On the natural voice.
A colleague once gave me some wonderful advice before a job interview. She said 'Be yourself, but be yourself emphatically'. Reflecting on today's newsletter, it strikes me that's pretty good advice for finding 'your voice' in fiction, too.
Kind of a rant here. Apologies.
The questioner writes: "I've been told not to think too hard about my prose." And i want to say, who told you that? If you are a prose writer, ALL you are doing is thinking about your prose. That's the job; the mission. Find the prose that tells your story, and then hone that prose until it's exactly right. George's stories work because of the strength of his prose--he's found the ONLY way to tell the stories he wants to tell. (And also they work because he's just plain a fantastic writer.)
A story runs on voice and rhythm. And every story demands its own voice and rhythm. You have to discover it every time. Even if you eventually find what may be called "Your Voice." You still have to re-discover it every time you write a story, because every story is different.
Every time I hear someone advise people to just "write the way you talk," I want to say, yeah but i scream and make noises. If I wrote the way i talked, it would be only this: Fuck, fuck, fuck, aaarrggghhhhh!
God, people are so hard on themselves. Everything's gonna be okay. Write as much as you can write, and then look at it and see what you think. What YOU think, not someone else. Practice writing in all kinds of ways. See what fits, what works, what makes you happy, what gets your point across.
The best advice I ever got was from the poet Marvin Bell: Read and then write, using what you read. (Yeah, another aphorism. But this one works for me.) That's the way to hear voices and sentences. And if you do enough reading and then writing, eventually you'll find a "voice" that works for you, at that moment, for that story.
I know that I seem very full of myself around here. But really I'm just a work in progress, and putting my thoughts in these little boxes of Story Club often helps me find clarity.
God damn I love how liberating the guidance here is.
You know what? I hate Hemingway. I hate his writing, I hate his characters, and I loathe almost everything I can think of about him as a human being. I find that opening paragraph affected, performative, posturing, and boring. Now, maybe he was necessary as an antidote to what came before him, and served a useful purpose in the history of American literature. But I will never understand who set him up as this oracle and shining example of what good writing is supposed to be for all time, and how so many in our generation bought it - and still struggle against it. I declare my stand against bombastic, phony, toxically macho bullshit as practiced by "Papa" (gack). And I'm gonna use all the adjectives and even <gasp!> adverbs I feel appropriate. So. There. (Whew. I feel better now.)
George, I love the way you circle a point - in widening and narrowing spirals, until you reach the center. This struck me: "What I found . . . 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)." I have spent a month in and out of the hospital, with sepsis, being tortured in my failing old body to save my life (which they did, but I lost my "self" in there somewhere - at least for awhile), and find myself thinking of "human damage." To self and other. Even in the throes, while this familiar old body was rejecting one antibiotic after another, and my veins were getting burned out by chemicals, I knew I could not write about the experience. Not directly. But I think I can follow the spiral and get back to my voices. They make life worth living, for me, in the long and short runs. And I find I want to find one(s) to describe that strange experience. Thank you.
Makes me think of driving. Sometimes you’re very aware of every turn, every light, every pedestrian. Other times you roll into the driveway and realise you have no memory of the journey.
Thanks for the answer to my question!
In some ways, Story Club works like therapy for me. Not just in the sense that it feels good to have these kinds of insecurities addressed in so thoroughly and conscientiously, but also because the most important parts of these responses are often things I (sort of) already know. Does that sound arrogant? Does anyone else feel that way?
What I mean is, the thing I struggle with most in writing is just remembering all the basics. To be honest, to try hard, to pay attention. What’s difficult is waking up day after day for, I think, six years now, and remembering to stay present and committed. There’s nothing better for that than Story Club. So thanks!
I love all these thoughtful comments, and I know I should try for my own, but my ADD mind has to get this out first: I love that beautiful dog leaping into the woods! Straight up gorgeous! Okay. This is a generous post, and I love the idea that the right aphorism will validate your efforts and not the other way around. I will say, my mind birdwalked again when I read the Hemingway opening. I thought it was lovely, but mostly what I thought of was a writers’ conference I’d been to where agents sat in front of an audience of writers and listened to the opening pages of novels. These pages were submitted anonymously by audience members. The agents would raise their hands at the point where they would stop reading and reject the submission. Without exception, every submission that began with a description of nature, no matter how poetic or lovely was immediately rejected. So—the agents would never even know if the novel was a good one. Honest to God, that was one of the saddest reality checks of my life.
For my day job, I teach ESL. My students there want to learn how to sound natural in English, and so I teach them common usage and proper grammar and efficient phrases for everyday communication. One of the joys of teaching new English speakers is being surprised by the ways they find to communicate deep truths with only some of the most basic tools of the language. However, in my writing life, I don't want to struggle with the limitations of common vernacular. English is an extravagant language! When I'm writing, part of what I want to do is just have fun with this insanely unwieldy vocabulary we have to work with. I want all the colors in the palette and I want to lay on the paint thick.
