Friday, September 9, 2011

My Own Voice

I have a love/hate relationship with craft books and materials. I draw inspiration from them. I keep a quote from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird where I see it every day in order to combat my perfectionist tendencies: "Don't look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance." I turn to them for specific advice. When I reached an impasse in my current WIP recently, I spent a couple of weeks working my way through exercises from the plot section of Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. But I have also gone through times when I find reading books or articles on craft paralyzing, when the voices of the experts drown out my own voice and I write paragraphs only to trash them because they are “wrong” according to experts. For me, timing is key to whether the study of craft will be help or hindrance.

Someone recommended a book on voice a few weeks ago, and I read it at exactly the right moment for it to resonate deeply with me. In The Writer’s Voice, poet, essayist, and literary critic A. Alvarez writes about the writer finding her voice as a process. It begins, he suggests, with reading because it is creative reading that makes us aware of “the presence behind the words” and teaches us to distinguish between the false and the true. 

A vital part of finding our voices, according to Alvarez, is falling in love with the voices of others—sometimes promiscuously as we rush from book to book enraptured by the beauty, the power, the authenticity of the voices we hear in the pages we read, sometimes discriminatingly as we immerse ourselves in the work of a particular writer, certain that this is the voice of our true beloved, the one who knows answers to all our questions about who we should become as writers, questions that we cannot even articulate. 

I can remember periods of promiscuity, of reading great numbers of writers wildly and enthusiastically, finding in each new author a turn of phrase, a trick of characterization, a rhythm or cadence that I determined to emulate. I can also remember periods of faithful attention to a single writer, working my way through every poem or novel I could find, making copious notes, living with the sound of one voice falling on my inner ear by day and reverberating in my dreams at night. 

Imitation is proverbially the sincerest form of flattery, and writers have been flattering other writers by imitating them no doubt since creative uses of written language began. We learn skills by imitating, but no one wants her work to be labeled derivative or, even worse, to be accused of plagiarism. Alvarez uses a famous quotation from T. S. Eliot (“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”) to explain that good writers move beyond mere acquisition of skills (imitation) to incorporate other voices into our own in ways that preserve the integrity of both voices (stealing).

When I think about my own voice in these terms, I remember poems carefully crafted in my undergraduate days that a professor tactfully suggested were “too Dickinsonian.” I think even at nineteen, I knew he was right, but decades later and with far greater confidence that my poet’s voice is my own, I still hear echoes of Emily Dickinson in certain lines. The same thing is true of my romance fiction. I have found my voice although I can be hesitant to trust it. I no longer imitate, but when I read a passage I often hear the echoes. Occasionally a friend will read a few pages and remark, “That sounds like X.” I know then that my friend hears the echoes too. Reading Alvarez felt as if I were being given permission to stop worrying about these echoes and end my “anxiety of influence,” to borrow a lit crit term.

I think Barbara Samuel, who has long been my favored expert on voice, would agree with Alvarez. She recognizes the role creative reading plays in forming voice. She includes three questions about reading history on her voice worksheet:

  • What are your top five favorite novels of all time? What was your
    favorite book when you were 12? Fourteen?
  • Can you point to a writer or a book that made you want to be a writer? Who/What?
  • What book do you most deeply wish you’d written? Why? What parts of it make you swoon? Characters? Voice? Plot?

We all know the importance of having a “fresh voice,” a “strong voice.” If we don’t, there are countless agent and editor interviews, blogs, and tweets to remind us. But writing that speaks practically and encouragingly to as-yet-unpublished writers about what voice is and how one discovers (or uncovers) one’s own fresh, strong voice is in scant supply. Alvarez and Samuel offer practicality and encouragement. I recommend Alvarez’s The Writer’s Voice with the caveat that he may be too academic for some tastes. I believe writers of literary or commercial fiction will find Samuel’s words inspiring and useful. 

Finally, in this reflection on voice, I share the closing lines of a favorite poem by a favorite poet in the hope that the journey she describes may be yours as well.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

From “TheJourney” by Mary Oliver

If you are a reader (and Alvarez says reading well is as much an art as writing well), are you aware of the “presence behind the words”? Which authors’ voices do you particularly love? If you are a writer, what are your thoughts on your voice? Which writers echo most loudly in your work?


MsHellion said...

I am always enchanted by the Voice behind the words. Voice will keep me reading on books where I think the plot or the historical "accuracy" is dodgy. :)

I have to answer the O'Neal questions!

What are your top five favorite novels of all time? What was your favorite book when you were 12? Fourteen?

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows; The Undomestic Goddess; Sugar Daddy; Guardian Angel (Julie Garwood); Whisper of Roses (Teresa Medeiros).

Favorite book @12: The Long Hard Winter (Wilder)

@14: Autumn Dove (I read that romance until the covers fell off!)

Can you point to a writer or a book that made you want to be a writer? Who/What?

Jude Deveraux. The Raider.

What book do you most deeply wish you’d written? Why? What parts of it make you swoon? Characters? Voice? Plot?

Ha! The Harry Potter series--or if I want to keep in my own genre, I so desperately wish I had written Sugar Daddy. I loved every word of that book. Amazing. Voice. Both of those are voice, though they were both very brilliant at setting too, you know, and character.

irisheyes said...

I think I am always captivated and drawn to an author's voice. I just touched on this a little over at RWR. The ones that really blow me away are the ones that write lyrically without being pretentious.

I think it always amazes me when I whip through a book in record time and the aura or feeling of the book - time, setting, characters - stays with me even though it was a quick, easy, "no big words" story. The author's writing is lyrical and emotional without being heavy. Does that make sense?

