Monday, June 13, 2016

Hearing Voices

Words have voices. They are often tentative until they begin to resonate among the harmony of other words in sentences. By the time they reach paragraph length, words attract the attention of even the most dedicated cynic.

You listen for voices when you have taken yourself to a coffee shop to write at those times when you need extra concentration to blot out the ambient chatter of your own brain, in its replay mode. At such times, your brain broadcasts fragments of past conversations, snippets of thought, and descents into memories of past experiences.

If you hear the right voices, you will either eavesdrop on those, buoyed on the sound of their words, drawn into whatever meaning they might have, alert to implications and fresh connections.

But you go out precisely to hear the wrong voices, those of a scratchy or strident tone, forcing you to mount a firewall which will prevent you from hearing the inelegant janble of those spoken words. Then, you'll be able to heed the words trying to form in your own head, words pushing out the ambient clutter.

For years, ever since you realized voice was the most important element in your own composition and in the work of other writers you admire, you've understood how any story, however intricate and compelling, is undercut when it is told in a clangorous voice, a voice that is a tad too hesitant, a voice leaning on cuteness of effect, or a voice that sounds as though it thinks more highly of itself than it should.

Such observations lead you to rank voice at the top of all the relevant elements of the story triangle, for a certainty placing voice over plot, which is the strategic arrangement of incidents and events. In this fashion, you recognize how voice transforms the most simplistic of narratives into near poetic delivery and, conversely, weighs down the most elegant plot with the albatrosses of discord.

When used with finesse, voice becomes the attitude and emotional weight of the story you are reading or, it is to be hoped, the story you are writing. This observation reminds you countless times during the day, whether you at your desk in the act of composing or your chair in the act of reading: Listen to the words, pay attention to the sound of the narrative.

Voice can be the sound of the heartbeats of your characters, necessary presences to give your story or essay some sense of the stage presence of your characters and the time in which their drama is set. Voice can--and should--reflect the attitude of the world in which your characters live; it can also distinguish the difference between poetic justice (the voice of a given culture) and dramatic justice (the sound and presence of the penetrating light of story, peeling away artifice and propaganda.

On this matter, you will accept no propaganda: The truth of story is its tone, the fatalism, optimism, naivete, or cynicism of the outcome the writer has set in motion when the beginning landslide has begun its tumble down the hill. Voice is the difference between, "Look out!" and "Everything will be okay, it's only an invented catastrophe."  

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