On the natural voice.
I don't know what it's like for most people, but my first year or two writing fiction came with a ton of advice. Mostly, this advice came in the way of sentence-long nuggets of wisdom, many quoted straight from Hemingway, but others that just seemed to burble up from the internet itself. Write short sentences. Adjectives go in the trash. Show, don't tell. Don't shift tense. Remember, at every waking moment, your audience.
Part of my maturation process as a writer was learning to internalize, and then forget, aphorisms like that. Except there are a few I still haven't been able to get out of my head, I guess because I still believe them. Or because I'm not sure whether I should believe them.
For example, I've been told not to think too hard about my prose. That it should sound natural, or as Hemingway would say, "straight." But then I look at your writing. You can tell me all day that you write texts and letters in the same voice you're employing in Victory Lap, but of course you're not. As best as I can tell, you're trying pretty hard to make the prose in that story, and many others, sound different from your natural writing voice.
So what's the deal? I often find myself drifting away from my natural writing voice for one reason or another, into some other voice, and then I hear Hemingway chiding me for trying too hard. I know there's no simple should in writing. I guess I'm just hoping you can shed some light on this contradiction.
Right, a great question, and a hard one too.
And you’re absolutely right – when I’m writing emails I’m not using the voice of, say, “Victory Lap.” (I could but I don’t.) (The writing I do here for Story Club is pretty close to my “natural” voice; I’m not trying too hard to be funny or stylistically inventive – just trying to communicate.)
When I’m writing a story, I’m trying to be wild, lively, funny, entertaining, excessive. I’m trying to get your attention, even if there’s a trace of irritation in the attention you begin paying me. I’m trying to charm, make heat – trying to do something up on a highwire.
To me, the main question is: Am I getting any power into my prose? Without power, we can’t have truth or beauty, or any of that.
So, I am sacrificing, or offering up, my pre-control over how I sound, in order to sound like something, something uncommon.
The first goal is simply to distinguish myself from other writers. But I also know that writing such prose is also the way I get to my deepest truths.
Writers love aphorisms because our job is so weird and subjective. An aphorism feels like something we can hold on to.
But I’d say the best use of an aphorism is when we discover something on our own and then recall an aphorism that exactly describes what we’ve just done. This is like a confirmatory little hand on the shoulder coming down through the lineage, saying, “Right, yes, exactly: you just knew something, just now, and it’s something other writers have known, and its essence is contained in that aphorism. Go forth proudly. (But don’t cling to the aphorism.)”
This is different from “steering toward” an aphorism. (“Damn it, I have to remember to ‘show, not tell.’”)
For me, that steering move is always a buzz-kill. In the end, I’ll find that I’ve satisfied the aphorism but written something boring, with no life in it. I showed, didn’t tell – and yet the prose is still dead on the page, because I wasn’t listening to the prose – I was on aphorism-induced AutoPilot.
When I’m writing at my best there are no advice-nuggets or aphorisms or guideposts or fences in my head. I’m writing out of (or toward) a certain feeling. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe and, come to think of it, it’s not always the same feeling, but it is a feeling.
It has something to do with trying to be impressive, or unusual; I’m trying to make the reader go, “Wow, what’s with this guy? He’s excessive. Is it to good purpose?”
I am, in fact, trying to shine, and that involves writing and re-writing to see in what manner I might be able to shine.
When we write toward an aphorism, we are, at some level, thinking, “If I just do it right, it will be good.” There’s a box-checking quality to this kind of writing.
But I think what we’re really trying to do is be like a dog that, lured by a scent, goes racing off into the woods. This is a flawed metaphor but – the reader is in the business of admiring the way that that dog is running. Isn’t that the case? Don’t we love that moment when we feel a writer racing off into the woods, going after something secret but undeniable? (I don’t mean “uncontrolled wildness” here, but more like “heading recklessly toward the joy.”)
Prose that results from a writer who is in that state is going to tend to be good prose.
As for Hemingway, here’s the opening of “A Farewell to Arms.”
“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.”
Reading this, it’s clear what makes this idea of naturalness so seductive. That is beautiful, evocative, disciplined writing, and its power comes from the pared-down, truthful feeling of it – the absence of evident showboating.
And yet – he is showboating; that is not anyone’s natural speaking voice; it has been meticulously chosen and rarefied – it’s been prepared, and worked over, and its goal is 1) to make you see the physical reality, but also, 2) to amaze you – to amaze you with how poetic it is, for all of its apparent naturalness.
So, next time Hem chides you, dear questioner, for “trying too hard,” you might point out to him that, in this beautiful passage, he was trying pretty hard too.
He was trying hard to stretch his voice into poetry. And he did it, which is why we’re still talking about him.
