Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Writing, Voice, and Laryngitis
It's not complete laryngitis, but close. I have no voice. While some folks in my house are finding this to be a terrific turn of events, it only makes me aware that not only am I voiceless in an aural sense today, I've been struggling a little with voice in a few of the pieces I've been writing, too.
I find that while point-of-view and tone and language and many other craft matters can be adjusted and reworked during revision, if a strong, specific, sure voice is not there in the first draft, then no revision is going to rescue the piece. When I can't detect the voice, or I don't like the one that seems to be emerging, or the voice is there but it doesn't quite fit, I usually toss out the first draft (or two or seven) and try again – usually with a sizeable dose of frustration, self-criticism, and annoyance.
A few years back, I heard a very accomplished writer (and I’m sorry I can't remember who), say that once she gets the voice, she's got the piece. I agree completely. I also believe voice is one of the most difficult concepts to learn in any formal way, but on the other hand, one of the most natural components of writing to understand somewhere in a writer's gut.
In nonfiction, the key question I think, when a piece is still in revision stages, is to ask a critically helpful reader, who is this narrator? If the answer comes back something like, she's upset, or she's funny, or she's happy – or some equally vague and general comment – then the voice is not there or not there yet, it's not clear, not specific, not singular. The narrator might as well have laryngitis.
I read a novel this weekend in which the first-person voice was so strong and so honed, I would not have been startled if the 17th century narrator walked right into my living room and started asking about the lamps and laptop. The book was Year of Wonders: a Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks, and while I sometimes feel that novelists have a big advantage over nonfiction writers in creating a voice for their narrators, I keep reading fiction to see how they do it.
Sure, Brooks could craft a completely fictional voice for her Anna Frith -- but not out of whole cloth; the depth and meticulousness of research is clear in every line. And when the voice I’m trying to create in a piece of memoir or essay nonfiction is one for a narrator also known as me (okay, the me I was a month, year, decade ago) – well, there are few excuses not to also mine every piece of "research" too, from my old journals to photos to conversations with relatives and friends, which put be back in mind of who that narrator was at a certain point in time.
Voiceless is death for a piece of writing; and when I encounter a voiceless book or essay, I feel antsy, eager for it to end, hoping often in vain that it will improve. Interestingly, a strong sense of voice does not always necessarily carry a piece of work with the critics; Year of Wonders got mixed reviews, some finding it overly melodramatic and rife with expected sentimental and pastoral references. None I noted however, quibbled with the clarity of Brooks' narrator.
When I find a voice on the page which I love – whether in a novel, a memoir, on the pages of a newspaper or magazine, on a web page or blog – I tend to want to follow that voice, or rather that writer, wherever it leads. That accounts for the way I buy books and consume media, often one writer at a time. If a voice speaks to me, I want to read everything that voice has to say, even if the voice changes from one novel to the next, from the memoir written 10 years ago to the magazine essay published last month.
Today, I plan to not use my voice much, at least not the one which requires vocal chords. The other voice – I hope to use it a lot. Right after I get back from the book store, where I plan to pick up...maybe something else by Geraldine Brooks – one of her nonfiction books this time.
In any case, a book store is a good place to be when one needs to find a voice.