Saturday, August 11, 2012

Let's Hear It for Voice


A favorite strategy to share with a group of student writers you judge yourself to have got on well with comes from you asking them at random to name building blocks of story.  You suggest a few as examples:  character, scene, dialogue, suspense.  They, tentative at first, chip in the likes of tension, reversal, denouement.  You encourage them.  They throw in subtext, plot, point-of-view. 

Okay, you say.  Here’s the deal:  list as many as you can, then assign each one a place in the hierarchy, your vote for the most important as number one, your personal candidate for the least being assigned the bottom rung.

Once again, you provide examples, admitting that for you, plot always comes at the bottom because you are so poor in its use as a workable tool. (This confession gives you another teaching opportunity when the assembled students ask you how it is you can write story without plot.  “I thought you’d never ask,” you tell them, launching into your explanation.)

For the longest time, your pick for the top candidate was character, a choice you believed was—for you—unquestionable, on a level, say, with the unquestionable rising of the sun in the east to begin its arc toward the west, whereupon it will appear to set.  Then a moue of doubt set in.  The sun rising in the east is only an illusion.  If you were seeing the phenomenon of the sun’s orbit from a strategic remove, the sun would neither rise nor set; the sun would orbit.

That’s how point-of-view elbowed its way to the head of the line for a few moments.  POV—Who’s telling the story?  And why that person or those persons?

After those moments came the one to knock character and POV out of the picture, thanks to what seems impeccable logic but nevertheless is as fragile in its logic as the certainty of the sun rising in the east.

What in the final analysis draws you in beyond the words and characters and plot?  Regardless of the genre, the time of publication, the subject matter, voice—no, Voice—grabs you every time, draws you beyond the “in” you were supposed to be when an instructor assigned the work.  Putting things at that level, why would you have to go out and buy your own copy of everything Claude Jones read aloud in his lectures.  Why was it that when he read portions of The Golden Ass, you knew you had to have your own copy, when, a semester earlier, the same book in another class meant nothing to you?

Why now are you still bristling at a recent news story in which you discovered the Irish writer, John Banville, is about to resuscitate Raymond Chandler’s detective, Philip Marlowe?  You like Banville well enough, buy and digest everything he publishes.  The reason devolves to the fact of you resonating more to Raymond Chandler and his narrative voice.

Annie Proulx.  Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen.  Elmore Leonard.  Daniel Woodrell.  Gaylord Dold.  James M. Cain.

To name a few.

Others, who write nonfiction, speak in a voice that nails you to the wall.  Joan Didion.  Barbara Tuchman.  Loren Eisley.  Mark Twain.

Do not forget the voices of the poets.

Before you were aware of voice as a specific tool in a writer’s toolkit, you had no words or standards to describe what you think of now as narrative voice.  For a one-word approach, attitude works pretty well.

Indeed, voice, or attitude influences the choice of stories and the characters to help dramatize them; it informs the narrative tone of nonfiction.

Voice is the same news story being read by Walter Cronkheit and Jack Nicholson, with the appropriate interpretations attendant on each version.
Voice is you, reading your material aloud before you decide the time has come to send it off. Voice is you listening to yourself to see if you stumble over a word or phrase or, for that matter, the overall pace.

Voice is you coming back from an evening’s walk, satisfied because you’ve raised a sweat.  Voice is hearing a character say something, then wishing you’d said that, before you realize you had.

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