Saturday, March 3, 2007

I Hear Voices

After reaching a certain age, humans are advised to subject themselves to various tests, indexed to discover general and specific areas of health. Lumps, polyps, blood sugar levels, prostate, cholesterol levels, and body-weight-to-fat indexes are among the major tests, all of them involving doctors, techs, or nurses, invariably with throw-away gloves, often with some sort of lubricant.
In these tests, orfices are measured and probed, questions asked, results studied, judgments rendered.

There are no such specific tests for writers--none that I know of--and so I have invented one. Gloves and lubricants are not necessary, but honesty is.

List the major elements, the DNA , if you will, of story. There are about twenty such elements: character, plot, reversal, surprise, backstory, setting...and so the list grows.

Here's where the honesty comes in: Having listed as many component parts of dramatic narrative as possible, the next step is to arrange them in hierarchical order. Different writers will have differing lists and orders. This is not mixing apples and oranges because most writers will agree on most of the elements.

The order in which you place the elements is your literary fingerprint; it is the DNA of your process, the "evidence" you leave behind on whatever story or narrative you produce; it is the beginning, middle, and end of your style.

For some years I believed Character was number one, the single most important event in all of story, a belief that led me into many a beer-or wine-soaked argument with writer friends who favored Plot. One person I knew insisted that it had to be Conflict. But I have lost touch with him and the last I heard, he had taken up acting.

My current favorite is Voice, then Character. Voice informs all other choices. If you do not believe this, read any novel by Daniel Woodrell.

Voice is the quality of a narration and the characters in it to grab your attention by the hyperbolic collar, influencing not only your participation in a particular story but as well influencing the way you regard the possibilities presented to the characters and, indeed, the weight of presence of the narrative itself.

Consider: The same story, word for word, related by Walter Cronkite and then by Jack Nicholson, the former still a paterfamilias to most of us, the latter a crucible in which a mischievous renegade is already spilling over the sides.

Voice is not only what you say, it is how you say it.

Thus my choice makes sense for me; it now seems natural, a circuitry of emotional and intellectual integrity.

I have, over the years, taken the test many times, as the writer should to keep the growth hormones secreting in the literary body, not giving it rest or neglect.

I come before you speaking in this voice, taking my chances that my voice will draw you in, relatively sanguine should it not. Just as in basic arithmetic we were taught to check our answers, to proof them by adding the columns in reverse order, this test is a proof of who and where we are at a given moment in our writerly life. The other way to proof this position is to come upon something we have written in the past and find ourself drawn to it, caught up in it as though it had been done by someone older, wiser, and better than we want to be.

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