We’ve curated our best editorial secrets and industry insights into a series of articles. They range from getting started through staying on track and grasping the publishing business. Put those fuzzy slippers on your feet, pull up a cushy armchair, and enjoy.

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Role of the Prompter

Writing teachers often say that finding your own unique voice is the most important thing to do as a writer. But what are you to do when you struggle to find your voice: Mimic authors you admire or write like the author you are reading at the moment?

The thing is, when people speak of voice in writing circles, they don’t often talk about what it is. It’s pretty simple, really. It is the voice you hear in your head.

I may have already lost you, fearing that I am speaking of angels (or psychosis). You could call your voice an angel, or you could call it your genius, or your higher self, or your prompter, as Saul Bellow did (he also called it your commentator, but I prefer prompter).

Let’s take a look at this prompter.

Bellow says:

…I suppose that all of us have a primitive prompter or commentator within, who from earliest years has been advising us, telling us what the real world is. There is such a commentator in me. I have to prepare the ground for him. From this source come words, phrases, syllables; sometimes only sounds, which I try to interpret, sometimes whole paragraphs, fully punctuated.

Do you think you have a prompter?

Admittedly, we have to “prepare the ground” to hear this voice speaking through us; perhaps by meditating, or through any number of other writing rituals—from always keeping your notes in the same place to brewing a special kind of tea.

But once that has been accomplished, and the trickle of words begins, can you assign what you hear to a valid source?

Get used to hearing the sound of your own voice.

There are no two ways around that. For me, it operates from the top right of my skull. I feel weird confiding that kind of thing, or the fact that sometimes when I hear my own voice, it makes me smile.

You still have to think about what you want to say; this isn’t some kind of automatic writing like the Surrealists practiced. The situation for the prompter to arrive, according to Bellow, has to be truthful and it has to be necessary.

Sometimes you listen and there’s nothing there. Sometimes you’re better off leaving well enough alone. But sometimes I find that there are physiological signs that mark the arrival of the prompter: there is a quickening, an urgency to capture a tumult of words. My prompter writes faster than I do. And better, too; with a twist in certain phrases, what the prompter has created exceeds my normal style.

The trick, as you may have surmised, is how to keep this arrangement with the prompter in place. How do you learn to listen and respond so closely that the piece is writing itself, while you are only taking dictation? Remembering to engage is the beginning and the end of this process. You might need some preliminary ruminations about your self-worth or to call a truce with certain other voices that live within your mind. But in the end, all you have to do is want it.