Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Somewhere a Voice Is Calling

You want to frame the question in a way that will be daring and presumptuous enough to challenge your personal borders.  If it doesn't challenge you, how can you expect it to challenge anyone else?  That's for starters.  So how about this:  How can you tell when a particular bit of music was composed by Mozart and not by anyone else he happened to admire?

There are simple and more complex answers to that question.  You are more familiar with the former than the latter, although you are growing more comfortable with the concepts and vocabulary of the latter.  Then there is the matter of a collateral question, one that steers the conversation away from the original question and its answer:  Are you comparing yourself to Mozart?  The direct answer to that question is a simple yes, the more nuanced answer contains your growing awareness of why you make such a reach, the man's energy, his sense of humor, his inventiveness.  He is a splendid standard to set, given his stunning, varied output, nearly all 600 +/- of which is being performed over 200 years later.

You can distinguish most of his music from some of his contemporaries because it has such a distinctive voice, his harmonic sense merging with these other aspects such as energy, sense of humor, personal favorites (such as Haydn and J.S. Bach) and what the music of his time sounded like.  It is also instructive to pick a voice from another discipline as well as one from you own, thus you are able to pick out such stylists as Elmore Leonard and, of course, Ernest Hemingway in a blindfold test.  You listen for the voices of others as you listen to your own.  What do you sound like?  What are your rhythms, your cadences, your dialogue, your narrative.  Can you recognize your own voice, distinguishing it from the work of others?  And why do you personally think voice is so important that you have to make this kind of argument about it?

Voice determines the way your stories evolve, the characters you chose to perform in them.  Although somewhat of a stretch, voice would become your way of casting Jack Nicholson, of I want you to hold the chicken between your knees fame, as Lear, Al Pacino as Robin Hood, Sean Connery as Scrooge; similarly Meryl Streep as The Wife of Bath, Helen Hunt as Varya in The Cherry Orchard, Susan Sarandon as Lubya in the same play, the common theme being you would not expect these characters to come equipped with these voices.  What a splendid new dimension an unexpected voice, perhaps your own voice, can give to a work.  Voice is your take on the performance that is your story; it must come through to you before you can trust it to carry the burden you place on its shoulders.  Accordingly, you must ask questions, constantly probing to find out how you feel about the circumstances that have insinuated their way into your psyche and are not attempting to scoot free as a story.  Plot is important only after the fact of the story being told; voice will speak to the reader, assuring the reader of the tone of the story.  Listen to the voices you hear about you during the course of a day's adventure.  Make note of the ones that attract your attention as compared with those that disturb you.  Be able to acknowledge if a person's voice bears the tells, the give-away gesture or facial tic the skilled poker player looks for in the face of his opponents.  Be able to distinguish Mozart from Haydn, Beethoven from Mozart.

Be able to tell your most secret you what voice you would have reading to you, whispering to you, reading your work aloud, and of course reading her work aloud because you would never become involved, would you, with a person whose voice was a rasping nag or an off-pitch squeak; you would only become involved with someone whose every range was one you knew and understood for the emotion behind it; you would know when she was irritated, with the world, with you; you would know when she wanted you to make a decision and when she wanted to make the decision.  You would know because you listen, of course, but you would also know because there was a moment when you heard her speaking when you knew this was a voice you could become involved with.

This is exactly the way you want your voice to sound when you transfer story from your mind and heart to the page; this is why there are writers you admire and those whose voice sound to you like that off-key alto in the coffee shop who calls your attention from what you were reading or writing or whomever you were conversing with, wondering Who is that?

Got to listen for the voice.  Got to have it in your work.

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