Friday, January 29, 2010

Narrative Voice: A You with a View

In the beginning, you did not have an interior narrative voice. You had a strangely antiseptic amalgam of authoritarian voices, your parents, possibly your sister, definitely your teachers and their administrators. You had the conglomerate of them, talking to you, imparting rules because where and when you grew up, you were neither in a Dickensian mash-up of an institution nor a landscape where you feared for the consequences of every move you made. You sounded, in other words, like Them, like the Elders, the Wise; you tried to sound as though you conflated action with consequence but in reality, you were still digesting the way it was presented to you.

You became aware of Other in unguarded moments in which you heard yet another voice that troubled you at first because it didn't sound much like any of Them. It was you, emerging from the shadows with glosses on what They were telling you in school, what the They of the textbooks were telling you.

Junior high school. English. Maybe not. Maybe Social Studies. Miss Hummel announcing to class, I, you, he-she-it, they, we. We may speak in all these points of view but when we write, we do not use You, we use one. One wonders, one thinks, one hopes. Although you were old enough by then to use fuck as an adjective as well as a verb, this is fucking ridiculous or fuck this, you recall your response being the well-reasoned inner response that this information was bullshit. Bullshit, you thought, and for that night's homework in which the assignment was a personal essay, you deliberately set it to agree with you. In fact, you began the essay with you, so that there would be no doubt. A day after turning in the essay, Miss Hummel held you forth as an example of how, when, where, and why rules should be broken. To this day, you owe her because she, in her way, opened the door and let the dog out into the yard.

From about that time onward, you talked to yourself, addressed yourself as you, began to recognize it as a dissent to all the ones and Is and He and She and It that came forth from Their mouths and text books.

The inner life, the formation of your inner narrative voice, got a real injection of steroids when you met John Sanford, who was born Julius Garfinckle and who had just set forth thinking to pursue a career as a lawyer when he ran into an old chum from grammar school, Nate Weiss, who was already becoming Nathaniel West. I just passed the bar exam, John reported having told West. I just finished a novel, West reported to John. And John knew he was screwed. He had turned down the wrong pathway. John began to write You instead of I; he wrote volumes of autobiography which gulped down, thrilled when John asked you to write reviews of them. You were present for the coffee and Sara Lee refrigerator cake celebrations as his volumes came forth and there was an enormous sense within you that John's energy and story stood forth as a kind of beacon for not only clarity but integrity of voice. John was the reason you ultimately began to believe that of all the tools, all the ghosts of energy within the house of storytelling, voice was the single most important thing.

It is, you argue often to yourself, the sense you must have before you can find and impart the voices of your characters and so it came to you not all that long ago, when you saw Peter O'Toole as Maurice, the actor-protagonist of the film Venus, that sense of affinity you feel from time to time with the men and women who act and write and otherwise portray. Maurice, standing in an outdoor theater, blown over with the leaves and gunk of winter, stepping forth to deliver that magnificent sonnet, Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day...

Somewhere along the way of delivery, you'd laugh. Maurice did not. You would laugh at the thought of ever being able to deliver that sublime poem as well as O'Toole did, with as much knowledge of the character, the emotional self. And of course this laugh would inform your own narrative voice, this sense of recognizing the art when you see it, striving for it, and laughing at the sheer hopelessness and wonder of all of life, a life that has and will include loss, disappointment, missed cues, wrong timing, and misunderstanding. You will be thankful for and ultimately nod your head in respect to the laugh because it, this ability to laugh at the wrong time, resides in the DNA of your narrative.

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