube videos. Tim speed dials the world experts to talk about their skills on his podcast. He has spoken at length with Hugh Jackman, Mark Zuckerberg, Margaret Attwood and Jerry Seinfeld to name very few.
Towards the end of last year he interviewed a string of successful authors.
In recent years Marc Manson (The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k) and James Clear (Atomic Habits) have both followed Ferriss into the million-selling popular psychology charts.
I’ve read enough of these books that you’ll normally find listed as Self Help but could better be shelved under Snake Oil to let you know that, like Ferriss’s book that generated a thousand cheap facsimiles, these two are properly excellent and thorough.
The counter-intuitive mindset can take you a long way in the world of non-fiction. But if you want to write fiction you need a whole new set of skills. Kudos to Ferriss for recognising this. For all of his success elsewhere he comes across in these interviews as someone who knows he’s in an alien world.
What’s so fascinating about this journey is that Ferriss is by any definition a successful writer. His non-fiction books have topped best-seller lists for years and have sold millions.
You might be asking “what can I learn from him about finding my own voice? The man is a huge publishing success. Doors are already wide open for him.”
First there’s an inordinate wealth of knowledge and expertise in the answers he receives. And because he is barely hiding his agenda that he is interviewing these people to get advice for his own fiction-writing career, that’s where most of the questioning comes from.
He knows non-fiction, he explains. He understands the process of creating it. But fiction? That seems to follow completely different rules.
“I’ve got to be honest,” he says. “In the moment, I’m lost. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know anyone who’s been able to tell me how to get out of this.”
When do you know something’s high quality? He asks Seth Godin, marketing guru and author of Purple Cow – Transform your Business by Being Remarkable.
Godin answers by citing the example of Hamilton the musical.
Imagine pitching a hip-hop musical about one of America’s founding fathers. Why does Hamilton succeed on so many levels? Only Lin-Manuel Miranda could have come up with that idea, and he has specialist knowledge and obsession across every area of the show – the music, the style, the history, the lessons it has for us today.
Second, Ferriss is revealing how he will find his voice as much in the questions he asks as the answers he receives.
With an eye on his own desires to become a fiction writer, Tim asks James Clear to explain his belief that “every action you take is a vote for the person you want to become.”
The answer is that part of the way to find your voice is first you have to decide who you want to be.
At the end of last year I emphasised what I believe to be the most important goal for all of us, which is to become better writers. What are you doing every day to make yourself a better writer? It doesn’t have to be a big thing. On the contrary it can be quite small. A small win every working day is a week of five wins.
You can distil almost every question Ferriss asks to this: “How do I find my writing voice?” You don’t want to find Tim Ferriss’s voice of course, but the answers he gets are like signposts to help you on your own journey.
Record producer Rick Rubin talks about the moment he passed a tree with his son, he’d passed it a thousand times but had never before noticed how beautiful it was. In other words: “The way of seeing what’s beautiful when everyone else sees the mundane and being able to represent that back in a way that other people get a glimpse of what we saw that they didn’t notice.”
What a lovely description of our search for great art in the every day.
It’s when Tim talks to the non-fiction writer and novelist Steven Pressfield that he gets the clearest answers.
Pressfield talks about The Odyssey, a work that is thousands of years old but still speaks to everyone who wants to be a writer. It’s a book about a character in the wilderness, who spends the entire book trying to find his way home.
“Home meaning who we really are… this is what I should be doing. This is the lane I should be in. And that’s home. And it takes a while to find it.”
When Ferriss dares to go into detail about his own story featuring eight different houses, Pressfield says “that’s coming from somewhere in you.” In other words, inspiration from another place has offered up these clues and it’s up to you what you do with them.
And by you, I also mean you, yes you, reading this, and me. What is this idea? What does it mean? What part of myself am I bringing to it that no one else could possibly?
I recommend you listen to these podcasts. The advice is all useful and available in the transcripts, but what makes them so compelling is to hear Ferriss’s voice. Compare the confident-sounding reader of the adverts at the front of the show with the guy who is nervously running his ideas past the best-selling novelist Pressfield.
He sounds like every inexperienced writer starting out – inquisitive, defensive, embarrassed to be talking about his own work in the presence of such successful writers.
Tell Me What I Want To Hear
This is something I hear from writers all the time, from those starting out to those who already have a hugely successful career behind them. They’re willing me to say either “it’s the most brilliant thing I’ve read” or “it’s a pile of trash and bin it.” Go on Dave, we know each other, you can be honest with me.
I recognise the conversation because it’s one I’ve had many times with friends and professionals whose advice I appreciate. I am a rational human being. I’ve enjoyed some success as a writer and a teacher of writing. I love the process, and am prepared to put in the hours to improve.
But the little kid who wants to be a famous writer never went away. I no longer wear short trousers but still desire the validation of people who I think are better than me. I want them to say one of those things.
What I’m really asking for is permission to move on from this idea that is yet to be judged in the real world. Permission to start the next thing, which I’m already super excited about. The last thing I want to hear is the truth:
Whether or not what you’ve written can be improved depends on how much effort you’re prepared to put in to make it better. And it can always be better. You know that, deep down.
No one’s asking you to do this. You can give up any time. But if you’re trying to find out what your voice is, you need to explore unfamiliar territory.
It’s not a nice place to be. You’d rather be anywhere else. Walk away, no one gets to give you a one star review or tell you that your work sucks.
My advice would be to persevere. See where it leads. Just around that dingy corner which you’ve been skirting around for ages, may lie an answer to a question about yourself that’s been bugging you for years.
Don’t walk away now!
Looking for your comedy voice? Come to the BCG Pro Comedy Conference in April and learn from the pros.
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