Here's Hemingway in a letter:
“Then there is the other secret. There isn't any symbolysm [sic]. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”
I can hear him in there but it’s not exactly his literary voice (it’s not dense enough, not enough is happening in each line).
So, his literary voice was an edited, rarefied version of his “natural,” i.e., everyday, letter-writing, voice. He was choosing, as we all must, as he wrote and edited. On what basis was he choosing? He was choosing so as to honor what he valued in prose: “the simple, objective sentence.”
So we might call his literary voice “high-end natural.” I’d say this of Tolstoy also, and Chekhov. The idea is that there’s something honest about not being too ostentatious or clever in one’s prose; there’s value in writing efficiently and simply and telling the truth.
But, on the other hand, there’s Nabokov, and Angela Carter, and Donald Bartheleme, and Toni Morrison, and Faulkner, and, come to think of it, our new buddy Gogol.
So, how about this, as a working theory: the writers we love choose, and then hone, some method of moving from their everyday voice to something more rarefied. They work hard at this. The “chosen” voice has something to do with what they value. Hemingway valued simplicity, and this seemed to emanate from his sense of the world, and especially his war experiences. Tolstoy valued truth, and we feel this to emanate from his version of Christianity, so suspicious of man’s fallen nature.
To find a writer’s deep values somehow honored in the prose injects an added dimension of meaning into the story.
So, to simplify a little (probably too much): part of our job is to find out what we value (in life, in prose), and then get more of that in our sentences.
What I found, back when I was mired in my own Hemingway period, was that something went missing from my work when I hewed too closely to watchwords like “natural” and “simple” and “straight,” and that missing thing was humor – or, really, humility (the feeling that life is not under our control and that all human damage gets done when we think it is under our control; the connected belief in the primacy and centrality of the self).
So, I wanted my prose to somehow reflect humility and uncertainty and brokenness. And I wanted it to be funny – off the mark, at times purposely inefficient, jargon-laced, rambling.
This kind of prose, I soon found, reflected my real values and (a very important “and”) I knew how to do it.
I knew how, that is, how to move toward it as I edited.
But I do believe (as Hem did, as Tolstoy did, as Nabokov, and Carter, and Bartheleme, and Morrison, and Faulkner, and Gogol did, as any good writer does) in efficiency. I don’t want to waste your time. And I believe in simplicity; I don’t want my prose to sound too cleverly contrived; I want it to sound natural, in the sense that I want it to fool you into possibly mistaking it for real speech (so that you don’t resist it too much). But even inefficient prose can be efficient inefficient prose. And wonky corporate speech can be written in such a way that it is the best version of itself.
I want my prose to do the thing it wants to do (whatever that is) with grace and as little waste as possible. But, as you’ve suggested, dear questioner, that doesn’t necessarily strike a reader as a “natural” voice. Allison’s voice in “Victory Lap,” I’d argue, is very efficient, but nobody talks like that. I’ve made her talk the way she talks, however, with maximum efficiency (or tried to, anyway).
Our narrator in “CommComm” is speaking in a voice that is sort of a riff on a vernacular way of speaking, but with more oddness and compression and selection than anyone actually speaking could muster. I know this because it took me so many drafts for me to get him talking that way.
We might think of it in musical terms. The “natural” sounds we make when talking to someone are not singing. When we decide to sing, we consent to make sounds that are purposely not our natural sounds. We stretch or expand or exaggerate or rarefy our natural sounds. Sometimes, as part of our strategy, we might try to make these sounds appear “natural.” (I think, for example, of Tom Waites singing “Time” – it’s like speech until it isn’t, and it moves us in part when the speaking lifts up into singing.)
Likewise in prose. One of the reasons Raymond Carver’s prose moves us is because we can almost (almost) mistake it for every day, quotidian speech.
Here’s the opening of “Cathedral.”
“This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut. He called my wife from his in-law’s. Arrangements were made. He would come by train, a five-hour trip, and my wife would meet him at the station. She hadn’t seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle ten years ago. But she and the blind man had kept in touch. They made tapes and mailed them back and forth. I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit. He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeingeye dogs. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.”
That’s not natural speech. It’s close, but not quite: you can feel the intention in it, can feel the many choices Carver has made, especially in the sentence-to-sentence rhythms, and in the junctures between sentences.
So what is this “natural,” we’re talking about, really?
Sit in a café and write down everything you hear, word for word (what could be more “natural” than that?) and the result will not sound natural at all. (I did this experiment once: secretly recorded my mother and grandmother talking in the kitchen. The result was wild, staccato, interrupted, almost unintelligible on the page – even post-modern.)
To go back to the beginning, and to tell you the most true thing I know about writing…the thing is, we have to find our power.
How do you sound, such that the people who are listening are drawn toward you?
That’s your true voice, in my view: the one that makes people turn toward you and be captivated by you.
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on all of this…