Voice Lessons

“Voice” is a term that gets bandied about in the writing world a lot, as in “He hasn’t found his voice,” or in reviews, such as: “She has created a unique, lovely and deceptively unsophisticated voice for her narrator.”  Sometimes readers will exclaim to a writer, “I love your voice!” or an editor will reject a piece because “the voice isn’t fresh or original enough.”  Voice seems to be a crucial yet elusive aspect of writing.  Is it simply personality in writing?  Like personality or style, don’t you either have it or not? Can it be developed, or learned?  What is it, really?

For starters, voice is the opposite of silence.  Voice is what allows us to say it, whatever “it” is.  It’s what allows the reader to hear the writing, instead of simply reading black marks on white paper.  Voice is the breath or spirit that animates the writing – the life in the writing, one might say.  It can also coalesce and synthesize all the many complex and mysterious elements that must work together to produce a successful piece of writing.

Just to complicate things, we can use voice to refer to the voice of the narrator in an individual poem, work of fiction or memoir; or we can use the term to describe the recognizable unique “signature” often associated with mature artists and found throughout much of their work.

In a review of Alice Adam’s collected stories, we have a good description of a mature writer’s signature voice: “Reading these stories over again, one is struck by their remarkable consistency of voice, recognizable through a wide spectrum of circumstance and character…It is this voice – direct, clear-sighted, indelibly marked by Freud and the women’s movement – that gives the stories their feeling of authenticity.”  Voice as it is used here is the external manifestation, in language, of the writer’s sensibility: how she sees the world; her values; what she is attracted to in terms of subject matter; her style as expressed through diction, syntax, tone.  Her expression and essence as an artist and person, really.

Then there’s the narrator’s voice in individual pieces.  In fiction, when writers adopt a first person narrator to tell the story, that character’s voice – the manner of speaking, the personality, the intelligence or lack thereof, the values and perspective – is as important to the success of the work as the plot itself.  In fact, it is impossible to separate the narrator from the plot, since character drives action, and action drives character.  Often finding the right narrator – and therefore the right voice – is the key to being able to tell (and therefore write) the story.  Two popular contemporary novels employ narrators whose voices are the perfect vehicles for rendering the authors’ material.  In The Lovely Bones, Alice Siebold uses the voice of a teenage girl who was raped and murdered, and who now narrates from Heaven:  “The odd thing about Earth was what we saw when we looked down.  Besides the initial view that you might suspect, the old ants-from-the-skyscraper phenomenon, there were souls leaving bodies all over the world.”  The use of this young, dead, heaven-inhabiting narrator, unusual to say the least, is arresting both in terms of perspective and poignancy.  Jonathan Safran Foer in Everything is Illuminated creates an irresistible narrator in a Ukranian translator whose command of English is hilariously off base: “My legal name is Alexander Perchov.  But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name.”  Alex’s voice expresses an exuberant personality and his flubbing of English keeps us entertained and alert.   It’s easy to imagine that finding these distinctive narrative voices is what allowed the writers to actually write their books.

In memoir, certainly the first person voice contains elements of the personality of the writer herself, as if she’s just speaking to us directly.  But in literary memoir, the author is shaping herself as a character, making critical choices regarding the narration of her own story and the presentation of self.  She has to access or develop the best voice that will let her tell the story she really wants to tell, in all its complexity and truth.  I recently heard a wonderful memoir writer, Laura Flynn, author of Swallow the Ocean, say to really write something you have to know the material so deeply and that takes a long time.

In The Situation and The Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick describes her own experience of finding a persona that would allow her to write her memoir Fierce Attachments:  “To tell that tale, I soon discovered, I had to find the right tone of voice; the one I habitually lived with wouldn’t do at all: it whined, it grated, it accused; above all, it accused. Then there was the matter of syntax: my own ordinary, everyday sentence—fragmented, interjecting, overriding—also wouldn’t do; it had to be altered, modified, brought under control… What I didn’t see and that for a long while, was that this point of view could only emerge from a narrator who was me and at the same time not me.”  Through a slow, painful process, Gornick “began to correct for myself.”  Eventually, through what I assume were trial and error attempts to get at “the right tone, syntax, and perspective,” she realizes that she has found the right voice.  “I had a narrator on the page strong enough to do battle for me….I saw what I had done: I had created a persona.”  This persona, Gornick explains, was not only a relief from her usual self, but also “the instrument of my illumination.”

