Giving Voice

Yesterday’s writing workshop was on the narrative voice—who emerges from the page when you write something longer than a tweet? (On Twitter everyone sounds almost identically manic.) Or longer than a Facebook post? When your writing—a letter, a story, a blog entry, a news release—demands more than a “Nuff said,” when enough isn’t said until you’ve delivered your readers something that will grab their attention, steal their hearts, pique their curiosity about the world and the mysteries of human behavior.

You write conversation—dialog—in the disparate voices of individual characters; narration creates your voice. Narration tells readers when and where events takes place, it provides the carefully chosen details that bring characters to life. Narration turns the world into words.

Each of us, if we stood on a mountaintop gazing out at the countryside spread below, would choose different words to describe it—once past “Awesome!”, that is—we would put the words together in our own unique way, with reference to our own particular past experiences and our own expectations for the future. Think how you might describe the scene above if you were standing on that peak preparing to descend into the valley to wed your sweetheart, then think how differently you’d describe it if you’d climbed up there to scatter your lover’s ashes.

This difference is the basis for maybe my favorite of John Gardner’s challenging writing exercises: “Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war.” The diabolical aspect of this is that you’re not to mention the son, war, death, or the man. No cop-outs of referring to him as a father. But Gardner goes on: “Then describe the same building, in the same weather and at the same time of day, as seen by a happy lover.” Again, you’re instructed not to mention love or the loved one. By applying those strictures, he guarantees you do not default to easy or hackneyed prose and the descriptions that result are inevitably in the writer’s own voice, not a second-hand one.

In my own writing, whenever a passage comes too easily, I realize it’s not wholly mine. It originated in one or a dozen movies or television shows—bad ones, probably—and I have to go back and hack my own path through the situation, in my own way. Dialog is especially prone to unconscious borrowing.

Voice is why, in my writing group, we really don’t need to put our names on our work any more. Each of us has a voice so distinctive, we’d recognize who wrote the page in front of us, even if it arrived in an envelope posted from Mars. It seems each of us is truly learning to turn worlds into words, to create “his world and no other,” as Raymond Carver said.

Exploring Further

“Sharpening the Quill,” a series of writing workshops by Lauren B. Davis

The Art of Fiction – John Gardner, the classic “Notes on Craft for Young Writers.”

“On Writing” – Raymond Carver

New York Times essay, “Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time,’ – Steve Almond. The significance of narration in literature and life and its fragmentation in the media age. Well worth reading.