The Writer's Voices
Permission to be what we are
One of the defined quests of writing as a profession and as a life is to find your voice. Or maybe that should be “to find your Voice”. There’s a distinct sense of the essential and irreducible, the ineluctable ineffable mystical which separates the priesthood of art from the mere strivers.
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This seems akin, to me, to the idea that you can’t give your characters access to technology because it spoils them; spoils their connection with the underlying Human, and spoils them in the sense that it makes everything too easy, creating a pampered illusion of life where there should be a connection to the deeper real.
Authenticity is the name of the game, we’re told, which is also why genre is out, ornamentation is (tautologically) otiose, and austere prose without unnecessary description is the true path. Language is the flawed medium by which we express the irreducible ideal, and the less of it we use the better we are.
Taking these in reverse order: the encounter between the framing of sentences, moods and narratives, the creation of characters to express the idea, is precisely the business of writing, and a book or a story exists in that encounter and nowhere else. The idea is not perfect, it merely has the advantage of being diffuse, a direction rather than a journey. It’s the act of uttering it that makes it wonderful - which is one reason, incidentally, why we should treasure our translators, who travel our journey for us in foreign lands, and arrive at the same mountain decked in other flowers.
Genre is a convenience for shelving and buying, not an artistic category. The word affords us first order assumptions which are often wrong, but we’re limited in space, time and attention, so we need that shorthand until we actually test a text and find out whether it chimes with us. The instruction my children frequently encounter in school exercises to avoid genre is nonsensical to me. How? If they are steered away from detective stories and fantasy, they must inevitably land somewhere, be it reportage, historical fiction, or neo-realism. The injunction, tacitly, is not to write cliché. Good luck with that while you rule out the most obvious venues for imaginative work. A fantastical world of whatever stripe - criminal, magical, futuristic, historical - does not entail a loss of authenticity in the writing, only a departure from the obvious whose rules and reasons have to be known entirely to the writer rather than ebb and flow for convenience of splash.
It’s the expression of self that matters, of human experience, and sometimes that is better approached elliptically than directly. Orwell’s Animal Farm is hardly a scrupulous slice of literal truth, but it lacks nothing in bite. If he hadn’t departed from the real so far as to write about despotic pigs and Airstrip One, would we still know his name?
The distaste for technology is worth a brief inquisition, because the assumption is that technology interferes with our humanity, whereas in fact it is definitive of it. We are not merely tool-users but tool-makers. The entire experience of the novel - the very existence of text - depends on technology. We as a society exist in the encounter between our biological and cognitive selves and the tools we’ve created to meet our needs and increase our command of our environment. The authentic, atechnological human is cold, naked and hungry. After that it’s simply a question of what level of technology is narratively and tonally comfortable - for some writers (and perhaps even more for some critics) the mere existence of the digital explodes the literary tone and must be denied. There’s nothing wrong with a conceit which examines person to person communication failures in an agonised and unmediated setting where no one can use a mobile phone or go online and vent, or seek advice from friends by WhatsApp, but to contend that it is a priori more real and more true than a story where these options exist is self-indulgent. Clearing away the mess of modern life to examine two people in a single room feels like truth and may reveal some, but is no less a fantasy than the same two people stranded in a fairytale magic lamp. There’s no such space, as we all have cause to know - we exist in a continuity, and even in a tent in the woods with our devices stored safely far away, we’re conscious of yesterday’s errors and tomorrow’s demands. There’s authenticity in the mess, too, and in recounting how we move through it. A friend of mine, long ago, was considered a dedicated and even gifted student in a zen monastery. His teacher congratulated him. “Now,” the old man said, “go and see if you can still do it out there in the world.”
And so finally to the Voice, the one true tool with the reported power to elevate a writer from artisan to artist. First up: don’t disrespect the artisan or their grip on craft. Pure learned experience, perfect execution, can do more to elevate writing than genius by itself, if there even is such a thing. Second, if a voice is flippant, amused, even shallow, perhaps that is a statement of self to be treasured. Michael Gove once complained of The Gone-Away World that reading it was like being trapped in a car with a hyperactive puppy. Yes, it is. The book bounces, frolics, licks your face and steals your sandwiches. It expresses who I was then, and what I knew about writing and all sorts of other things. We are not fixed as we move through time; we grow and change and learn and are hurt, find joy in unexpected corners, and our willingness and ability to write about those things grows and shifts. We try out new approaches and fail, succeed, redefine and retrench. Our voice changes. There’s nothing sacred about the voice of experience, either. Is Greta Thunberg less authentic than David Malpass?
Then, too, we may be more than one thing at a time. The voice may need to express multiplicity to be honest. God knows, I’m a lot of things: husband, father, brother, son, dog-owner, baker, one-time tango enthusiast, Cornish-born Londoner, European, SF geek, crime junkie, green lefty, traveller, swimmer, skier, speaker, introvert, firebrand, theorist, generalist… writer. I love Borges, Winterson and Delaney, Bujold and Roy and Conan Doyle. I love Chandler and Spillane. I’m full of hope for what the next five years will bring, still recovering from the horror of the last five. Each of those has a voice in me, and a place in my voice. My voices. We are not required to be coherent, to stretch ourselves thin enough to pass through the eye of this bizarre needle. The voice does not need to express a single self, to be the same as it was yesterday. It needs only to express its own truths, tell its stories, and resonate in the reader.
That’s the gig: tell the story. Do the job. Let yourself speak, and try not to be afraid of who you are. The voice is what it is.
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