Authors that come to mind are Mary Balogh, SEP, Carla Kelly, Pamela Morsi, Barbara Samuel/O'Neal.

I'm also realizing how hard it is to find your own voice when you have all these other awesome influences. I'm always afraid I'm copying instead of creating.

irisheyes said...

BTW, Janga, I love your voice. You are one of those few that make me feel comfortable voicing my opinion even though I have no where near the eloquence or vocabulary that you do.

When I read your stuff (which can be lyrical and yet easy to understand), I love the flow, the vocabulary doesn't overwhelm and I never feel like you are talking down to me as a reader.

Janga said...

Voice has to be major with you, Hellie, if you are willing to overlook historical inaccuracies in its favor. LOL

Interesting answers! You know I've used Barbara's worksheet, but I've never been able to name five favorite novels. I'd struggle to limit a list to five favorite romances, five favorite mysteries, five favorite fantasies, etc.

Janga said...

Irish, Morsi and Samuel/O'Neal would be on my list too along with Marsha Moyer and Kathleen Gilles Seidel. Maybe Emilie Richards. I love Balogh and Kelly and find their voices appealing, but I don't think they have influenced my voice or style.

I think the fear of copying is common. That's why I loved what Alvarez had to say about it.

Thanks for your kind words about my voice. That should be enough encouragement to motivate me to reach 2K today. :)

quantum said...

In real life there are some people that I always feel relaxed and comfortable with. I guess that almost defines them as 'friends'.

In the same way there are authors that I can read and immediately feel drawn in. I'm in my comfort zone, it's almost as though the author was chatting to me as a colleague or friend. Those are the authors I turn to for relaxation and entertainment. Kleypas, Ballogh, Anderson, Kinsella are typical of my Romance 'friends'

I hear a lot about voice on writer's blogs, but I'm never entirely sure what it is. I think its just another word for style, the way that scenes are developed, the choice of words, the tempo of the plot and so on, but with a little bit extra that makes the writer unique.

I would like to see a precise definition of 'that little bit extra'; but perhaps Mary Oliver's lines are the closest I will get!

I have started listening to Roger Zelazny reading his 'Chronicles of Amber' fantasy, and was fascinated by the way that a writer reading his own work can add something extra to the words. Zelazny creates atmosphere and foreboding through the tone of voice.

There is something subtly different from reading the words myself or listening to a computer voice reading the words.

I wish more authors would use their speaking voice to enhance their writing voice. As a teacher Janga, I reckon you could be great at this! *smile*

MsHellion said...

I'm sure if I had to look at my bookshelves when I did this exercise it'd be a lot harder. Mostly I'm pulling from memory, so these are the first ones that come to mind as favorites. I almost added a couple "NEW" books to the mix, but stopped myself.

I can think of a couple authors off the top of my head where I love their voice, but not very impressed with the historical accuracy all the time. But I won't mention them because well, 1) I know some people would disagree; 2) I've heard them talk about how they're not real bothered about the lack of historical accuracy in their own books, so I can't point out what they already know *LOL*. It's all subjective anyway, I guess.

Janga said...

Q, Alvarez says that voice is the author's "aliveness." Barbara Samuel says, "Voice is the sum of all your parts—your passions and interests, the geography that most clearly resonates with you, the cadence of your ancestors and neighbors and your education, and the major events that have shaped your life-view."

How did you know that I love reading aloud. Poetry particularly, I think, demands to be read aloud. I also read my WIP aloud when I begin revisions. The ear catches things the eye misses.

Janga said...

Hellie, you know that most of those historical inaccuracies that bother you go unnoticed by most readers, including me most of the time. I'm bothered by really glaring errors and by heroes and heroines who behave like 21st-century characters in costume, but I'm much more likely to be turned into a ranting maniac by grammatical errors. I've been tempted to throw books recently because of subject-verb errors and "between you and I" phrases.

Anonymous said...

Janga, I've been pondering this post for a few days now. I know exactly what you mean about craft books being paralyzing, which is why I took a sabbatical from "writing advice" recently. LOL It can get in the way of writing when we worry so much about the HOW portion of things.

I really enjoyed the info on voice. I worry sometimes about inadvertently picking up influences from the books I read (like I'm some sort of literary tofu -- LOL), so I have a tendency to avoid reading certain things, and then I feel like I'm missing out. This helps reduce my worries. Somewhat. LOL


MsHellion said...

heroines who behave like 21st-century characters in costume

This bothers me most. I have a much lower tolerance level than most people. People from the 19th century need to think like they belong in the 19th century, even if it's not PC.

I mean, heck, listen to Jackie Kennedy's tapes from the 60s, a mere 50 years ago (or almost 50)--and she's saying she doesn't understand women who want to be as powerful as men.

Bah. It just frustrates me.

Janga said...

Donna, you're in good company. I know many writers who don't read in their own genre or subgenre when they are writing. My theory is that reading good writers can only make my writing better, so I read whatever appeals. In fact, when I get stuck on how to do something, I go to the best writer I know on that particular thing and analyze how she/he made it work. I really do find that the best craft books for me are the novels themselves. Every time I read a well-written book, I add to my writer's toolbox.

Janga said...

Hellie, I know! I read a review of an Elswyth Thane book this week in which the reviewer faulted the author for creating racist characters. I can applaud a reviewer who finds the racism offensive or who claims evidence of the author's racism, but to attack a writer for making characters in 19th-century Virginia racist is absurd. I would likely find a novel that showed similar characters free of racism historically inaccurate.