Friday, September 6, 2013

Voices at Night

The best coffee shops to write in soon reveal themselves to supply, in addition to drinkable coffee, a steady influx of customers with disagreeable voices.

Customers with agreeable voices tend to produce an engaging hum, redolent with cheer or industry.  Customers with disagreeable voices cause you to experience a sphincter-like squeeze, a tightening of focus to overcome the disagreeable nature of the voice.  Such are the mechanics of using coffee houses (those with good coffee) as places for work, whether from a note pad or a laptop computer.

Focusing in over disagreeable sounds helps you filter out distractions from that one voice you're listening for, trying to entice from the shadows.  This voice is your inner monitor.  Of course it is your voice, but you have so many of them, all sounding like a bunch of tenors and baritones, auditioning for a Puccini opera.  You're auditioning for the right one, the one best suited to be the teller of the story or narrative at hand.  You must take care not to be seduced, wherein you hear voices that sound like writers you admire, perhaps even adore.

There, you have said it, got to the basic point of willingness to risk sounding like yourself.  True enough, you get some interesting effects sounding like any number of writers you admire, say Denis Johnson, or Willa Cather or Louise Erdrich, but those effects also sound like them.  Tempting as it is, you need to edit out such things.  Once you are satisfied with the risk of sounding like you, you're giving control to the characters, letting them be as they wish to speak, which is often contrary and in pleasing ways quite remarkable for you.

Only today, by listening carefully to a friend, you captured this awareness, as though it were some rare breed of butterfly or lepidoptra.  Characters are best when they do not say what you want or expect them to say.  If you find yourself wondering where a particular exchange is going, story-wise, think of the potential for the reader who stumbles upon a story of yours.

You were somewhere in your late twenties when you began listening for voices in your head, relieved when they came, because Rachel, your mentor, told you she heard them all the time, dis-abusing you of the notion that dialogue was an attempt to imitate the cadences and locution of conversation.

Thanks to Rachel, that went away in a big hurry.  But then there was a time when you thought you were one of those who saw things.  A number of your friends, and writers you admired, say Ray Bradbury, or the recently departed Fred Pohl, saw things.  You were good at seeing loose change in sofa cushions, but the more you looked for clues and nuances, you began to hear the chatter going on about you, ambient talk of things, broadcasting, setting forth nets of social interaction.

When you first began teaching, you were a bit cautious about saying such things because you'd already come to understand that writers--well, writers, artists, musicians, and actors--were a bit other, and you did not want to start making it seem that you had to be other to be one of them.  Except that all of "them" you knew were, and those who accepted you did so on the basis of you being other.

After a year or so, you tried out talking about seeing visions or hearing voices, to which an agreeable graduate student told you that she was glad to hear that because she'd been hearing voices as long as she could remember, voices that did not sound like persons she knew, at least not until she realized they were voices of people in her stories.  She invited you for dinner one night, serving you not only the fry bread she'd promised, but making a special occasion of it by serving red Jell-o.  As you were leaving, her husband took you aside and said he hoped you realized what having red Jell-o meant and how pleased he was to have you come because he was growing a bit tired of green Jell-o

You are from a culture where Jell-o is frequently used in context with something else, such as the way your maternal grandmother mixed it with vanilla ice cream.  Thus your understanding that even the smallest things speak volumes if you listen to them.  For instance, being invited home to visit a classmate one afternoon, you were offered a snack of chocolate milk and a slice of buttered bread, which had been sprinkled with sugar.

Your mother, the detective, was pleased that you had been offered a snack, somewhat put off by the fact that the chocolate syrup was Hershey's rather than the Bosco or Fox's u-Bet syrups, close to insulted by the sprinkling of sugar on the bread.  "They are not like us, that's for sure,"  your mother said.  One of your first lessons in anthropology.  The slightest ritual speaks in ways that reveal information.

When your classmate came to visit you, you were aware of your mother going to considerate lengths to make your guest feel comfortable, including a siphon bottle of seltzer water in case your guest chose to make chocolate soda.  Also the prized sugar bowl, in case.

There is yet another kind of hearing voices, and you're pretty sure it comes from the experiences of being out on the prowl, listening.  At night, for instance, there are places where you can hear the chatter of cicada, the hoot of a barn owl, the rush of traffic, the unmistakable approach of someone on a skate board, and perhaps a territorial encounter among a group of cats.  Where you used to live, off Hot Springs Road, there were often coyotes, some doing the equivalent of texting others from their group with distinctive yips in varying pitches.

There are night sounds of ideas colliding, things speaking in ways you'd never have supposed.  Your friend who instructed you in the voices of trapped words and dreams and stories, and who now has shown you things about dialogue, adds to the things you have to listen to at night to hear the steady thrum and wing flap of reality, about to take off, and the conversations of persons and things and animals, trying to sort out reality.

This is, of course, exactly what you're trying to do, wandering books and stories during the day, streets and dreams at night.

What bird is that?

What ducks are those upon the inlet?

Are they warning us or telling us it is all clear?

Listen, they are saying.  Listen.



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