Finding My Voice

Don’t know about you, but I’ve had a voice ever since I was born. A piercing sound box that I used to alert the armed forces I was hungry or other uncomfortable physical situations. I continued with that wail until I learned to speak, first with a decidedly New Jersey slur, not too dissimilar from the Southern drawl I later adopted the year I lived in Alabama and attended kindergarten. Even later I picked up a bit of pidgin from Hawaii when my family lived there for a few years. Finally I settled on California’s western twang after moving here on my thirteenth birthday and making it my permanent home except for three crazy years early in our marriage when we lived in Detroit. (Don’t ask, just don’t.)

My writer’s voice came in about as slowly and with as many distractions along the way as my baby and childish ones. I learned to speak and anticipate because I learned first to listen and observe. I even fidgeted when writing my first book with present tense versus simple past tense. Though this is not exactly the same thing, it does affect the writers’ voice. Fortunately I recognized that present tense is an awkward attempt to sound edgy and urgent while simple past covers content and character more comfortably. My developed writer’s voice sounds like my alter ego, notable for the realization that this is a desirable state and I should be so lucky to maintain my voice throughout my novels. Every writer reveals her voice in her work though the subject may be unique, book to book. It’s the way she depicts characters, the style of her sentence structure, and her grasp of dialogue.

Not a very specific strategy for defining the single most personality driven quality of our writing, is it? Confused? Shouldn’t be, because voice is as recognizable and distinct as other identifiable traits. After all, I’d know Beyoncé’s music from Taylor Swift’s even if they’re belting songs I’ve never heard. I can tell the difference between Beethoven’s rousing classical symphonies and the contemporary vernacular of Aaron Copeland’s ballets. I can distinguish impromptu jazz from free style rap no matter which I prefer (not telling you here.) I can look at a landscape painting of bold, thick oil strokes and declare it’s by Van Gogh or at a delicate watercolor painting of an animal and know it’s by Albrecht Durer. Writing voice is not much different, though the characteristics of voice description are a bit more nebulous.  Maybe a bit harder to pinpoint, to fit into rigid templates, but still unique.

More important than being fluent at describing writing voice to comprehend the distinctions is being honest about presenting my voice in my writing. I learned early to drop the pretense of mimicking Shakespeare, whose luminous and melodic voice I can’t assume on the best of my days, or Barbara Kingsolver, whose deft mind creates stories that stick with me years after I’ve read her books but whose masterful style eludes me. Still, I have begun to write with my own voice, a skill confirmed by readers in my critique group. It comes most vividly when I allow it to come most naturally, letting the material dictate my story and the way I present characters and plot.

Aspects of my writing style come to me from my crazy quilt background, not just the way I heard and adopted dialect when I was a kid, but the way I noted how people lived in different parts of the country, how they interacted with each other and conducted their lives. It came from the sights that lured me to explore the outdoors, from the smells that tempted me into the kitchen, from the various cultures across the country, and from my joy or distress over those experiences. I discovered that reading my WIP aloud gave me a sense of what was powerful: short sentences, driving hammer-like against steel nails. Or what was poetic: comparisons between unlikely subjects, forcing them to dance duets. Or what was insightful: drawing conclusions from mystery.

My voice is subjective, wet clay of my thoughts molded by my imagination. I hope my readers will love my voice. I’ll settle for them liking it, but I have to remain true to who I am or my story falls apart like broken pottery. My rhythm and syntax must engage my reader because let’s face it: as original as I try to be, as all writers try to be, there are only so many themes and plots out there. It’s the writer’s voice that seduces the reader. I mewled as an infant. Now I howl, I whisper, I recite, I shout, and I chant. Come read my work, come listen to the sound of my stories. Hear my voice.

 

 

 

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Such a Voice as That!

suchavoiceasthatIf you’ve ever heard my mom sing, you’d recognize her voice every time she blats out a song. It’s that unique. She brays, she’s loud, off key, flat, out of tune. Even the resonance of the shower stall does not improve her voice, and singing lessons would be about as useful as a water filter in the middle of the Sahara. Mom sings with gusto, like she can’t wait to get the words scraped out of the back of her throat and into the silence around her. Yet despite the fact that Mom has an absolutely awful voice, it’s truly a delightful experience to hear her sing because she exudes such joy of music. She beams, she glows, she bubbles with joie de vivre. Everyone who hears her sing cringes, but no one tells her to shut up because it’s fun to listen to someone create musical triumph out of singing so poorly.

