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What Would You Do If I Sang Out of Tune?

 

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What do people mean when they talk about voice? For me, the first book I ever read that screamed voice was Catcher in the Rye. Then I discovered the confessional poets whose voices I loved. Is voice only first person? Is voice quirky, inflected, blood-soaked, ironic, quixotic, besotted, divided?  Junot Diaz, David Sedaris. How does it suffuse third person or omniscient narrators. Through tone, detail, pacing, revelation.

Can you teach voice, develop it, find it?

6 Responses

  1. “Can you teach voice, develop it, find it?”

    I don’t think you can “teach voice.” I think you can teach a beginning writer to be open to their individual, natural forms of expression, and through such openness — such paying of attention — come to develop their voice in a manner which may appear to be the finding of it.

    I had a teacher who said we all have an “Ur-sentence,” a basic style of communication that grows out of how we first learned to think and speak. He didn’t call this “voice,” but I can see how the two can be connected. He said that our greatest power as writers comes out of our recognition and development of this “Ur-sentence.”

    Do we have just one voice? Hemingway is always Hemingway. Faulkner is always Faulkner. I can’t recall if Faulkner wrote in first-person singular. Hemingway did first and third, but still always recognizably as Hemingway. Sedaris is a writer I think of as being, shall we say, extremely voiced. It’s hard to imagine him writing in any other voice that wasn’t recognizably his unique voice. Diaz I haven’t read that much of, so I can’t say.

    Can the writer’s voice change over time, and if so, how much? Isn’t Sebald always Sebald, Kafka always Kafka? But read Chekhov — his earliest stories seem that they could have been written by just about any old hack blown in from the steppes, but he soon enough comes to show the clarity of vision and precision of voice that are unmistakably his.

    As for whether voice is “only first person . . . quirky, inflected, blood-soaked, ironic, quixotic, besotted, divided,” your questions touch on the gimmickry and salesmanship that form not so much the bass rumblings as the high-pitched scraping squeaks of our commodified world. That said, a writer has to have a voice, almost by definition. It’s probably best to have one that’s genuine, no matter what else it may be.

    You can only, truly, teach voice if you are teaching yourself, through learning to recognize it in the writings of others, how to develop it and find it in your own.

  2. I hear you.

  3. “Can you teach voice, develop it, find it?”

    I think it depends on the writer and, it’s always easy to spot when a writer is trying too hard, isn’t it?

    In the most simplistic of examples, to me, it’s no different than how we react/respond individually. The way I’m replying to this post right now makes me sound different from Tetman above, right?

    IMO, a writer should know as much as possible about their characters, whether the writer is coming at the story from first or third person POV. This is the foundation, or the building block of voice because by knowing this, a writer understands what their characters think and feel, and they know what they would do, or say when put into various situations.

    If a writer thinks about friends and family, and they think about conversations/experiences they’ve had with those individuals, how those people would react to various situations, it’s not very different than that, really. By that, I mean that we know those people well, and could likely write them in such a way that a reader would see them as we do.

    The more I write about this trying to explain how I think I understand it, the more I could go on. And on.

  4. One’s true voice is the lack of self-consciousness.

  5. Yeah, well, okay, so, I’m a first person writer who has a hard time snapping someone else’s synapses. Maybe it’s because I like making everything ABOUT me or maybe it’s because all I know is ME.

    I like what DONNA said about knowing characters. She’s on the mark.
    And TET’s genuine voice, yup agree.
    DIANE, absolutely and MIKE D, can you hear me now:)
    BETSY, your voice is amazing.

    I think I covered all the bases this morning so boys and girls, have a nice day.
    And I mean that.

  6. It’s possible to nurture Voice, to create supportive environments for new writers to find themselves. Pat Schneider and Nina Shengold have worked in public housing, prisons, and the third world helping mostly women find their Voice. In my experience, Voice comes first, then craft, for most new writers. In many respects, Voice is “meaning it,” feeling then expressing what has significance to the self. Describe a rock, or the prom, or a conversation on a subway, and if it means something to the writer it will have meaning to us, and we will hear the writer’s Voice.

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