Reflections on the Writer’s Voice

Most of us want to be heard, to have a voice. Not being heard, not having the right to voice our feelings, our concerns, our opinions or our dissent can be dehumanizing.

From the time I was four or five I suffered from tonsillitis. My mother would send me to bed and phone the doctor. When he arrived he asked me how I felt. My mother answered his question because, by then, I simmered with fever and my throat was too swollen and sore for me to speak. After several years shilly-shallying around with antibiotics and ‘wait and see if it improves with age’, the doctor finally decided, when I was ten years old, to remove my tonsils.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about ‘voice’ in novels and stories. I’m not referring to first, second or third person point of view, also described as ‘first second or third person voice’. The best description of what I mean by ‘voice’ is Eudora Welty’s moving passage:

Ever since I was first read to, then started reading myself, there has never been a line read that I didn’t hear. As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me. It isn’t my mother’s voice, or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own. It is human, but inward, and it is inwardly that I listen to it. It is to me the voice of the story or the poem itself. The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe, the feeling that resides in the printed word, reaches me through the reader-voice. I have supposed, but never found, that this is the case with all readers – to read as listeners – and with all writers, to write as listeners. It may be part of the desire to write. The sound of what falls on the page begins the process of testing it for truth for me. Whether I am right to trust so far I don’t know. By now I don’t know I could do either one, reading or writing, without the other. My own words, when I am at work on a story, I hear too as they go, in the same voice that I hear when I read in books. When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make my changes. I have always trusted this voice.[1]

A writer chooses from a range of narrative tools (plot, setting, character and theme, narrative point of view and narrative voice), when writing a short story, poem or a novel. Janet Burroway suggests writers need to ask, when working on a new project, ‘who speaks … to whom … in what form … at what distance … and with what limitations?’[2]

My clearest memory of my battles with tonsillitis is recovery. I felt, once the pain and the fever receded, both weary and pure, as if I had been dipped, like Achilles, into a divine fire. I’d ask my mother to make mashed potatoes and homemade tomato soup because I liked the comfort of the smooth, warm potatoes followed by the acidic soup sliding down my throat, scouring away the pain and my silence.

As Welty reminds us, the voice we ‘hear’ when we read a short story or a novel is the voice of a narrator. But the idea of a ‘narrative voice’ is, for some people, troublesome, because it implies a person, or at least a personality behind, or even exceeding, the story.

My voice has always been a concern; during my teaching career, despite not having any tonsils, I periodically suffered from pharyngitis and had to take a week off work until my voice returned. My relationship with my voice, its production and meaning, has been characterised by my need to protect it, interrupted by painful and sporadic periods when using it became impossible. I think this is why I am anxious about not being heard and I imagine people don’t listen to me. When I was younger I lost my temper and raised my voice. I wanted to ensure I was heard so I spoke forcefully and not always wisely.

I define narrative voice as a narrative (or narrating) principle, an imprecisely understood ‘presence’ that accompanies a reading of a text. This presence is neither the author nor the protagonist of the story, but it is associated with the physical act of speaking. This, in turn, implies a relationship because to have a voice is to speak to, and be heard by, another individual. The writer ‘speaks to’ the reader through the ‘narrative voice’, which is why the quality, or otherwise, of that voice is related to the quality of the story or novel; it creates the ‘relationship’ between a writer and his or her reader.

I chose, in my thirties and forties to learn, and then teach, communication and assertiveness skills. When we express our emotions freely, openly and calmly; when we share what bothers us; when we listen to our loved one; when we feel our loved one listens to us and when we are willing to admit we are wrong, our relationships improve.

When we talk about a writer’s voice, we are talking about the writer’s ability to create an engaging, exciting, interesting, believable narrative voice. If a writer believes they have nothing to say, let alone the ability and confidence to say it, he will struggle to find and express his ‘voice’.

As a child I didn’t feel heard or listened to, partly because I periodically ‘lost’ my voice and because I lived with someone whose voice often drowned out mine. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes that, ‘to have lost one’s voice is not to keep silence: one keeps silence only when one can speak’[3]. I think this means I did not lose my voice, it was taken away from me; I did not keep silent, I was silenced. When we are prevented from doing what is natural we become frustrated and dejected .

We mourn the loss of potential, of possibility, only when we imagine that potential and dream of fulfilling it. I am not saying wanting something means we will automatically achieve our goals. It is not as easy as that. What I am suggesting is, if a desire exists, and if there is no risk of harm to others, then the skill and ability to fulfil the desire must also exist.

 

References

[1] Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), pp. 11-12.
[2] Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft 5th ed. (New York: Longman, 2000), p. 197.
[3] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception (London : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), 161.
[4] Suzanne Laba Cataldi, ‘The Body as a Basis for Being: Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’, in The Existential Philosophy of Simone De Beauvoir, ed. by Wendy O’Brien and Lester Embree (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001), pp 85 – 106 (p 94).

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