Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Voice of Experience

You are seated at a small coffee shop and bakery you have come to admire much during the past few weeks, about to tuck into what promised to be an excellent late breakfast, ordered when a lecturing gig had met with disastrous results. It is by all accounts a small shop, much of the walls of its dining area a slapdash of sheet rock and plywood, the trappings of an interior and exterior remodeling. The crowdedness and closeness of customers and wait persons was bearable, even civil, adding to the sense of pleasant breakfast anticipation.

But from the midst of the assembled came a sound, something like a combination of a croak, a hawking laughter, and a middle-aged person trying to dislodge something from the mid regions of the throat. The sound revealed itself to have a vocabulary of reasonable range, not quite so extensive as a Ph.D. candidate working as a waiter but more literate than, say a crossing guard. The owner of the voice proceeded to use it for at least twenty minutes, experimentally at first, then settling into a timber and loudness the way a lady mosquito would settle on the fleshy part of a forearm. I don't know how others in the vicinity were affected, ventured on the potential rudeness of looking about to identify the voice, then check with some unscientific polling, which is to say looking for surrounding facial expressions that may have betrayed the annoyance I felt.

The whole matter of voice resides within the idiosyncrasy genome of the individual, whether that individual is a listener or a seer, a hearer or a reader. Voice is one of the two things over which writers have the least choice until they have arrived by accident or some deliberation at the other distinguishing element, which is style.

The writer's attitude, philosophy, and to a large extent the writer's present mood make major campaign contributions to the writer's voice. Choice of characters, choice of subject matter, even choices of genre and length add texture to the way the voice of a story or novel or poem sounds, even if it is not read aloud.

Style is the combination of traits, quirks, devices, use of vocabulary, sentence length, internal rhythm, sense of humor, and other items on the narrative laundry list.

Of the two qualities, voice is the most volatile, in some ways as open to the free radicals of grammar and lack of self-confidence within the writer as coffee is vulnerable to rancidity if reheated or left out in the open for too long. It may be controlled as the writing goes along, not with thought because thought is the enemy of much about first-draft narration, but rather with maintaining the guiding emotion of a particular scene or, just as well, staying within the feelings that triggered the narrative into being in the first place.

One way to approach style is by comparing two musicians, playing the same composition on the same instrument or, for another example, singing the same song or aria. Beverly Sills, singing the aria "Una Voce Poco Fa" from The Barber of Seville is a distinct experience from the Maria Callas version; Sonny Rawlins sounds distinctly apart from John Coltrane although each plays the same instrument. Style allows you to see or hear what makes the artist different from all others. If style is standardized, writers begin to sound alike, say like everyone in National Geographic or The Readers' Digest.

If you aren't pleased with your voice or your style, you can take steps to change either or both--but not when you're trying to get first draft down, and most decidedly not when you're consciously trying to imitate someone else's.

Reading an author whose voice irritates you will give you one more thing to be wary about in restaurants, but you already knew that from experiences with voices in theaters.

Reading a writer whose voice engages you makes you want to use your own, reaching with it, taking risk, always taking risk.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Voice is a mysterious thing to me--even the annoying ones in restaurants. I know my speaking voice is distinctive because people have told me so. Before voice mail I never had to identify myself on the phone anyway. I always did, but was met with, "Yes, I know."

I can only hope my writing voice gets there without sending too many fellow diners away in the meantime.

You've found your voice. How did you do that?