The Irresistible Voice

On the elusive presence of the narrator A colleague, Stephanie Losee, recently shared a story with those of us at the San Francisco Writers Grotto: “This afternoon I was sitting in a doctor’s office reading a random article about Utah hot springs in whatever magazine was on the table, and belly laughing. I read the lede: ‘I was floating on my back, looking at the Wellsville Mountains in the distance and dissolving problems in water the precise temperature of inner peace,’ and I thought: Chris Colin.” We who know Chris and his writing agreed: he has a distinctive (and funny) voice. [caption id="attachment_3991" align="alignleft" width="191"] Uncle Tige as a cadet[/caption] This quality most writers and critics call “voice,” and I like to call “narrative voice,” is to writing what timbre is to speaking: it clues us in to the identity of the writer, even if we don’t have a byline telling us whose words we’re reading. I’ve frequently had an experience similar to the one Stephanie describes. I’m reading a piece, having ignored the byline, and I say to myself, “Wait, who wrote this? I know this person.” Invariably, it’s the voice of a writer I love—Joan Didion, Francis X. Clines, Mark Leibovich. [caption id="attachment_3992" align="alignright" width="176"] Dad as a major[/caption] Once, when I was doing research for a family memoir and reading the remembrance in an alumni magazine of my uncle (who died before I was born), the experience was especially striking. Chills went up my spine. Goosebumps appeared on my arms. The piece was anonymously written, but I knew the voice like I knew my own height. “Wait,” I said to myself,“this is Dad.” My father had recently died, and I regretted never asking him about his older brother. It was as though Dad was talking to me from the other side, regaling me with the stories of my uncle in the kind of intimate way only a brother could, and with a particular eloquence only he could muster. Voice can seem otherworldly, but there are some concrete ways to understand it, and to develop it. Like literary style, voice reflects a combination of diction, sentence patterns, and tone. We might think of it as the unambiguous presence of the narrator (Henry Miller) in this passage from Miller’s Tropic of Cancer:

The earth in its dark corridors knows my step, feels a foot abroad, a wing stirring, a gasp and a shudder. I hear the learning chaffed and chuzzled, the figures mounting upward, bat slime dripping aloft and clanging with pasteboard golden wings; I hear the trains collide, the chains rattle, the locomotive chugging, snorting sniffing, steaming and pissing. All things come to me through the clear fog with the odor of repetition, with yellow hangovers and Gadzooks and whettikins. In the dead center far below the hyperborean regions, stands God Ajax, his shoulders strapped to the mill wheel, the olives crunching the green march water alive with croaking frogs.

Miller pulls out all the stops: dynamic verbs, sounds, metaphor, allusion, and language that is piquant and personal—from chaffed and chuzzled to Gadzooks and whettikins. So what is voice? How do you get it? Does an accomplished writer have one or more voices? With a workshop on voice coming up, I was curious to poll other writers about voice. I posted my questions on Facebook. Here’s what they shared:
Thaisa Frank: I'll quote myself from an article I wrote: “A writer's voice is like ice-cream. It has a lot of flavors, but you always know it's ice cream.” Bridget Quinn: I think more than one voice—particularly with shifts in genres—but always recognizable as that writer's inimitable self...Oh and how: Write and write and write and write and more like that. Arthur Plotnik: In "To Show and To Tell,” master essayist Phillip Lopate insists that the “writer needs to build herself into a character," first taking inventory of herself so she can present this self “as a specific, legible character”—one with interesting quirks, leanings, background, and so on. This as opposed to the objective narrator, as I understand it. A risky approach, easily overdone, but one route to a “voice.” Katy Butler: I contain multitudes. (Whitman.) It takes two to tell the truth: one to speak and one to listen. (Thoreau.) I adopt different dictions for different environments—a New York Times health article on sibling violence has a different voice and structure—closer to the “objective,” newspaper voice. But even so, it's flavored by my own distinctive interests and my magazine experience. There's a mention of Cain and Abel, for example, which annoyed the scientists, atheists, and literalists. For the New Yorker, I was free to write in a way that's closer to poetry. If I write for the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, it's the spiritual, wordless, compassionate, hopefully honest, “me” that has more primacy. The important thing is to choose an outlet that resonates with the voice that makes sense to you. The outlet helps shape your voice. I think of it as akin to writing poetry within specific forms, such as a villanelle or a sonnet, they each have their own requirements. But there is a limit to my malleability, and places and dictions I won't adopt. (It drives me crazy when editors who don't have a developed ear change one word to another with the same meaning, but different sound or cultural connotation. Sometimes it's just “But I don't use that word!”)  Such an interesting question: who are we? Where are we going? What is our deepest motivation? Do we have a “self” or many selves?
It's hard to compete with Thaisa Frank's metaphor of ice cream. But in thinking about this literary device I turn mathematical: Voice is a common denominator that runs through everything you write. It is a combination of your particular way of choosing words, some syntactical tics, and your sensibility. It is indeed distinctive, recognizable. Tone and style, and a writer’s ability to modulate both, are a part of it. But tone and style are their own animals—we can change them from piece to piece. The tone and style of Sin and Syntax differ when I treat the same subjects in the New York Times Opinionator, for example, and the tone and style of my travel memoirs differs from both of those. And the tone and style in all those nonfiction really differ from the tone and style in my children’s book, ‘Iwalani’s Tree. So, tone and style differ. Does the voice as well? You tell me. I do feel that a writer’s voice can change, especially, from one genre to another. I guess I'm still of two minds, or many voices, about this subject.


If you'd like to hear more of Thaisa Frank's ideas on voice and writing, check out her book, Finding Your Writers Voice, which was originally published by St. Martin's Press and is now available on Kindle.

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