Wayson Choy on Writing Craft and Voice

February 20, 2013 10 Comments

Me with Wayson Choy

I was thrilled to listen to Wayson Choy at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts in August. I first read his novel, The Jade Peony, after it was recommended by my English and Creative Writing teacher, Debbie Bouska. I loved his vivid and powerful portrayal of second-generation immigrants’ struggle with identity, as well as his lyrical writing style and use of multiple narrators.

Wayson gave a very moving speech on his writing and personal experiences–from growing up in a community where stories were kept secret to surviving a close encounter with death. Despite the serious discussion, he showed a witty sense of humor that engaged and entertained the audience.

Since I admired his work, I approached him for advice on the writing process, especially how to develop a distinct Writing Voice. I’ve been reflecting on voice because I’ve received comments that my characters lack an original voice, which is crucial to an engaging story and something many aspiring writers struggle with.

Despite his busy schedule, Wayson met me and gave me amazing tips:

1) Overwrite and Rewrite

He sees writing as a long process; he spends 6 drafts discovering materials, 6 drafts doing research and rewriting, and another 6 drafts editing.

He compared this process to Michelangelo’s approach to crafting the statue of David: “It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.”

When you write, you need to write a lot before you can go beyond cliches, pick out original ideas, and find the best words.

2) Take Risks

Wayson explained to me that a main reason behind the lack of a strong voice is not taking enough risks. You don’t have to show your writing to anyone if you don’t have to, so just write whatever you want, even if you worry your mother or society might not approve. If you take risks, try different things, and tell the truth, you’ll find what works best for you.

3) Use Your Imagination

A lot of young writers struggle because of lack of experience. You may not be able to write from the perspective of someone from a different age, background, or belief than you. However, Wayson doesn’t believe in writing only what you know; you can research about people and read works with diverse voices. Most importantly, don’t hesitate to use your imagination.

Just as Picasso once said, “art is a lie that reveals the truth”. As a fiction writer, you’re trying to create literature that reflects truth and the human experience, not an exact replica of reality and facts.

4) Read, Copy, and Imitate

An excellent way to improve writing is to read like a writer. Read different styles of poetry. Look at the best passages of your favorite fiction writers and copy them out. You can examine things like diction, style, and punctuation choices, just as artists in older days used a magnifying glass to examine paintings or a filmmaker might analyze Alfred Hitchcock’s movies.

To take this a step further, write a piece that uses the same scene elements (character/event/setting/etc) as the passage, but change one thing about the narrator, such as personality or age. You can compare your writing with the original to see how the change affects the voice. You also get to experiment with different scenarios and give them your own spin.

Wayson’s insightful advice is designed to help improve writing in small yet significant steps and an amazing example of deliberate practice. I’m also fascinated by his comparison of writing to sculpture, art, and film. I hope to put his suggestions to practice in Camp Nanowrimo and beyond. 

Any thoughts on Wayson Choy’s advice? Tips on developing a distinct writing voice?

If you enjoyed this post, please share it and leave a comment so I can ask more writers for advice in the future 🙂

10 Comments

  1. Reply

    Ariadne Sawyer

    August 20, 2012

    Good insights.

  2. Reply

    Kim

    August 20, 2012

    The read, copy, and imitate tip is pretty helpful…might try that sometime. 😛

  3. Reply

    katharinetrauger

    September 10, 2012

    You gave a helpful mental picture of writing, which I hope I understand correctly:
    The first draft should include too many words, words that may eventually be the right words, words that may be useful or not.
    The second draft should reflect researching of actual word meanings and derivatives and discarding of wrong words, to pinpoint the exact meaning as closely as possible.
    The third draft must polish it all, perfecting to the minutest degree, applying a glow to the final work.
    Thank you for sharing this valuable insight and for the additional thought that characters must have a different voice, not only from each other, but also from the author.

    • Reply

      underthemilkmoon

      September 10, 2012

      I’ve tried the read, copy, and imitate technique with some of my poetry and have had some interesting results. Just goes to show how imitation is not only the best flattery, it is also a great teaching tool. After all, it takes a community to write the right way, which, of course, varies from writer to writer vis-a-vis his or her individual style.

      • Reply

        Yilin

        September 11, 2012

        underthemilkmoon:

        Yes, I agree reading and imitating can be very helpful. As writers, many of us want to be creative and original. To be creative, however, I think we need to be exposed to as many ideas and styles as possible. Trying out different voices will help us uncover the different voices available to us and eventually shape our own style.

    • Reply

      Yilin

      September 11, 2012

      katharinetrauger:

      Yes, your interpretation is excellent! For the “research” draft, I’m also talking about researching content to fill in knowledge gaps left from your first draft. For instance, if you started writing about a setting, you may need to research and gather more background information about the place.

      Personally, I find the process that Wayson suggested to be very useful. It’s very freeing to purposely overwrite and try many words, then work on editing and polishing.

  4. Reply

    Jeanne Rochford

    September 18, 2012

    i fee thwtto be totally creatve, yourwriting must flow from your imagination. i waeup in the morning and send timevbeforegoing to sleep composing in mymind. sometimes I do it while waiting in the car. i havehad two strokes and am nt ableto use mycomuter and my penmaship isso terrible, Icannot write things out.I am tryingrcording dictation. i’vet tried dragon softwareut itfdodnot work out. having somene transcribe worksbestfor me.

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