Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Literary Laryngitis: The Narrative Voice Gone Sickly

There have been times when, afflicted with laryngitis, you had difficulty getting the words vocalized. As if by magic, not having a physical voice gave you an exaggerated presence of whatever force or forces that contribute to expression. 

This was surely a lesson to be learned. The question of whether you learned from the lesson is either moot, academic, or existential. Voice, when it returned, was more relieved than anything else.

The matter of Voice has preoccupied you for some years, coming to you as a matter at about the mid point of your teaching at the graduate level, your students being earnest and quirky young men and women, all of whom had gone into considerable debt in order to locate and nurture their own individual voice.

Early on in your teaching career, you understood how the one most benefiting from the experience was you, to the point where you once remarked at a faculty meeting, "If you want to understand a subject, write a book about it or teach a course in it." 

Your intent was clear; you were getting a bonus from teaching others; beyond the connective tissue formed between you and student, there was the connective tissue formed between you and the material demonstrated or, better still, shared.

For the longest time, your voice was disposed to sound like the last reader you'd read and admired, your great fallback or default being the voice of Samuel Langhorn Clemens, AKA Mark Twain, which, particularly in the case of SLC, is by no means a small accomplishment.  

And yet, you were not in the craft to become a mimic; you were here to be your own self, however raspy or mono-tone-ous the outcome. Readers with a hankering for story could get the original; why would they want an imitation?

Along with such realizations came the bolts of lightning from acquired wisdom. Imitating another voice was one way to approach taking that voice to task, at first by contriving to sound like it, but then adding a slight exaggeration. Your role model in doing such things was an author who seems to have fallen off the radar screen, the late, lamented, Peter DeVries, who was exactly the sort of satirist you wished to be, one who appeared as a reliable narrator, which is to say a writer whose narratives were credible.

The bolt of lightning that struck quite near you said in effect that Peter DeVries was Twain, except that he was Twain without Twain's outrage, which he had managed to reduce to impatience. Although no stranger to outrage, you are more often impatient than outraged. Thus your forward motion was adjusted. Lead with your strengths, you heard a voice saying. Impatience is your forte.

Thus you came to your voice. If, when in the thoughtful mode of revision, you are not aware of the presence of impatience, you understand how laryngitis has set in, how you must do something to allow the voice to come through. You can introduce a character who is impatient for results. You, yourself, can rewrite the offending material, beginning with a deep sigh and the awareness that you have to go through the scene again to get that proper note.

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