First persona

How do we write about ourselves without narcissism? I recently gave a public talk at the University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa, on that perennially perplexing question: How do we writers “find our voice”? A couple of days later I led a workshop on crafting personal stories and memoirs. I’ve devoted an entire New York Times column to “The Voice of the Storyteller.” And there’s a chapter in Sin and Syntax on the subject of “Voice.” Not to mention a chunk of the epilogue of Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch (which discusses voice in the larger context of literary style). To be nice—and because, when it comes down to it, I'm a bit of an evangelist—I’ve put some excerpts from the books on a Web page. In case you don’t have the books. In my mind, voice comes down to a very individual combination of these elements:
  • Word choice (simple? glorious? concrete? figurative? quiet? dynamic?)
  • Sentence structure and syntactical habits (short? long? languid? lyrical?)
  • Tone (valence, attitude)
  • Point of view (first, second, third, etc.)
  • Pitch (how we adjust words and sentences to suit a particular audience)
My favorite examples of “voicy” writers include Joan Didion (“The White Album,” for starters), Junot Díaz (the short stories in Drown), Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief), Roger Angell (anything on baseball), and New York Times political columnists Francis X. Clines and Mark Leibovich. And let’s not forget Muhammad Ali. In noodling around to see what other writers had to say on the subject, I found a fascinating passage by the memoirist Vivian Gornick, in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. Gornick’s contention is that for personal nonfiction to work, the narrator must adopt a persona—separate from herself—so that she can transform the uniquely personal into something that can be felt and understood by others. The persona the writer arrives at, the narrator of a story, becomes a link between writer and reader, allowing the reader to feel the truths that the writer is trying to express through the story, but without self-righteousness, self-pity, or self-aggrandizement. Gornick uses an example from her own writing to develop this idea. She was attempting to write a memoir about herself (as a child), her mother, and a woman who lived next door to them. She explains:
To tell that tale, I soon discovered, I had to find the right tone of voice; the one I habitually lived with would not do at all: it whined it grated, it accused, above all it accused. Then there was the matter of syntax: my own ordinary everyday sentence—fragmented, interjected, overriding—also wouldn't do; it had to be altered, modified, brought under control. And then I could see this as soon as I began writing, that I needed to pull back— back—from these people and these events to find the place where the story could draw a deep breath and take its own measure. In short, a useful point of view, one that would permit greater freedom of association—for that of course is what I have been describing had to be brought along. What I didn’t see, and that for a long while, was that this point of view could only emerge from a narrator who was me and at the same time not me.
The poet Billy Collins echoes some of this in an interview with Joel Whitney, which originally appeared in Guernica Magazine. (“A Brisk Walk: Billy Collins in Conversation,” is also available online.) Collins is reflecting on “This pet phrase about writing that is bandied around particularly in workshops about ‘finding your own voice as a poet.” He starts by saying he supposes that refers to the process in which “you come out from under the direct influence of other poets and have perhaps found a way to combine those influences so that it appears to be your own voice.” He continues:
But I think you could also put it a different way. You, quote, find your voice, unquote, when you are able to invent this one character who resembles you, obviously, and probably is more like you than anyone else on earth, but is not the equivalent to you. It is like a fictional character in that it has a very distinctive voice, a voice that seems to be able to accommodate and express an attitude that you are comfortable staying with but an attitude that is flexible enough to cover a number of situations. The character I invented, if I had to describe him, is probably an updating of a character you find strolling through the pages of English Romantic poetry. He is a daydreamer, obviously unemployed, plenty of time on his hands, spends a lot of time by himself, and has an unhealthy fascination with his thinking process, his own speculations and fantasies. So he is not a really new character. He is kind of a remodeling of this earlier Romantic character, the poet who would find himself daydreaming on a wayside bench somewhere.
(Collin’s interviewer, Joel Whitney, interjects that that person, Collin’s poetic persona, has been described by others as “affable, congenial, polite, welcoming.”) Collins had more to say about voice and many other things in an interview with George Plimpton, of The Paris Review. But my favorite snippet of that long interview was what Collins said is a founding principle in his writing classes, his opening remarks to a classroom of would-be writers:
The most difficult question you can put to people who want to write poetry is this: Ask yourself if what you are trying to say can be said in any other form—story, memoir, letter, phone call, e-mail, magazine article, novel. If the answer is yes, stop writing poetry. Put it in an e-mail, write a memoir, write a letter to your granny, use whatever form will accommodate what you’re going to say. Stop writing poetry unless you’re doing things that you can only do in poetry. And that means exercising your imaginative freedom, because in a poem you have the greatest imaginative freedom possible in language. You have no allegiance to plot, consistency, plausibility, character development, chronology. You can fly. Clear the trees at the end of the runway, and off you go. So if you’re not taking advantage of the giddy imaginative liberty that poetry offers, you should try a form that’s a little more restrictive. Of course, if I say that in the first class, it’s kind of deadening. Maybe it’s better left for the last class.
Collins’s comment could be tweaked for any genre of writing. Not only is the writer’s voice important, but so is his or her discretion. We need an understanding of the nature of genre, and a certain steadiness in it. {Thanks to various friends who sent ideas on voice, including Laura Fraser, who, in another context, came up with the phrase "first persona."}

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2 Responses to First persona

  1. Anna January 7, 2015 at 4:49 am #

    It strikes me that “finding my own voice” may be a more pressing issue for younger writers, who are still forming their own identities in general, and for whom “my own voice” is part of that effort. Older writers know who they are and are perhaps not as obsessed by locating their own voices as by crafting sturdy and elegant work. Your opinion?

  2. Constance Hale January 9, 2015 at 10:13 am #

    Anna, this is such a good point. I’ve always bristled a little when teachers use the facile “imitate others” as a suggestion on how to develop your own voice. It just feels that that’s something I did a long time ago.

    Another thing that is weird to me is the notion that we each have “one” voice. I feel that I have two or three different voices, which find expression in different pieces.

    And yet, at the same time, there is a common denominator, something that makes a piece “sound like me.” This is especially noticeable when a piece is edited. Unless the editor is very, very skilled, certain things just don’t “sound like me.”

    All this voice stuff is fungible–different writers have different ideas about it, which is fascinating. I was very interested in Gornick’s idea of a persona that is she and not she, but that is necessary to find in order to write about oneself and one’s experiences without being sentimental, or cloying, or whiny.

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