Voice

Voice, as a writer, is prob­a­bly the aspect of my craft I have had the great­est strug­gle with. While I have giv­en far more atten­tion, here and else­where, to the relat­ed con­cept of per­sona, the two are not inter­change­able, even for a writer of per­son­al nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion.

For years I wrote eas­i­ly in a man­ic, breezy, pre­pos­ter­ous­ly pre­ten­tious, first-per­son prose style. It was that style, already nascent, that crys­tal­ized into the very first issue of The Float­ing Egg back in 1997, and that car­ried it along near­ly to the end of our print run. I do think it is to my cred­it that I kept that voice so con­sis­tent for so long. But it was a also a con­trivance, and what­ev­er shards of my actu­al self that it reflect­ed were those hor­ri­bly dis­tort­ed pre­ten­sions that I had active­ly encour­aged to accrete, like bar­na­cles, onto the ossi­fy­ing hull my youth­ful per­son­al­i­ty. That is to say, although I shared a great deal of myself on those years in my writ­ings, there was very lit­tle hon­esty in the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of my voice in the pages of the Egg; I was not speak­ing in my nat­ur­al voice either on the page or in per­son. If I was not hon­est with myself, it became impos­si­ble to be tru­ly hon­est as a writer. I had con­trived a per­sona, and had expend­ed so much ener­gy in the years-long process that it would be a long, painful decade before I was able, with a great deal of help, to emerge again as my own plain self.

I didn’t real­ly think about voice in my writ­ing until my last year of col­lege. I was tak­ing a course with a pro­fes­sor I had pre­vi­ous­ly had for my very first Eng­lish course three years before. She had tak­en me to task then for the absurd­ly grandiose style of my prose: an ado­les­cence spent pri­mar­i­ly read­ing Dick­ens was bound to leave a mark. Now, near­ing the end of my major, I had done a lot of writ­ing and grow­ing, yet I remained large­ly unre­pen­tant when it came to my prose style.

In one of the first class meet­ings that last fall of the sec­ond mil­len­ni­um, we were shar­ing our writ­ten reflec­tions on the read­ing (prob­a­bly Annie Dillard’s Pil­grim At Tin­ker Creek if mem­o­ry serves) when the con­ver­sa­tion turned to style: first Dillard’s, and then, some­how, my own. I was lov­ing Dillard’s prose, and I am sure I had expressed this is some over-the-top metaphor that took up half of a hand­writ­ten page in one long artis­ti­cal­ly-tor­tured sen­tence. The instruc­tor took this up and com­ment­ed, first on my state­ment, but then on my words them­selves.

I remem­ber that back in 190 [the fresh­man course] you had dif­fi­cul­ty con­trol­ling this voice,” Pro­fes­sor O’Reilley told me, and the rest of the class, too. While I was grat­i­fied by the approval implic­it in this damn­ing with faint praise, I was also a bit mor­ti­fied to have her judge­ment on my writ­ing bald­ly pro­nounced in front of my peers like this. I well remem­bered the con­ver­sa­tion she and I had had back then, and while I had tak­en some of her words to heart at the time, I was also deeply attached to the grandiose rhetor­i­cal flour­ish­es that had been my steady diet for so long.

But at twen­ty-one I was con­sid­er­ably more will­ing to reflect upon my per­son­al craft of writ­ing than I had been at eigh­teen. I start­ed to get what she was say­ing, and to rec­og­nize there was valid­i­ty to her citi­cism. And with years of reflec­tion, and a good deal of prac­tice, and many oth­er fac­tors, I have been grad­u­al­ly — and painful­ly — to devel­op what I hope is a large­ly nat­ur­al, hon­est voice in my writ­ing. This post, or this blog in gen­er­al so far, may not be shin­ing exam­ples of that hard-won integri­ty of expres­sion. Old habits are hard to break, and grandios­i­ty still comes as nat­u­ral­ly as breath­ing to me when I puts words into print. But when I am hon­ing my prose these days, I am look­ing hard at what I am say­ing, striv­ing to make every word tell, as Strunk and White would have it.

It is a strug­gle to be myself upon the page, a strug­gle made no eas­i­er by the yet-unfin­ished dis­cov­ery of who my true self is. But writ­ing toward that self-aware­ness is as good a method as any oth­er I could think of. And I think it is work­ing.

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