Monday, October 31, 2011

A Little Voice, Far, Far Away

A favored story of yours, repeated over the past several years with the occasional embellishment is one of your favorite examples of how fiction works, and to what purpose.

Being a story, it happened only in your imagination. You use it to demonstrate what you mean by that quality of narrative known as voice. Imagine, you conjure before a group of students, a family gathering.  As you wait for this direction to take hold, you think of your own family, and the gatherings that seemed to flow with such natural ease.  With one or two notable exceptions, you held high degrees of fondness for members of your family, were comfortable with them, held kind regards in addition to familial love for them.

And yet.

You approached most extended family gatherings with a sense of dread because the formats were so unvaried and because you are more fond of variety than you are of routine.

Against this personal theme, you press on with the introduction to your students of a grandmotherly type who is at some remove from either your paternal or maternal grandmother.  You adored your paternal grandmother and where almost overwhelmed by respect for your maternal grandmother, the respective adoration and respect completely removed from the grandmotherly type you evoke.  Your fictional type is more out of Norman Rockwell than she is from Central Europe.  As you see her, she wears white gloves to the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, for the ladies’ tea, an event neither of your grandmothers had ever attended.

Picture her, this ersatz grandmother, being coaxed to recount the story of her meeting with grandpa, of her demurral, of her glass of sherry being topped off by her clan, then sighing a Norman Rockwell sigh that combines graceful defeat with grateful nostalgia.

You lean in to make your point.  “You have heard this story any number of times,” you say at near oratory.  “You know the details.  What you want is the sound of her, telling the story.”

This is an example of what voice means to you, the love theme of an invented grandmother, played out to the children and grandchildren who, in addition to adoring her, have other memories, perhaps competing, perhaps detracting, in which she and they had emotional transactions.

Now, you think of your own grandmothers and the stunning lives they led.  You think of the circumstances in which they brought their own personalities to the family and the specific effects they had on you, and you understand even more about voice than when you invented the bogus grandmother to serve as example.

In so many ways, story is your grandmothers, whispering their stories to you while you are trying to explain something to someone else or, in significant measure, to yourself.

Dramatic information is a thing apart from the mere fact and convention you associate with education.  There is scarcely a time you can remember when you wanted to be other than what you have tried to shape yourself into these many years, but from those memories of such things as, say, physics or anthropology, there were those similar flashes of triangulation. You would be charitable if you said of your mathematical abilities that they were handicapped, but even in those moments, when you were faced with essay-type questions in algebra or geometry, and were given characters with problems, you did not care one iota for the mathematical solution.  Billy had three times more oranges than Fred.  But Fred had six times the apricots of Tom.  That was all it took; you were off wondering how Billy got the oranges and how Fred could have been so smug as to accumulate all those plums without thinking of the consequences.

Life does not move in straight lines.  Life takes you in counterpoint, even when you are attempting to analyze the vectors of the counterpoint.  The more closely you look, the more you are apt to find the surprise that hovers over everything you thought you knew.

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