Friday, November 30, 2012

Voice Lessons

Sometimes, when considering the warp and weft, the dramatic ramifications of your narrative voice, you are reminded of the drunk, looking for his car keys in the parking lot.  This particular drunk of whom you are reminded looks in all the areas that are lit.  Doesn't matter if the keys are actually in those lighted areas.  The drunk goes there because that's where he can see.

The voice you want is not necessarily the one you get right out of the box, or into the early paragraphs of an early draft.  You go flying ass over teakettle with long sentences, liking the way they seem to gain momentum, then present new clauses, almost as if challenges. Not many days ago, when you were heading west on the I-40, in some remote stretch of Arizona, you spotted a long freight train, dragging at least a half-mile of refrigerator and tanker cars across the desert.  "There,"  you told Sally, "is one of your boss's sentences.  There is no end of it in sight."

Dogs are too sensible to respond to such hyperbole.  You allowed the matter to rest there, but you did know then, and you do know now how you often need to stretch out a little, work some of the kinks and quirks free, perhaps even shake off some lingering bad karma from the days when you were writing to impress yourself and others about how much you knew.

There is an explanatory phase to get through as well, where more than anything else, a certain confidence in the self of today is at the wheel and ready to go.  This goes back to the first book review of your memory.  There were likely others, more or less book reports from middle school, but this one, the one you remember, came when you set off on a sprint of enthusiasm, getting down the significance of the story to today's reader, the need for more historical fiction, and the refreshing way the rival sighs were portrayed rather than described.

You thought you'd done quite a job of including important matters, but it seems you had neglected to give the title of the book or the name of its author.  That memory still smarts, the effect of it   wanting to throw in birth and death dates of the author, date of publication, possibly even the names of some other titles published that year by the present author's friends or rivals.

In that particular metaphor for a parking lot light, you began the opening paragraph of a review of a collection of short stories with mention of two of the author's previous novels, his teaching position, and the state of the modern short story.  That particular narrative voice had the sound of some idiot savant, being interviewed by a Public Broadcasting station in North Dakota, where most of the news is about snow, and the news that isn't about snow is about the cold climate.  You had to rummage about in the tool kit for some chisels and pruning shears in order to  end up with a more sensible lead:  "Ron Hansen's latest book, She Loves Me Not, is a collection of twelve new short stories and seven others,reprinted his original collection, Nebraska."  

The information in that sentence trumps the tone of its writing, which is fair enough, considering the number of drafts it took you to get all those information-waving voices you mentioned earlier to shut up so that you could get on with the job.  The particular book under review, after all, is the subject--not your narrative voice.  In fact, you could even argue with what you hope will stand as appropriate weight that the book, through your discussion of it, should speak for itself, with maximum a vagrant sentence or two from you.

Since you have about 750 words (three double-spaced pages) in which to talk about these nineteen stories, you need to weigh each word--in particular the modifiers--with consideration, causing the review to seem more inclusive and introductory than it can possibly be.  No doubt you'll want to include an actual passage from one or more of the stories, imparting a sense of the author's narrative voice as a greater reason for an undecided reader to pick the book up or, in all fairness, set it down.  Hansen is a skilled and empathetic storyteller, so the put-the-book-down potential does not seem too likely, but there, in itself, is another aspect of how voice influences readers on so many levels.

There are any number of writers you now enjoy reading whom you were at first put off by, thanks to their own voice, an instructor's tones, or the narrative voice of a text book. Hawthorne comes to mind.  So too comes his chum, Melville.  You were at first put off by Jane Austen, until you began to mouth the words as you read, then read her aloud.  Only in the most recent years are you seeing the value in Henry James.

No wonder you hear so many voices, ranging about in your head like a PBX at some large hotel or corporation exchange.  There are appropriate voices within for your dealings with reviews, with short fiction, with the longform, and with such essay material as this.  You have to let the information come first,often in the form of one or more feelings, which adds a deliberation and cadence to your process if not an actual goad.

Within a few paragraphs, you begin to recognize then accept the voice now dictating the material to you.  You need to listen, not try to out-think it or talk over it.  By no means should you contradict it; there is a poetry in it you might miss if you do get in the way.

Two of the things writers seem the least sure, voice and style, are the things left after all the winnowing and editing are completed, the theme allowed to emerge, sometimes like the butt of your palm applied to your forehead in stark disbelief, mingled with amazement.

The voice speaks to you after a time.  I am the genie in the bottle, it tells you.  You must work hard at loosening the cork so that I may emerge and grant you the wishes you had for this work.  I can do it, the voice tells you.  I know I can.  I have done it for so many others. You must let me do it for you.

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