In my memoir, Crossing the Moon, I was aware that I couldn’t just “express myself”; I couldn’t just be my usual boring old self!  To me the reader is always saying, But what have you done for me lately? I don’t take it for granted that anyone will necessarily read what I write.  I have to deliver.  It’s amazing, in a way, how much has to get accomplished in the opening pages of a memoir.  You have to give the reader some idea of who you are, where you are in time and place, and what the story is about; you also have to seduce, interest, entertain and hold the reader, infusing the writing with personality, style, candor, wit, drama or whatever it takes.  This is where voice comes in.  Only voice can pull it all together.  It’s hard to describe how one arrives at the right voice in memoir.  It is both you and not you.  It’s a kind of stylized or distilled you, a you in service to the story and the reader.

“Find” is the verb most often used in conjunction with “voice,” as in a reviewer describing a recent memoir: “…he has found in his own book a narrative voice that accommodates both parts of his temperament: an irreverent but meditative voice…”  Apparently the author didn’t just “have” this voice available: he had to “find” it.  It probably involved, as most searches do, plenty of false starts, dead ends and luck.   So are there any tips that might aid one in the search?

One place to start is with subject matter.  Obviously some people know their subject matter, their stories, from the start.  But for others it’s a matter of hit or miss.  The best description I know of what characterizes one’s true subject matter is in Sean O’Faolain’s On Writing the Short Story:  “What one searches for and what one enjoys in a short story [or poem, memoir, story or novel] is a special distillation of personality, a unique sensibility which has recognized and selected at once a subject that, above all other subjects, is of value to the writer’s temperament and to his [and hers] alone – his counterpart, his perfect opportunity to project himself.”

If we think of certain works, this pithy but somewhat abstract quote takes on body and meaning. Don’t we recognize intuitively in a Mary Oliver poem, for example, that she has found her “perfect opportunity to project herself” in writing about the natural world, or that Julie Hecht, in creating a narrator whose “tone of voice mocks her own narcissism” in her first novel The Unprofessionals, has found what is uniquely her own?

Sometimes teachers may help you identify what your best subject matter is. Sometimes what the writer wants to avoid is, in the end, the richest vein to tap.   Reading writers who have similar or simpatico backgrounds, locales, issues or styles can point one in the right direction. Finding the right subject matter takes experimentation, patience, and a lot of writing that doesn’t amount to much but which moves the writer along in ways that we don’t necessarily understand.  It means writing not what you think you should write, but what you actually want to write.  Sometimes it is a matter of maturing and developing one’s self.  Peter Elbow believes that the attainment of what he calls “real voice” is “a matter of growth and development rather than mere learning.”  Happily, writing itself feeds one’s knowledge of self, and knowledge of self feeds one’s writing.

Another way to develop voice is by learning to “hear” one’s own writing, in much the same way the reader does. In One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty talks about how from an early age, she always heard the sentences on the page in a voice “…saying it silently to me.  It isn’t my mother’s voice or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own. It is human, but inward, and it is inwardly I listen to it.  It is to me the voice of the story or the poem itself…  I have supposed, but never found out, that this is the case with all readers – to read as listeners – and with all writers, to write as listeners… My own words, when I am at work on a story, I hear too as they go, in the same voice that I hear when I read in books.  When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make my changes.  I have always trusted this voice.”

Most successful writers, I’d wager, have developed the ability to “hear” their own writing in the way Welty describes. You have to be able not only to write — but also – at some point — to be able to hear the voice in the writing that the reader will hear and the voice of the piece itself.  I remember Grace Paley saying when she was a Loft Mentor that she writes with her ear, reading everything aloud as she goes.