Mom’s voice is so distinctive that everyone recognizes it. It’s terrible, yes, but distinctive. No one wants to sound like Mom. Except you, Writer, you really do want to sound like Mom. Distinct. You want your reader to grab your book and declare, OMG, it’s another exciting, wonderful book from Storyteller, the writer whose voice sounds like no other! Can’t wait to get my hands on it.

So exactly what is this business of writing voice? You know about the other aspects of writing: plot, character development, pro- and antagonist, conflict, suspense, crises, setting, time period, and imperfect heroes. You’ve got down grammar, spelling, sentence construction, dialogue, cliff hangers, and secondary plots. But voice – how do you define writing voice? It’s often linked to dialogue, though as unique as speech may be – Southern drawl, Hawaiian pidgin, or Yiddish inflection – it’s more than the slant of a character’s words. Voice shows up consistently, even without dialogue to drive it forward. It’s what happens when the way the words are slung together engages the reader as much as the suspense or mystery that imbues the story. The author owns voice.

John Kennedy Toole’s posthumously published comedy, A Confederacy of Dunces, exhibits a voice like no other. The story is told mostly through the character of Ignatius J. Reilly, a rotund ne’er do well who lives with his mother in a rundown neighborhood of New Orleans. Read the opening paragraph of the story:

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap, Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

Who is this audacious character who exemplifies the worst fashion taste and yet seeks to criticize it in others like someone who doesn’t notice the toilet paper tailing from the back of his pants? It’s Ignatius, and his personality never improves. You might read only that first paragraph today but the author’s voice is so unusual and identifiable that, read another paragraph a hundred pages and two years hence, you’ll still know it: the raucous and farcical humor of A Confederacy of Dunces. It isn’t just the dialect or even the antics of the bumbling inhabitants of this forlorn part of the city. It’s that each character remains true to his internal compass, however skewed the arrows might be. Toole guides the reader through a New Orleans we’d all be loathe to visit in person but we bask in his words as he relates the hijinks of this motley group of social rejects. Readers who savor Dunces are in love with his original voice.

Voice must feel authentic and true to the story. Juliet and Romeo were doomed from the start, their love too sweet to survive the family feud. Readers sense from Shakespeare’s first line, Two households, both alike in dignity, that no dignified end bodes for the lovers. The Bard mastered voice in everything he wrote, and his audience remains loyal.

Stretch voice too far and a story, however clever and inventive, will read as unbelievable. It’s the lack of a sure voice that allows a character to do something counter to his nature. We’ve all thrown down a book as betrayed by a voice that’s wandered too far out of range. Disconnected or fragmented voice is not a new entity to you if you’re a member of a writing critique group or a lower division college class. Stop rolling your eyes – sometimes it’s your own voice singing off key.

Voice has history, and history must be honored. No matter how toothsome he looked in her Grandmother’s bonnet, Little Red Riding Hood’s Big Bad Wolf had to con the girl into settling onto his dinner plate. He was a wolf, after all, and wolves eat children, so the Grimm story goes. Any alteration to the original tale must provide insight into Wolf’s psyche. The reader must believe he has sincerely opted for pea soup instead of red meat. The writer must show that Wolf was understandable after all, his appetite for chewing up children based on his miserable childhood and the bullies that tried to eat him. All he ever really wanted was a friend willing to chop veggies with him when all he ever got was bigger wolves tenderizing his tail. That could be a credible voice as well, more heartrending than the original fairy tale. Yet it isn’t the change in outcome that showcases voice. It’s the tone and method of story presentation. A consistently distinguished voice can reveal poor abused Wolfie – not the big baddie everyone thought him to be, just a frightened pup in a shaggy costume. Ahwoo-o-o-o.

OMG, you hear that? You’d know that sound anywhere. That’s Mom singing off key. There’s a place for such a voice as that!