It's been a long week. A head cold knocked me out of my groove and onto the sofa where I rested in the light haze of decongestants and nasal sprays. The most I could manage to read were a few brief articles in Time Magazine and online posts on facebook and some blogs. My writing was limited to trying to conjure clever responses to the posts and a few lines of woeful, why-me poetry.
Last Saturday, the first day of the two-session writing workshop, I was only in the beginning of the cold and made it through the morning before the real storm hit. One assignment to complete before the second session this Saturday was to email to one of the workshop leaders a one- to three-sentence example of strong, authentic voice in someone else's writing. So, I've been thinking about voice and what makes a voice strong.
I picked up a few books I've recently read and enjoyed. In one, the voice disappeared into the story. Is that part of what makes it an enjoyable read? I tried to look for examples of what made the voice distinct and authentic besides the use of regional expressions or words of the author's native language. Is Khaled Husseini constructing a sentence in a way that's unique to him? I don't know. But he captured details of the many ways humans relate to one-another, from warm, loving behavior to spiteful cruelty and violence. Very heavy stuff, but beautifully written.
I paged through books from David Sedaris and Sherman Alexie, two authors who use humor to lighten some of the pain in their stories. Both authors have distinct voices and infuse humor into stories which could otherwise become heartbreaking as they divulge the challenges they have faced, especially in the case of Alexie, a Native American author. Their backgrounds are very different as are their styles for using humor. Sedaris puts his humor front and center: you know you're supposed to laugh; Alexie teases about a culture that is not my own so I am uncertain, must back up to re-read some passages before hearing his irony coming through. My laughter is somewhat uneasy. Maybe that's part of his point.
I look at my own writing; my fiction and some of my essays. What is my voice? I’m searching for it by listening to my words, sometimes reading my poetry aloud. Sometimes I hear the voice begin to tell the story, like the opening voice-over in the film To Kill a Mockingbird, based on one of my all-time favorite books - Harper Lee’s only novel. I like thinking in this story-teller voice because, after all, that’s what I’m trying to do: to tell a good story.
Earlier this winter I had an editor friend read and critique an essay I wrote. I took his suggestions and rewrote the piece. I read it over. Then it sat. I was pretty uncomfortable with it and though I knew he had given me some thoughtful suggestions, I couldn’t figure out why I no longer had any interest in the piece. Didn’t even like the story. Now I have an answer: because infusing it with his words and phrasing took away my voice. It no longer read like my story, but someone else’s idea of my story. Finally realizing this gives me great relief because I’d started to worry that I just couldn’t write that story even though I know I’ve been writing some good stuff.
I’ll admit that I’m all over the board with my writing, listening for whatever story comes into my head on any given day, then just running with it. I now envision a series of stories that make up a whole. I feel more comfortable with this format than I previously had. It’s a revelation that comes from reading authors - including Alexie - who use different formats to craft their novels, and maybe from spending a few days behind the blurry gauze of those cold meds where snippets of dreams might all be telling part of a great big worry. I know that if I just keep going, following the various threads, I will weave together a story that is filled with truth, beauty and a little pain. With any luck, I will also find a little humor.