Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Writing: What Is Voice?

First, the accountability thing: I promised to report back daily, or close to,  and failed, epically. I won't go into the reasons. They're mine, and this isn't a tell-all Oprahesque memoir. I just did (or didn't), okay?

Second, related to the first: I'm at 20,000-25,000 words, easily, and they're piling up.  The problem--actually, better characterized, the issue--is what to do with them. Scenes come to me at odd and discordant times, and not sequentially, in terms of the narrative. Which is to say, you write what comes, and figure out where it goes later. 

All of which brings me to voice. 

If you're a writer, finding your voice is is critical, and doing so, or failing to do so, is a deal killer as to whether or not you're really writing something. 

For a reader, voice is that je nais se qois of authenticity. When you read a passage, you know it's Hemingway, or Dickinson or whoever without looking at the tag. Or, you read Anne Padgett or Cormac McCarthy and are struck with the passion that goes into the fictive world so marvelously constructed with mere words.

And I don't mean to exclude non-fiction. Read someone's memoir, and you know right away if it's just some bullshit narcissistic navel-gazing screed or something more serious. Or read an essay, or a blog post on some topic, and you know immediately if it's smarm and charm or if it's serious conviction. 

Read ninety-nine percent of, say, real estate blogs, whose cut and paste or otherwise cribbed narrative waxes on about how now is a good time to buy a house, mortgage rates are low, prices down and so on, and you know--this is horseshit. Why? There's no voice. Just regurgitation. They have all the charm and engagement of the fine print on an insurance policy.

But back to writers. After you've come up with an idea and sorted out the characters, it's so seductive to fall into a "this happened, and then this, and then that, and then whatever," when you get to a point where you look at what you've done and think it's a bunch of boring crap.

Which it is. You can't fool yourself.

Plot is not a series of events so much as it is characters--or, in nonfiction, people--in action, and how they react (sorry to sound like a writing seminar). But voice is what informs the action, makes it real and leads to discovery, both for writer and reader. 

I once taught a writing class on Form in poetry. "Form" refers to what type of poem it is--blank verse, sonnet, haiku, and the like. A poem's meaning has as much to do with its form as anything else. Robert Frost famously said that writing a poem without rhyme and meter is like playing tennis without a net. What he missed, in my view, is that not using a net is a different game, and it's perfectly okay.

But his point is that form relates to voice. Shakespeare's sonnets would not have worked in any other form. Or, this great line: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked" from Ginsberg's "Howl." That line has enormous power because of its length as a poetic line with the compactness of the words and the power of the line's vision.

Likewise, "Whose woods these are, I think I know," has a powerful resonance of its own.

The point being, here, voice. Authenticity. One of the best passages I've ever read was one of my writing students at San Francisco State. He was the son of Chinese immigrants who ran a restaurant, and his passages of making the soup and serving it to the customers entwined pathos and hilarity at the same time, not because he intended to do so, but because the writing was his voice.

Writing isn't rocket science. In some ways, it's harder. 

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