|The University of Technology, Sydney|
In an essay entitled 'A Voice', the author Barry Lopez describes his first apprehension of the voices of others. In his case - a young man aspiring to be a writer - these others were everyone not white, middle-class, Catholic American men. Only after listening to and properly hearing the voices of people outside of his cultural boundaries, claims Lopez, did he discover his own voice. Understanding that his voice was not the only voice, that his truth was not the one truth, enabled him to find freedom as a writer:
As far as I know Lopez, like many inspiring authors, has not set out to be inspirational or instructive, and his advice for aspiring writers is almost incidental in his essays. A man travelling beside him on a plane trip asks him for advice for his daughter, who wishes to become a writer. Tell her three things, says Lopez: tell her to read, to discover what she truly believes, and to get away from the familiar, to travel (Lopez 1999: 15). Advice number two is for the daughter to discover her beliefs, and then to speak to us from within those beliefs, to become someone. If she speaks her beliefs, the implication is clear, we will listen, we will pay attention. We will want to hear because it will be her true and unique voice.
Brenda Ueland tells us that 'the creative impulse
is quiet, quiet. It sees, it feels, it quietly hears; and now,
in the present' (Ueland 1997: 52). If this
is the case, then that creative impulse is responding to a voice. If it
hears, then it must be listening to a distinctive, recognisable voice,
and reacting accordingly, by converting that voice into words on a page.
In the collection where 'A Voice' is the introductory essay, About This Life: journeys on the threshold of memory, Lopez is frequently listening to the voices of others, then allowing those voices to speak on the page; in much of this collection they appear almost unmediated. But I don't mean he is only rendering the literal voices of others (though he also does that at times). For instance in the short story, 'Murder', a pregnant young woman approaches the narrator, a stranger, at a remote service station in Utah, gets into his car and then casually asks him to kill her husband:
The characters are unremarked upon, the narrator's presence is a transparent
film, he appears not to be judging the woman he encounters, nor the place
he is in. This invisibility also applies to the author's voice, one which
he has explained comes from listening to others. Therefore, on a simple
structural level (because the piece is narrated from a particular point
of view, which represents a clear narrative choice by the author) and
from a not so clear other level - for which there may not be a word, but
which represents a combination of romantic, individualistic, expressive
and possibly other, mysterious, views about authorship - the work defines
itself, asserts its distinctive voice, the voice of this text. In this
particular story it is literally Lopez's voice and his story, being a
short memory piece, however it is refined beyond the point of memoir.
What is remarkable about the voice of this text is its ability to make
judgments without appearing to do so; the narrative voice and the authorial
voice conspire - almost whispering together - to indicate that this woman
is both appealing and deranged. No one ever tells us that. The voices
that work on two levels at once guide our view of the unnamed yet unforgettable
woman, as she walks away across the lot to her own car, reaching across
to her right temple to sweep her blonde hair off her face - a gesture
that seems to define her in one hit - at the same time as they allow us
to feel the narrator's silent apprehension ('I was afraid to say anything,
make any movement. Her voice edged on hysteria, on laughter'). The other
distinctive aspect of this text - of this conspiracy of voices - is its
ability to convince us, to make us believe in the story completely. Of
course we can have no real idea if it happened or not, nor do we care.
The truth of the text is all that matters.
