Voice Lessons

TEACHING WRITING is really teaching reading, listening and seeing. That’s what I’m learning.

The last few weeks, I’ve been coaching students to pay close attention to the world around them — the classic “show don’t tell.” It’s important to be specific. Really show the reader what you’re seeing.

I hear myself saying, mantra like: Let’s just skim it off the top: Don’t use shorthand — “cool” “hip” “trendy” “beautiful”– what do those words mean? They mean different things to different people. Show me what version of your “trendy” looks like — “pierced and tattooed?. Or is it more skinny jeans and porkpie hat? Take me into that world.

Then we go deeper, or can try to.

What makes good writing memorable, most of us agree, is, of course, about some specific insight we glean. But too there’s something about the voice of the writer telling us the story, a voice that is humorous or lyric or evasive or fast-foward “bent to it again.” It’s the tale, the setting, as well as the perspective and point-of-view (as my old friend, writer and seer, David E. recently pointed out so eloquently). And yes, there are some writers who so take over the control tower of my mind’s eye that when I finish a novel, an essay or short story-I can’t quite go straight on to another “voice” yet. I still hear them in my ear. Talking. Considering. Parsing. So often to keep the conversation going, I’d just pick up another title. Dip back in.

I grew up, it seems, with a book always in my lap, my hand, my purse, my car — which my other, more recent friend David calls, “my rolling library.” He is only half jesting. I have a book stowed for every occasion it seems — biography, novel, poetry. Just in case . . .

I took books everywhere — to picnics and to movies. I was careful not to be “antisocial,” as my mother often warned — but sometimes the world that the author had created begged that I take him/her along — it would have been rude to step out without, or so it seemed to me. I wanted to keep that thrumming landscape close by.

Thinking back on this, I now realize that the authors who could pull me in that way did so either by the rhythms they spun, the images they set down, frame by frame, or simply pulled a chair up for me inside the wondrous kaleidoscope of their mind — their wit, their way of making the floor the ceiling, the way they’d make the page not a flat plane, but something porous, something that could be entered and strolled through.

I always hesitate when people ask me the inevitable: “Who are your favorite writers?” Different writers have brought different perspectives, insights not just in their stories, the content, but in the way they have chosen to tell them. For some reason, I get caught in trying to differentiate who did what and why. Not that the asker has asked that, not that he or she cares about all of that — but I realize in thinking about all of this that I do, and it matters a great deal. How a writer has marked me, shaped the way I think about language, the page and the possibility, is something so personal, I now realize. I went to different writers for different reasons. Some I most likely will never re-read, but they took me to the next tier. I return to others because they feel essential and part of me now, like reading over old drafts or journals “Yes, that’s where I got that from.”

A few weeks back, I shared this quote with my students; a short section from A. Alvarez’s book The Writer’s Voice — about writing and maturation.

“By comparing writing and psychoanalysis, I’m implying that finding your own voice as a writer is in some ways like the tricky business of becoming an adult. For a writer, it’s also a basic instinct like a bird marking its territory, though not straightforward or so musical. So how do you do it? First, you do what all young people do: you try on different personalities for size and you fall in love. Young writers, in fact, are a peculiarly promiscuous lot . . . . First the writer’s voice dazzles you and you read everything you can lay your hands on. If that doesn’t cure you, the sickness goes critical and you become obsessed with the beloved’s whole take on life: what he did, where he went, even the kind of people he slept with. You don’t want to be like him, you want to be him. In retrospect, infatuation is as embarrassing as promiscuity, but for the writer it is a necessary part of the weary process of growing up.”

It’s a challenge to teach what I have learned to do from simply reading and writing and reading and writing, year after year after year. My patterns, rhythms – voice — if you will — emerged through one thing and one thing only, trial and error practice. Finally, I knew myself on the page. It took time. It still evolves and sharpens. But beneath it all, for me, the basic desire still remains the same: trying to make music on the page.

photos: l.g.

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