As I have noted elsewhere here, my mother’s parents were illiterate. They were the type of mountain people who knew one book only and that by ear, line by line repeated, and knew those stories as they played out in their own lives. Their deep knowledge was hard won and held closely. When advice was given it should be heeded.
My grandfather would have been a good writer if he had been born to the opportunity. He told stories as easily as cutting a plug of tobacco and they usually lasted about as long. The final spit toward the nearest gully was the end of it. He often told stories we had heard before, but we listened and laughed to ourselves at the changes along the way.
My grandmother was a quiet and greathearted woman whose feelings were shared easily in a few words and made clear by the way she moved. Her story was in her very being. When knobby arthritic fingers turned gently over a small guinea hen egg just gathered from a hidden nest you knew quickly that it was warm and freshly laid.
My father’s parents wrote letters–high Catholic letters intended to instruct and bless and ask for blessing. There was a great deal of small personal detail to be found in them if you were patient and smart to the mannerisms and conventions. I was not, and quickly put them aside as a boy. More recently I discovered a few copies of my great grandfather’s letters to his son. There is no complaint for the hardships of life and much thanks for the gifts there. “I am slowly gaining strength. Was out to visit Ma’s grave & cut some grass this forenoon” was enough to say he had been sick. There I found his love-hate for politics, and newspapers, and the country that was his, not by birth, but by the gift of his own father’s escape from famine with a young family of my blood and name.
In high school I was blessed by a man who was a failed writer himself, and a failed artist, but not a failed teacher. I talked my way into his class because I needed the extra credit just to graduate. It was an advanced class and my grades were not good enough for entry so I gave him a piece of my first novel–a bad piece of work, but I suppose he thought anyone willing to write that much needed some kind of help. He taught us how to write like Hemingway, and Wolfe, and Fitzgerald. The mimicry was a lesson. Imitation was easy.
It was my own fault that I did not learn the simple and truer meaning of his lesson then, and had to prove it out the hard way afterward.
I don’t read aloud in public very well. I am too self-conscious. The sound of my voice always bothered me. And I was never a self-contained sort of fellow in any case, and react to other people too easily. Perhaps that is why I enjoy the solitude of writing.
It is common to hear writers speak of ‘voice.’ I didn’t start hearing mine until I overcame my reluctance to read to myself. In fact, reading aloud to myself changed everything. I re-discovered Thoreau that way. And Melville. And Conrad. And Shakespeare.
The spoken voice is not the matter. It may be whispered. The matter is to listen to your voice and find the truth in it. If you can shame yourself, you can shame others.
And your voice is not mine, any more than mine is Melville’s or my great grandfather’s. Finding one’s voice is just finding a way to listen.
Poor Vachel Lindsay tried to find his voice in public song, on an imagined stage transported from place to place by his own two feet–performance poetry of a different age. The drum of cadence overcame the reason in his words, and pitch obscured the emotion. When the novelty of it waned, he was betrayed by his own device, and poisoned on the world that ignored him.
Device is not voice, nor style.
Listen! Say the words again. It is why Shakespeare can be spoken now and understood while Byron is mostly lost. If you need a second education just to hear, then you might expect a smaller audience. At the end, the high culture of Byron meant nothing to his Greek compatriots. His love of freedom meant everything. I would have loved to hear him speak to them directly.
Thoreau spoke to Emerson. It was a high standard. But he spoke in his own voice, oddly thought, with unexpected emphasis. On Cape Cod, he tells us of meeting a young boy along the way, to no other purpose than the mere fact of it, and then later he speaks of the hardened women of that place–perhaps because he knew he was not hard enough for them. And that Cape Cod is gone to us now excepting those words. But you can know it still!
At Walden, Thoreau passes judgment on his poor Irish neighbor before stealing the remains of the man’s house. What once infuriated me now captures the ephemeral existence of two types, both of my own blood. Could I be so honest in print? Could I be so honest aloud to myself?
A voice is not perfectly voweled or always edged by consonants. A voice must betray the writer as much as it portrays the subject. There can be doubt in a meaning just as there is doubt in the mind, but this is not an excuse for badly singing a bad song. And a voice shaped neatly by the numbers of expectation will be quickly forgotten.
It was popular once to write like Hemingway. I understand the charm. But I never trained in a city newsroom or hid in a too shallow ditch to avoid a bullet. Now the urgency of digital film moves action along at a pace that Hemingway, or Melville, or Conrad would have found obnoxious. Reality is redefined by mimicry, conveniently digested by the numbers–digits are so much faster. So move along. Move along. You’ve seen all of this before. Move along. Play it again Sam. We will always have Paris. Or at least Ferris Bueller.
My own voice is from a different place. They don’t wear watches there. I write to the sound of the words. I walk as much there as I can. Until my mind hurts as much as my feet. I speak slowly. I report what I see. And if I cannot write with Hemingway’s simplicity, perhaps it is because I don’t see things as clearly–or perhaps they are not so simple to me.
That stage is in my head. I have not taken the roads that Vachel Lindsay walked and I have not heard the bird song that he knew. The actors come to my stage without practice. They have not rehearsed. They have been tossed there with a script they have not studied, but they were chosen because I knew them from other roles and believe they can handle the material. If the furniture is in the way, I move it. If the lighting is not sufficient, another is tilted in their direction. The script is penciled in my brain.
I give the actors the lines that I know. They take them–sometimes unhappily. If they object, I stop and pencil another. At the end, they stare at empty seats and imagine them filled. If the response is not what was wanted, the actors turn to me for redress. If I have something more for them, they begin again. If not, they abandon me to my own failure.
Did I choose the wrong scene? I read it through again aloud. It sounds right to me. What have I missed? I start again. Like my mother’s father, the story is never the same the next time it’s told. More time is spent here. Less there. It does not occur to me that the story is not worth telling any more than it did to him. It’s the story I know. The problem can only be in the way I tell it. It’s the performance, not the play.
That’s the arrogance of the writer. The hubris. The story is all that we have–so we think the story is worth telling. And it must be told in our own voice to be ours, not by convention or expectation. If it is miss-told, that is our own failure too. Not the reader’s. We cannot damn the empty seats.