Something similar, though technically quite different, appears in the story of Joan Didion's famous piece of journalism, Slouching towards Bethlehem. Here the voice is arguably more contrived but appears as authentic. This illusion relies on a seamless blend of narrative 'objectivity' and authorial subjectivity, which leaves the reader feeling at once profoundly manipulated and deeply enlightened. Out at Sausalito one afternoon where the Grateful Dead are rehearsing, the narrator talks to some girls hanging around the band:
Slouching Toward Bethlehem is full of these little conversations:
the narrative voice so dry it almost evaporates, a tone both affectionate
and derisory, the dialogue mediated and manipulated so that the characters
have a textual life far beyond any they might have had in real life. At
the end of the essay Didion offers a conversation with a five-year-old
called Susan about her school friends, a conversation in which the child
dismisses the stupid questions of adults: '"Lia," Susan says,
"is not in High Kindergarten".' Inserting the tag 'Susan says'
in that brief sentence constructs the wearied tone of the child's words
and thus the impression that this life has made her vastly older than
her years, all of which is so necessary to the essay's argument (Didion
In the work of author Gerald Murnane the mind and the voice appear to
work as one: if he is not quite literally speaking his mind, he is literally
writing it. He creates the voice of the work by allowing the sentences
on the page to reflect as near as possible those running
through his head, and this technique is especially apparent in the piece
'Stream System', which I call a 'piece' as it seems
to be equally memoir and story. It is almost a very sophisticated
form of word association, building to a picture of an obsessive imagination,
allowing us direct access to the way a creative mind operates. In this
sense 'Stream System', like much of Murnane's work, is a map of the mind.
Not surprisingly, actual maps are vital in Murnane's work (in this case
it is the Melways street directory of suburban Melbourne). Natalie Goldberg
recommends writing exercises to 'burn through to first thoughts, to the
place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or
the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind
actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or
feel' (Goldberg 1986: 8). While he hardly undertakes
mere writing exercises, Murnane, I'd suggest, does exactly this: at least,
he writes what his mind appears to see and feel, since it must
be impossible to evade the censor/critic/editor entirely. Elsewhere, Goldberg
states: 'Everything I say as a teacher is ultimately aimed at people trusting
their own voice and writing from it' (Goldberg 1986: 155).
Of course, in all these instances I have cited, the voice is the first person, and that is a major factor in why they work. First person narrative is the key to making these texts so compelling. So does establishing the voice of the text simply mean finding the correct perspective for the narrative, the correct narrative voice? I believe not.
The grain of the voice
It might be useful first to try and define what voice is. In an essay
on the singing voice Roland Barthes identifies something
called the grain of the voice, in which he finds a 'dual posture, a dual
production, of language and of music' (Barthes 1990: 294).
Borrowing terminology from Julia Kristeva, Barthes uses a twofold opposition
to define the grain - the pheno-song and the geno-song - two elements
within the singing voice that he hears in certain classical vocalists.
The pheno-song denotes what I will simplify as all the technical aspects
of singing (from the rules of the genre, to the style of interpretation);
the geno-song denotes the very 'singing and speaking voice, the space
where significations germinate'. The Russian cantor, suggests Barthes,
contains this grain, contains both geno-song and pheno-song. His voice
is not personal, it expresses nothing of the cantor himself, yet at the
same time it is individual: above all, it comes from deep down in the
cavities, way beyond the mere lungs, from the muscles, the membranes,
the cartilages. The grain has us 'hear a body', a 'body speaking its mother
tongue' (Barthes 1990: 295).
Al Alvarez reminds us of this apt line in the novel The Ghost Writer,
by Philip Roth: 'Voice
is something that begins at around the back
of the knees and reaches well above the head' (Alvarez 2005: 23). Here
voice is a physical as well as an emotional and intellectual one. This
captures perfectly the two elements of voice that I mentioned earlier,
the narrative voice determined by the structural, cultural, dramatic requirements
of the story, and the voice that comes from the cartilages (behind the
knees) from the throat, from the membranes, up through the brain and out
through the bone of the skull.
There is, therefore, a word for the voice that complements narrative voice, which represents those mysterious views about authorship I mentioned earlier in relation to the Lopez story: the embodied voice.
Voice Lost. Voice Found.
I am not talking about the voice that many teachers of creative writing
believe needs to be opened up through meditation, or writing morning pages,
or free writing. Again, I'm referring to the voice of the text. Writers
frequently talk of stripping away, reducing prose to its essentials, to
discover this voice. The journalist Ross Campbell, who wrote splendid
humorous columns for Sydney newspapers, explained that
his distinctive voice was achieved by going through drafts to cut out
adjectives and adverbs (in Foster 1991: 45). Rudyard
Kipling was reportedly more ruthless: he spoke of 'blacking out the bits
he was 'most proud of' (Alvarez 2005: 37).