I was reading along about the flawed metaphor and racing into the woods, when I saw a picture of my dog. My 'dog to be' actually. We're picking her up in two days. She'll be running, jumping, tolling, swimming—all 'ing' words. A woman in my critique group calls all 'ing' words gerunds and being gerunds, they must all be wrong. One day, I had to tell her that sometimes the prose calls for an 'ing', to make everything an 'ed' is to kill it, at least in my work. She's got all the aphorisms
down pat' and her writing is boring. I totally believe in going with the magic when it comes through. Just write it all out as long as it's flowing (and revise later). I think that's what Nabokov meant by 'aesthetic bliss'.
Dang, George, you're good with words
Thanks for sharing! As a physicist writing in spare time to become a writer, here are my thoughts on "natural" voice. 1) Literature is performative just like acting in theatre or on the screen. Verisimilitude (to internal monologue or actual dialogues) on pages (or stage/screen) does not sound natural to me --> still figuring out why. Like when I read my own writing out loud, it sounds unnatural even if it's a real conversation recorded verbatim. Some polish and restructure does not make it fake but more "natural" on pages. Again, don't know why linguistically/psychologically this is the case but I am trusting my ears. 2) I am taking a similar route as early Georges's to find my own literary (and performative) voice -- I started from a grandmaster (Hemingway or Chekov and for my own case Donna Tartt/Charles Dickens ) that I enjoy reading more so than others --> imitate the sentence structure/plot/character --> find natural prose/plots and keep working on the unnatural ones --> wrap up and repeat on new stories. I am still am amateur without any literary publication, but the story from last month sure reads a lot more "natural" to myself than the stuff from three years ago when I had just started.
Great question. I love this subject. I'm thinking about the poet Frank O'Hara who often seemed to be just writing down everything he was doing in his poems, where he went, what he bought, saw on the street. And yet the voice doesn't sound anything like the way we speak. I like that you mentioned compression, George. It's another way of saying choice. Writers and poets have to make choices about what's allowed to come in and what's not, and those choices reflect a mind at work. Voice is what it's usually called. I often feel, when writing a poem, that I become a different person, and the deeper I get into the poem, the closer the attention I pay to how that person sounds.
I'm reading "Monsters, A Fan's Dilemma" by Claire Dederer. I love her conversational style...I feel that I'm inside her brain trying to sort these difficult things out with her, stuff I've thought so much about myself. Whenever I read a book that gives me that feeling, I want to try to get there, too, in my own writing. Complicated subjects told in this way, like we're hashing it out together, works so beautifully. At least to me it does.
This was another gem of a post.
You’ve got me thinking about the relationship between humor and humility. And the underlying honesty that can be found in both. (We are all a mess, we are all in this mess together.)
You’ve also got me thinking that, for a person who tells stories in both pictures & words, there might be different natural voices for each medium. That different aspects (like humor) might come forward more easily in one form than the other. So interesting! Thank you.
So much great advice here, per usual. Thank you again, George.
I've mentioned before that I spent some of my professional writing life in Hollywood writing for television. When I got my first job, I had a novel about to be published (long since out of print now) and years before that, I honed my writing as a journalist. I pretty much faked my way into this TV job -- I had written a novel while living in LA and my agent pushed me to try writing a script which I'd never done. Even back in those days there were dozens of books on writing and, it seemed, a writing guru on every corner hawking their latest "paradigm". I bought a couple of those books and started reading and quickly discovered that the favored way to "teach" scriptwriting was to reduce it into equations. Literal equations as in X+Y=million dollar script.
These books were revered in the LA writing community so I thought I needed them to succeed. They were very specific -- inciting incident by page 30. Instructions on how/when to introduce characters and Venn diagrams on arcs and action sequences and false endings and ... well, on and on like that. I felt like I was back in my least favorite place in school - math class.
I almost gave up, thinking I was too stupid to "get it".
This is all to say most of the stuff people write about writing isn't worth your time. Reading writing is a way better way to figure it out (I ended up finding a TV script, taking it apart -- literally taping the pages to the wall of my tiny apartment -- and breaking it down that way). And yes, script writing is a lot about structure and some of that is useful but George's point -- that your writing should be about what moves you, what grabs you, what leads you to gallop with joy (if not confidence) into those woods -- is the best kind of advice. And if you think about it, it's a lot less weight on your shoulders to write like YOU as opposed to writing [fill in the blank famous writer].
Going back to previous posts by George on the subject of finding your voice/style, your voice won't necessarily come out of you whole (I mean if it does, we'll likely all be reading you). This part takes work. Writing is rewriting and rewriting your rewrites. It's in this where you find your voice and the more you try to trust your own gut as opposed to trying to be like Hemingway or someone else, the more likely you are to find a voice/style that makes you happy AND tells a good tale. As one seasoned writing once told me, nobody is going to write like Hemingway except Hemingway. You might be able to sound like him or seem like him, but you ain't him so don't try to be him. Be you.
Finally, while I know this is a bit of fawning over our Fearless and Kindly Leader, but I cannot recommend his most recent book on writing, "A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life"enough. I'm on my third read and second listen (it's a FABULOUS audio book read by George himself with many super cool guests). To my mind, this is how you write about writing -- by exploring the written word by the people who are freaking great at it and then having a guide like George to help you better understand the choices these authors made to create master works. As I work through my current project, it's my number one resource on how to be a better writer. And I think it's helping truly.