It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.
—Italo Calvino (in the fictional voice of Marco Polo), in Invisible Cities
Calvino is expressing something very important about stories. They do not live in the head or the voice of the teller (or the writer). Good stories are shared.
A good story is one that the recipient is interested in. You don’t force-feed a story, you offer it. It is the listener (or reader) that causes it to have a real life.
Otherwise, it’s the age-old question of a tree falling in the forest: does is make a sound?
Calvino emphasizes how important it is to entice the reader’s ear, to pay homage to its role in the equation. The world of story is jointly entered by reader and writer. A story may begin with the writer, but exists then in the reader’s head. That becomes its true home.
As I wrote in How To Write Your Best Story:
This phrase may not be familiar to you. It is the traditional beginning of a story in certain parts of the Caribbean.
To indicate their readiness to hear the story, the audience is supposed to respond:
Break my back!
It’s a bit mysterious . . . perhaps intentionally, like a magical incantation. The purpose is simply to join teller and listeners, to give notice that the real world is about to be left behind and the world of story entered.
The version more familiar to many of us is that sing-song phrase: Once Upon a Time. Although it requires no verbal response, it also signals a beginning, a crossing from one world to an imaginary one, a joining of teller and listener in the wondrous realm of story.
Good writers think about their audiences. A lot. They strive to understand them deeply, and they care about what will capture their attention.
Maybe beginning writers worry too much about shaping their own voice. (Surely they worry too much about whether they like their own writing.) But that’s not the issue at all.
Yes, a distinct “voice” is a good thing for a writer, don’t get me wrong. Calvino isn’t saying not to have a voice. He is saying that, contrary to what the writer’s ego may desire, it’s not exactly what “commands” the story. The effective voice offers stories that resonate with his/her listeners. The best writers look for that intersection between what they want to say and what their readers need to hear . . . or what will benefit their lives in some fashion.
Stories live in your readers’ ears. Never forget that.