If finding your voice as a writer is so fundamental, what happens when
we literally do it, when we speak our words aloud? Workshopping classes
often require students to read their work aloud. Rewriting - paring down,
pruning, interrogating every word, every punctuation point, every pause
- often begins here. How many students discover themselves embarrassed
or dismayed by what they've written when they read their work aloud? Read
it aloud, they are urged, even if it's only to yourself in the quiet of
your room. But read it aloud to hear what you've said. And if in reading
it aloud to a class it sounds confusing, clumsy, pretentious or plain
boring, they quickly appreciate the fact that if it sounds that way to
them, then it's likely to sound that way to the rest of their readers
But there is another question buried here, one that is rarely confronted
by writers and teachers of writing. If we need to find our voice, then
this implies that we have lost it. If that is the case, at what point
did that happen? And why? Alvarez offers a neat answer to this: part of
growing up and becoming an adult involves trying out other people's personalities.
As children learn via imitation, they grow to develop an unconscious imitative
learning style, which means we all try out voices until we mature. We
lose our voices, are silenced, as a part of the process of growing up.
Soon we discover soul mates, like-minded friends. Then we fall in love
with another personality, we recognise Ms/Mr Right (Alvarez 2005: 25-6).
Translated into writing, this means we try out writers we like, we imitate
them, we fall in love with them. (Alvarez doesn't say this, but perhaps
connecting with another author is like finding Ms or Mr Write.) It is
a process that describes the transition from innocence, via the fall,
to knowledge and understanding. Alvarez quotes Austrian philosopher, poet
and critic Karl Kraus who says: 'My language is the universal whore whom
I have to make into a virgin.' Language, Alvarez explains, is a whore
because left to itself it turns the 'same tired old tricks with everyone'
and to 'restore its virginity' you have to strip away the fake and fancy
clothes such as clichés and excesses (Alvarez 2005: 37).
Perhaps, then, the task of the writer is to restore the innocence of
language, to reclaim paradise lush with words, phrases, images, before
the serpent began whispering that sly cliché into Eve's ear to
convince her she would become possessed of knowledge. I write because
I do not know is something we hear often from authors. David
Malouf said much the same at a recent seminar in Sydney. 'Writers understand
almost nothing,' he said, 'it is why they write' (Malouf
Writing from ignorance is writing from innocence, that lost state we
must find and reclaim if we are to convince our readers that we are worth
listening to, that we have something to say. Knowing too much can be dangerous.
'If you think too hard about how to kiss someone, you
are bound to make a mess of it,' says Terry Eagleton, cautioning against
the dangers of over-theorising (Eagleton 1990: 27).
If you strain too hard to say something, to explain to your readers, it
will show. If innocence has been smothered by too much knowledge, the
work will be vitiated. Intimacy will vanish. There will be no kiss between
author and reader. The author will not give good tongue (my topic here
is voice, after all).
Encouraging raw talent, though, has its hazards in this respect. Glenda Adams describes a good example of this: a natural, artless and convincing voice encountered in letters from a friend is killed off after she suggests that the friend consider creative writing, that she write a book. The subsequent opening chapters the friend produces are flat, lacking in rhythm and vivid imagery; the emerging author, the one whom Adams had encouraged, has lost her voice. It's not as simple as the diminishment of style, but more than that, the banishment of the self, the disappearance of the voice in pursuit of the self-conscious ideal of 'Writing a Book' (Adams 2002: 37). Or, as Eagleton might have put it, she had thought too hard about how to kiss and had made a mess of it.
The birth of the reader
I am, as always, interested in the role of the reader in the writing
process. You find your own voice as a writer when you become your own
reader. Is this anything more mysterious than simply becoming your own
critic and editor? Although that as we all know is not as easy as it sounds.
