No YOU Say it Erika Raskin

Photo of green leaves layered on each other
Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash.

Someone asked me what a writer’s voice is. I was momentarily tongue-tied.

It’s a tricky concept to capture and describe–a little like trying to render a physical sensation or an unfamiliar smell. Lots of adjacent experiences tend to be employed in the effort. But bear with me while I give it a shot.

Forty years ago a rat died in our kitchen pipes.

(I’ve generally recovered, thanks.)

I chronicled the traumatic incident for Salon detailing the stench that came from the spigot as rotting chicken in the meat drawer– with a side of decomposing broccoli. While this is an olfactory example of my voice, someone more restrained might have enlisted a careful term to describe the ungodly funk emanating from the kitchen as ‘an unpleasant odor’ and called it a day.

But I believe story telling is a form of a curated (and possibly compulsory) road trip that I want my riders to experience right alongside me. As such I tend to create a verbal sensorama to complete the picture, painting everything from the sound of a gag reflex to the tight pinch of fingers closing shut one’s nostrils.

But that’s just me.

Which, um, is kinda the point.

Word choice, timing and the details dragged into the spotlight are as unique as a writer’s fingerprints. (Pre-AI and deep fakes, anyway.) And though there are legitimate comps available in particular styles and genres (think: Denise Mina, Dervla Mctiernan and Tana French for brilliant deliveries of suspense, humor and dialogue from across the pond) they are not identical. Each have their own spin, rhythms and tells.

In fact, literary Levittowns would be heinous.

Imagine having to read the same thing again and again like that prisoner in the existential play who discovers a scrap of newspaper in his cell and tries to entertain himself with it. (I’d include the name of the masterpiece but a quick Google search came up empty.) In any case, visualizing the guy trying to keep himself busy with a fragment of newsprint used to give me attacks of anxiety. How many times can you memorize it frontwards and backwards? Count the words? Come up with different anagrams?

So posers who just try and adopt someone else’s persona altogether generally fail. Miserably. Currently there are two commercials running on TV for the same nether-regions deodorant. The original ad features the effervescent, bedimpled inventor. She is so adorable I’d buy just about anything she’s pitching. The follow-up commercial for the same product stars a spokeswoman who pretty much copies her boss’s (?) delivery and expressions. The result is shrill and kinda embarrassing. I mean I’m sure she’s perfectly nice but who thought it would be a good idea for her to be sent out to do a cheap imitation? Not to sound too third grade preachery but we are all different and that’s what makes for interesting:





Too many similarities would be tiresome.

Different styles are what makes things spicy. There are authors who are playful and expansive with language itself. See: Even Cowgirls Get The Blues by Tom Robbins. It serves up example after example:

“This sentence may be pregnant, it missed its period.”

And there are writers who are barebone minimalists like Amy Hempel. They slay between the lines.

“Do you think looks are important?” I asked the man before he left.

“Not at first,” he said.

Same goes for characters’ voices. They, too, should be inimitable, easy to pick out in the dark.

That is not always the case.

There’s a certain screenwriter for instance (I was going to namecheck him but decided against it at the very last minute)


whose invented peeps are utterly interchangeable. All of his characters in all of his (granted, Emmy-winning) shows sound the exact same to me; each of them just waiting for their ups to deliver “impromptu” rapid-fire one-liners. Which are indistinguishable. While it’s true that a group of friends may all have certain commonalities (thus the reason that they hang out), each person’s point of view and past experiences need to be distinct. Their delivery must be unique–reflecting their histories and world views.

Just sayin.

Erika Raskin
Erika Raskin is Streetlight‘s fiction editor. More of her words can be found at

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