In a fascinating example of letting the voice of the story take over, Dorothy Allison describes in her contributor’s note in The Best American Short Stories 2003 how she had worked on her story “Compassion” through many unsatisfactory drafts, but finally decided to just finish it to read for a large audience.  But at the reading, when she got to the last two pages of the story, they weren’t there.  She had brought the wrong draft.  “I let myself unfocus, opened my mouth, and spoke the story’s voice.  It took me up and carried me through, finished itself the only way it could.”  I don’t recommend trying this in front of an audience!  And I’m pretty sure that voice wouldn’t have taken over if Allison hadn’t done as much processing and writing of the story as she had.  But while discounting for a certain amount of natural storytelling bull, I do like to believe that that story knew what it wanted, and did indeed speak for itself.

One thing the writer who listens to his or her own writing will be listening for is tone.  Tone has to do with the writer’s attitude towards the material.  Tone is one of the cues that the reader picks up automatically as he gets his bearing and begins to grasp what is intended.  It is a large part of what he “hears” in the writing.  Tone is what happens when the writer feels the material, is in synch with the emotions behind the writing.  Tone doesn’t have to be one dimensional, either.  It can consist of a lot of notes, ranging up and down the scale, as long as there is a cohesive feel to the work, the overall key, we might say.

The writer Norman Podhoretz has said that “the poem, the story, the essay…is already there, much in the way that Socrates said mathematical knowledge was already there, before a word is ever put to paper, and that the act of writing is the act of finding the magical key that will unlock the floodgates and let the flow begin…. The key… is literally a key in that it is musical…it is the tone of voice, the only tone of voice in which this particular piece of writing will permit itself to be written.

It’s an appealing idea that if we just find the right tone, we can channel the whole thing onto paper effortlessly.  And sometimes it does work that way.  More often, however, the poem or story may be “there,” but getting it “here” is different matter.  Try as we might we can’t find that magical key.  What then?  The problem may be that we don’t know how we feel about the material, or there hasn’t been enough inner processing, which is often unconscious and certainly not amenable to our deadlines, to have a voice ready to speak.  I find just writing itself, piling up a huge mountain of words, may in fact be a way of both accessing and creating what is not immediately available.  Out of that effort and let’s face it, waste, a thread may appear, one you can pluck if you’re lucky to unwind the whole spool.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of reading other people’s good writing in the process of developing one’s own writing and voice.  People think writing comes from experience, and it does, but it also comes from reading.  At a literary conference I heard Billy Collins say that beginning writers sometimes think that by reading other writers, they will be too influenced and not develop their own unique voice, but that it’s just the opposite.  The more you read, the more likely you are to write with originality, and the less you read, the more likely it is you’ll write cliched or generic stuff.

Seeing what other writers have done opens up possibilities for us.  Here’s a passage I wrote about caring for my mother:  “I had arrived at the moment when I myself and no one else had to give my mother an enema.  It was called Fleet, a name I turned over and over in my mind, conjuring up the curious associations of speed or naval ships.  How did it get that name?  A family name?  Who would want enemas to bear the family name?  Not me.  I had slunk around like a criminal at the drugstore when I bought it.  It seemed childishly shameful, a dark secret, “excrement problems,” something so private I wished to be far far away.  But I was the only one around.  Life had brought me to this moment, which involved squirting a vial of liquid into my mother’s rectum as she lay curled on her left side of the bed.  I looked around for someone else to do this, to take over.  But no one else was there. It was one of those bald moments in life, the realization that no one else is going to do it, whatever it is.  You have to do it yourself.  And I did.”  I probably wouldn’t have written that passage if I hadn’t read Philip Roth’s description of cleaning up his father’s shit in Patrimony.

To achieve voice in writing – either in an individual piece or the singular voice of the mature artist – is usually a long process involving the three R’s: reading, writing and revision.  Though I’m sure there were glimmers of it from the start, I imagine that Alice Adam’s distinctive voice evolved over time, story by story, as she came to be – and trust – herself more and more as a writer and a person.  I imagine she listened for the voice on the page, the voice of the story itself.  Each successful line, paragraph and completion built her confidence – and confidence is no small thing, in writing and just about everything else.  It seems the only way to attain confidence is to hang in there, to keep on trucking, “screwing one’s courage to the sticking point,” coming closer each time to what is truly one’s own.