THE ECSTASY OF VOICE

I am so happy I can barely focus on my own work. A writer I have known for eight years but never met or talked with in person finally showed me her voice. And what a voice!

I wish I could reproduce her work here but I don’t have her permission to and so I will try instead to describe why I feel like the cow that jumped over the moon (a ridiculous nursery rhyme, if ever there was, but oh so delightful in every way). Or perhaps not like the cow but ecstatic that something of wonder has occurred.

This writer and I, we’ve been talking back and forth about writing and voice for the past week or two. She couldn’t figure out how to give agents what they’re looking for as they continue to reject her manuscripts. She’s been writing for thirty-five years. At my request she sent me the first two pages of a manuscript that has been rejected. It was easy to see why: she was nowhere to be found. She was not present in her words–her voice was entirely absent. I told her (reluctantly), if I were an agent, I wouldn’t be able sell these pages as written to a traditional or even well-established independent publisher, because there was nothing in the writing yet to tell me who she is and why it would be important to offer her work to the world at large.

Voice is not a marketing gimmick that agents and publishers are suddenly looking for in a writer who hasn’t been published. The writer’s voice has always been central to great writing and loyal readership.

I suggested an exercise I’ve been practicing for myself and plan to bring to one of my upcoming webinars. I directed it towards her manuscript with my usual disclaimer, “If unhelpful ignore any and all.”

What came back in an email reply earlier today simply blew my mind. If I were able to share her two pages and also the short passage she wrote in her email–triggered by opening a box of spices that transported her back to a faraway country where she had lived until she came to America at the age of thirteen (so this writing was entirely unconnected to her manuscript story)–you would understand why her latest writing struck with the force of a gale wind.

It would be impossible to peg these two very different pieces of writing as having come from the same writer, and yet they did. So what does that say about how we write, and why?

In the one–her ms two pages–craft was there but not life. In the other was nothing but Life, brimful, in every sentence, every image, every word. I could taste and smell and see and feel its riotous colours, its cacophony of sounds and memories jostling one another yet coming together to make a seamless experience that carried me into her world.

Smells and sounds and images enter our senses so fast we’re often unaware in that moment that we’ve been forever transformed. That through our voice we transform our readers. We penetrate their senses.

I am transformed. I can never forget that paragraph of life in her email, filled with the rhythms and cadences that belong solely to her. Her voice, her body memory, her mind. Hers, and hers alone.

This is the power of voice. The rest, as I told her in my reply (meaning the stories she’s concocted so faraway from the truth of who she is), is piffle. Abandon them all at the Gate of Hades and write about Life.

She knows who she is. I am grateful we had a series of conversations that led to the revelation of Her.

IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT…

1. Writing is work, good writing is difficult. Moments of easy writing are moments of Grace. Feel blessed when they happen but don’t gauge how well or badly your writing is going by them. The experience of Grace fades but the work still remains.

2. Never judge your writing by saying, “This is good writing, this is bad writing.” Run as far and fast as you can from anyone who speaks of your writing this way. It’s not that bad writing doesn’t exist, it does. There’s far more bad writing in the world than good. But for the sake of your sanity, and the truth of your voice, train yourself to gauge your writing by a different measure.

Learn to know in your bones when your writing is right for whatever you’re working on and when it is not. In the course of your career you will write millions of words. Most will never see the light of day. But those discarded words can lead to writing well. More important, they will reveal who you choose to be as much as who you decide you are not.

3. Your subconscious is your best friend. It is the conduit through which you share the content of your heart and mind and soul with the world at large.

4. Learn to recognise the felt sense of when you are one with your subconscious, when words come to the surface of your mind without effort, from a place of not knowing, and like your breath appear in a flow without beginning or end. This sense of flow carries the next word, and the next, and the next, all just beyond the grasp of our conscious mind until they arrive on the page. This unknown place is the unconditional trust that is Grace.

Grace cannot be willed. It appears unexpectedly, gives clarity and the courage to keep writing in spite of all obstacles real and perceived, then leaves.

5. Craft is paramount. Rules are not. Learn as much craft as possible from the best: the classical canon as well from books by the modern masters (Margaret Atwood, Alice Munroe, Ursula K. Le Guin, Susanna Clarke, Mark Helprin come to mind as I write. You’ll remember the writers you aspire to be–their works are your true mentors).

6. Read widely. Read great writers, not poor ones. Read nonfiction as well as fiction. If you write nonfiction, read fiction as well as nonfiction.

7. Every story should have a distinct, narrative voice which fits that particular story. But the narrative voice is not your voice. The narrative voice is related to genre and style. Your voice is who you are: unique, full of contradictions, full of life. It is your voice that creates a following and draws readers in. The narrative voice is what keeps readers turning the page. (See Stephen King’s and Meg Rosoff’s articles below on the writer’s voice,)

8. Reread your favourite book, then try to make your current work better than this book. Do not imitate the writer or the story or the structure or anything else derivative. Simply use your story to go beyond what your favourite book achieved. You may not succeed but your writing will develop in ways you have not yet imagined.

9. Articulate to yourself why you admire certain people who have produced great things in the world and why what they’ve done or are doing inspires you. Why do they make you think more deeply about things you might not otherwise have thought about had you not encountered their work? Think about the ways in which they brought or bring their work to fruition. Figure out why you are drawn to their work, then use what you’ve discovered to create your own.

