Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Writer’s Voice

I have always been fascinated by that which is elusive, there, but filmy and oh so hard to describe. A writer’s voice is precisely that sort of notion, and yet it is real and unique. I have read many people’s attempts to describe voice or define it, but it’s a slippery slope and most end up at the bottom of the hill none the wiser.

What it definitely is NOT is style – the mix of syntax, grammar, characters, plot, dialogue, etc., for all writers offer that, but not all writers have a voice. I've heard it described as a personal tone or flavor unmistakably that of the writer alone. That description scratches the surface of what we’re sensing, but it doesn't get to the heart of it. So why bother struggling with something so abstract? If it’s there, it’s there; if not, it’s not. Not so?

Literary agent, Rachelle Gardner offered an excellent explanation for what is meant by voice, plus it points to why voice cannot be ignored. She said, “To me, your writer’s voice is the expression of you. It’s that simple—and that complicated. Your voice is all about honesty. It’s the unfettered, non-derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears, and attitudes, coming through in every word you write.

“Voice is all about your originality and having the courage to express it.”

I would add that your voice is you as an authentic being. We are each unique, original with us. When we are authentic, that uniqueness, that originality is being expressed. Thus authentic expression is your true voice.

Children aren't born with made-up stories in their minds nor do they feel the need to mask whatever they sense. We all start out authentically us, until the thumb of life begins pressing down on us, and we struggle to squirm out from under it with one overriding question: What’s wrong with me? From there, we relentlessly reshape ourselves into what others seem to want. We are still original, but we are no longer authentic.

The reason finding one’s voice is so important is not just because agents and publisher are always looking for a new voice to promote. What matters more is that we live an authentic life, for that is our highest fulfillment. It is the only way we can live present and begin to conceive of the even greater dimensions that comprise our authentic expression.

Recently, I read a compelling book by Mary Oliver entitled, Winter Hours. It’s a mix of essays and poems, both media being  ones in which she is expert. In the essay, “The Swan,” she begins to tell the reader what rules she established for her poetry. As I read them, I thought, oh my god, that’s where her voice—so unique, so exquisite—came from, because I realized that she was describing what I had recognized in all her poems. The elements were always there, and because they were, each poem, each essay was her authentic expression—her voice. In “The Swan” she explores the three rules she started out with:

Every poem I write…must have a genuine body, it must have sincere energy and it must have a spiritual purpose.

These phrases have profound meaning for her. They represent what she experiences deep within herself—what it feels like to be her.  Later she added to that list. She said:

I want every poem to ‘rest’ in intensity. I want it to be rich with pictures of the world. I want it to carry threads from the perceptually felt world to the intellectual world. I want each poem to indicate a life lived with intelligence, patience, passion and whimsy (not my life—not necessarily— but the life of my formal self, the writer. 

What she has done in determining these rules is to express who she is at her core. If we are to be authentic, we too must invite our expression to remain integral with our core.

So how do we find our voice—the question always asked at this point? Mary Oliver has provided that answer too.  We draw up our own set of “rules,” meaning identify those things which are so real in us that we will not deny them in our art or our life. If we do that, our voice will echo through every level of our novel as an authentic expression of the truths that live as us.

Inspired by Mary Oliver, I've created my own list:

1.     Every work of my fiction must ride on the back of a worthy story—one worth the telling.
2.     The story must engage the reader at a level of connectedness possible only when characters (especially the protagonist) are authentic, thus compelling.
3.     The story must imply or actualize a higher order of reality—what might be termed spiritual— to which human beings aspire and at times touch.
4.     The words must associate rhythmically with one another, as best they can, and at times lyrically so they are capable of mirroring the evocative, intense nature of authenticity.

If you are a writer, this is a powerful exercise.

We all know when a writer has an authentic voice for we are magnetically drawn to their work. If you are committed to excellence in your art, then voice is not an option. You must find it. Not only will voice provide a firm base of readership with which you can share your stories, but it will also fulfill its promise of artistic work at its creative best. It may even spill over into the rest of your life, keeping you always in touch with what is original and real. 

Finding your voice means you have found the reality within you and that is a life of merit.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

February’s Charm

It’s February, what I've always thought of as the turning point of winter. It’s the month where you suddenly notice that the days are getting longer. Somewhere in that month you look up from your work and hear yourself murmur, “It’s five-thirty and it’s still light.”  Then you smile. It’s the month where when I lived in northern Alberta, we agreed that if you made it through February, you could make it through the winter. March could be a bear, but having committed to that view, you took March in your stride.

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had their beginnings in February, great men through whose integrity and insight our nation was twice saved. Something about that time of the year perhaps, the arrangement of the cosmos, which gives rise to Piscean aptitudes: the mystical, the intuitive, the visionary that we so needed at those two periods in our history.

Nor is it surprising to have the celebration of love in this month for as the sap starts to rise in the natural world around us, within us is the call to renewed attention to that which wells up in us, sensitivity, passion and yearning.

My first winter in Alberta was an experience I've never forgotten. I was aided by the fact that everything was novel to me, and I was in love with my new home. But that winter set a record mark for cold when December started a six week cold snap, 42 days, give or take, below zero. I remember walking to a friend’s home for Christmas Eve supper with the temperature at 55 below zero and a wind chill factor that dropped it to 72 below. But it was a first for me, and I was young and I thrived on adventure. Come February, however, I began to develop a desire to have the scent of life about me, plants, flowers, and fresh, damp dirt. I’d never before stood on frozen ground that long. I lucked upon a tiny greenhouse associated with the university that was open once a week for two hours on Sunday. No one seemed to visit it but me, and I spent each Sunday of the month sitting in its damp air, smelling moist earth and feasting on the flowering cyclamen that filled that tiny glassed-in room. One time another person happened into the greenhouse and saw me there, sitting on a low stone retaining wall my arms wrapped around my knees. Quizzical, he glanced at me, and I said simply, “Smelling dirt.” He smiled knowingly, nodded his head and soon left.

But perhaps my strongest affiliation with this month results from being born in it, and for 69 years having called it home.

Happy February to You