ruminations on voice, elevated by Pico Iyer

Sunday, April 14, 2013

It doesn't help that I've written in many genres—for adults, young adults, and middle graders; as truth and fiction; as collage and essay; as poetry and prose; as a critic and a journalist; as a ghost for the corporations that dare employ me; as this blogger.

It doesn't matter that I'm supposed to be good at this. Or, at least, supposed to know something. Writing is always hard. It almost always hurts. I've never achieved perfection. I have an essay in the Philadelphia Inquirer today—800 words about the romance of the rails that took me fourteen hours to write. I have a novel that I just tossed so that I could start again—a novel I didn't realize was bad until too much time went by. It took me an hour earlier this week to write three lines for a client—three effective lines, I mean to say, for a video script. It took me two hours, late Thursday night, to write an email regarding a new project. A student emailed me a question Friday night. One hour later I was still typing. A young writer sent me her book to review and I am sure that I sent back the wrong words; I just could not find the right words.

Every day, sitting here before you, I struggle to get a handle on voice. I ask myself if I have anything new—not just to say, but to do with language. Can I fold it differently? Can I attack it more handsomely? Can I surprise myself? Can I surprise you? James Salter, this week's New Yorker tells us, assiduously collects arcane names and words and deploys them. Annie Dillard, too, stretches the envelope with her arsenal of big or scientifically odd terms. But voice goes far beyond vocabulary. Voice is the length of sentences, the use or not of a semi-colon, the eloquence of a distant third person, the hear-me-out colloquialisms of a raw first person, the smash and the extension.

Voice requires us to choose—or perhaps voice chooses us—after we've put the time in, after we've meted the choices, after we've walked away, come back, tossed the pages that took hours (or months, sometimes years) to write. That's not it, but this is, our better minds finally tell us. And finally we believe. But it's temporary. Unstable. A year from now, two, I may very well wish I had written otherly.

Voice intrigues me, and so I was intrigued by Pico Iyer in this Sunday's New York Times Book Review, his essay called "Voices Inside Their Heads." It is valuable to read Iyer, ruminating on the matter. Read the whole here. Or at least read this, below. Tell me what you think. And how you manage.

To some extent this is true of all of us. Look at your out-box: in the past hour you may have sent e-mails to mother, partner, boss and child, possibly even describing the same party. But each one is likely to have been written in a very different voice, and even to have treated the event quite differently — not to do so would be a form of insensitivity. “A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him,” as William James had it. It’s the man who doesn’t change his voice according to his audience who seems scary, locked inside his own assumptions. 

At its core, writing is about cutting beneath every social expectation to get to the voice you have when no one is listening. It’s about finding something true, the voice that lies beneath all words. But the paradox of writing is that everyone at her desk finds that the stunning passage written in the morning seems flat three hours later, and by the time it’s rewritten, the original version will look dazzling again. Our moods, our beings are as changeable as the sky (long hours at any writing project teach us), so we can no longer trust any one voice as definitive or lasting.


Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Oh, yes, yes! I was just noticing this about myself earlier this year. With some of my correspondents I will dare a bolder joke, a snarkier tone. With some I am more vulnerable than others. The allusions I might use, the degree to which I might discuss medical or family issues, change from person to person. A lot of it depends on how long I've known the person, how much common ground we have, how much the other person has been vulnerable with me (confidences invite confidences).

My blog is in my real voice, although I still don't just open the floodgates there. I stay away from politics and profanity; I don't say much about my personal life other than the writing part of it (but the writing part is substantial).

The voice in my novels is close to my real voice, even though my characters are different from one another and different from me. There is a vein of my voice in their voices.

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