10. It is not an absolute that if you love an artist like David Lynch it therefore follows you will not be able to write a novel that adheres to the three-act structure (four acts if you read Larry Brooks or Alexandra Sokoloff). But it is possible that if you love the work of people who refuse to squeeze their creativity into other people’s boxes, you may love to write in a way that lies beyond the scope of commercial fiction’s current love affair with the three-act structure.

If you find yourself struggling to fit your vision into a structure borrowed from drama—see Gustav Freytag’s Pyramid (adapted by Blake Snyder for screenwriters in Save the Cat) or borrowed from Aristotle’s Poetics (see Cheryl Klein)—make peace with yourself. It may be your subconscious saying, “This type of structure is not your path.” Or you may find your work fits well into Freytag’s Pyramid or Aristotle’s Poetics, after the fact. You may be a writer who works from the inside out instead of from the outside in.

11. Honour your process. Lots of people will say this to you during the course of your writing life. Some will mean it others will use it as code for: honour your process but follow mine. The most important thing is to begin to know how you work. It’s up to you to honour yourself.

12. Find your own path. It may not look commercially viable at the beginning but it may lead to writing a breakout novel (which is what all commercial fiction writers hope to achieve). At the very least it may lead to a small but devoted group of readers inspired by a writer who remains true to his or her creative vision. It’s what J.K. Rowling did, and we all know what happened for her.

13. Find a copy of Being in the World and watch it. It may illuminate the significance of why you write:

Being in the World raises the question of whether we have forgotten what it means to be truly human in today’s technological age, and proceeds to answer this question by taking a journey around the world to meet a whole host of remarkable individuals, including Manuel Molina, the legendary poet and flamenco master; Leah Chase, affectionately known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine; and Hiroshi Sakaguchi, a master carpenter from Japan. By showing how these modern day masters approach life from within their chosen fields, Ruspoli’s film celebrates the ability of human beings to find meaning in the world through the mastery of physical, intellectual, and creative skills.

14. If you don’t know grammar, punctuation and syntax learn them well. Then simply write, in exactly the same way that if you know how to drive you simply get into the vehicle and drive. You no longer think about it.

Use grammar to clarify your text and your voice. You may have to fight with your editor on where you place your commas (see Toni Morrison and commas below), but if your voice is truly on the page your grammar choices will follow your voice, not the other way around. Your choices reveal how you hear your writing, your rhythms and cadences. They reveal who you are, to yourself and to your readers.

If you can’t spell invest in a dictionary. If you’re dyslexic find a good friend and/or sympathetic editor who will correct your misspelled words without judgement.

If you can spell but don’t own a dictionary invest in one. You can never know too many words. Words are your currency: you can never be too rich. Also invest in a good thesaurus. Use it to stir your imagination when you find the same words coming at you again and again.

15. If you want to understand how to work with misdirection—using what is said or unsaid, using a single phrase or word, to misdirect the reader—read Jane Austen’s Emma several times. For the price of her book, you will have a master class in how to write misdirection for the rest of your writing life. Each time you read it you will realise that Austen is the mistress of misdirection. But it is only on second and subsequent readings that we start to see how firmly she controls the story through the art of misdirection at almost every turn.

Austen is also adept at revealing the interior journey of the character (see more on the character’s interior journey in Donald Maass, The Emotional Craft of Fiction below).

16. Study the classical canon to deepen your understanding of how the novel has evolved. You will start to understand that themes and structures which appear to be contemporary have their roots in Cervantes, Fielding, Defoe, Austen, George Eliot, et al, and that without this lineage the novel might never have been born.

17. More important than any of the above, write because you want to, because you need to, and because the act of arranging words on a page in a meaningful way is essential to being who you are.

There probably is a correlation between being very skillful at something, being a master of something, and finding things that are deeply significant, deeply meaningful, and essential to being who you are. — Mark Wrathall, Being in the World

A selection of books and articles to read:

Books
Rainer Maria Rilke – Letters to a Young Poet
Toni Morrison – The Dancing Mind
Ursula K. Le Guin – Steering the Craft
Donald Maass – Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level
Donald Maass – The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface
Cheryl Klein – Second Sight: An Editor’s talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults
Stephen Greenblatt – The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Keith Birmingham – The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses
Jane Austen – Emma

Articles
Dean Koontz – On Self-Doubt, Story and Abuse
Stephen King – On the difference between style and voice, on opening lines, and more
Meg Rosoff – On finding your voice
Shelley Souza – Your Voice Is Never Wrong.
Robert Gottlieb –Toni Morrison and commas
Steven Pressfield – Writing Wednesdays
Other links to writers and playwrights – on writing

Ursula K. Le Guin on Book View Cafe – An Experiment
27 July 2015 – Navigating the Ocean of Story
27 July 2015 – Navigation Q1: How do you make something good?
10 August 2015 – Navigating the Ocean of Story – Session 1
24 August 2015 – Navigating the Ocean of Story : Session 1, Continued
7 September 2015 – Navigating the Ocean of Story: Session 1, Part 3
21 September 2015 – Navigating the Ocean of Story: Session 1, Part 4
5 October 2015 – Navigating the Ocean of Story: Session 1, Part 5
12 October 2015 – Navigating the Ocean of Story: What Do You Think About Online Critiques?
15 February 2016 – Navigating the Ocean of Story (2)
29 February 2016 – Navigating the Ocean of Story (2)
21 March 2016 – Navigating the Ocean of Story (2)

Visit museums. Spend time with friends. Live life. Write.

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