How to hear what you've just written that morning or the previous week?
How to read what you've read five, ten or dozens of times over? For we
are never reading the words we have written, we are only re-reading them.
We bring a lapsarian knowledge to our writing, always. We can never be
innocent readers of our own work.
I believe it is more fundamental than merely acquiring editing skills.
In his essay, 'St Augustine's Computer', Alberto Manguel discusses the
famous moment in Augustine's Confessions when the author encountered
the scholar, now saint, Ambrose, in his cell in Milan 'reading silently'.
This was astonishing for Augustine and other scholar-readers of the time,
as reading out loud was the norm. Not only that, Augustine believed that
the full comprehension of a text was only possible if the words were spoken.
And in reading the scriptures, 'the reader had literally
to breathe life into a text, to fill the created space with living language'
(Manguel 2000: 258). Ambrose knew what we think theory
only articulated for us 40 or 50 years ago, that 'every reader creates,
when reading, an imaginary space', and the medium that reveals it or contains
it is irrelevant (it may be a manuscript, a book or a computer) for the
actual reading space is that place in the reader's mind (Manguel 2000:
Augustine spoke of devouring or savouring a text (Manguel 2000: 263),
using the very gastronomical imagery that we are accustomed to: fast readers
devour books, we consume the text. But consumption for
us (maybe also for devout readers of sacred texts) never leads to satiation,
nor to depletion of the text: like an ever-present feast, the text is
always there to be consumed, to be re-read. Indeed, Vladimir Nabokov argues
that we never read a book anyway, we can only ever
re-read it, since it's impossible to take in a written text at first glance,
unlike with, say, a visual text (Nabokov 1980: 3).
When we write we are looking outward, reaching towards a page, a computer
screen, then towards a reader, no matter how remote or inaccessible that
reader might be at the moment we start to write, no matter how far off
the journey, how inchoate the story, the ideas, the very phrases. It is
like setting off for a foreign country, with no map, and the barest of
supplies. We are looking up and out towards a dark or hazy spot on the
distant horizon, or just beyond it. But if that voice is to work, we must
return to earth. We must reverse the gaze, to an inward one, back to the
text and its point of origin. Here in the pauses of the phrases, in the
breaths between lines, in the aspirated sounds of the punctuation, the
emphasis, in the blinding contrast of black marks on white page, here
is the writer's voice, a culmination of incipient idea, empty longing,
and long, long journeying into an unknown that, paradoxically, is urgently
desired. We return to the text's point of origin and the voice of the
text is finally realised.
Alvarez reminds us of Ford Madox Ford, who aimed in his fiction for 'a
limpidity of expression that should make prose seem like the sound of
someone talking in a rather low voice into the ear of the person he likes'
(Alvarez 2005: 44). How many times have we read a book that we believe
the author has written for us and us alone? Felt almost physically the
author sitting beside us speaking in a low voice directly into our ear?
It is generally agreed that literature works when the author has captured
a voice. But it is more than that. It is when the voice has captured a
reader, taken them over, confined them, held them in thrall, utterly.
It works when the voice succeeds in convincing the reader that it exists,
and no more. This is what 'authenticity' in writing is all about, a term
too frequently used instead to denote some kind of literal truth in the
text, which is largely an irrelevant quality.
I know, of course, that when he formulated his ideas regarding the death
of the author and the birth of the reader, Barthes was referring to the
irrelevance of authorial intention, to the positioning of the reader's
creative involvement in the meaning of the text. But the same rules apply
to Barthes, who is also the author, and so what he intended by the phrase
can be irrelevant to me, the reader, if I want. So the death of the author
may mean as much about the discovery and assertion of voice as it does
about the spuriousness of intentionality.
In this argument, voice emerges when authors retract their gaze, look inward, become their own reader, not a writer, forget they have authored the text, and regard the text as if they are reading it for the first time, as if they have not written those words, as if they, the authors, are dead. The birth of the reader then also means the flourishing of voice.
The perfect literary kiss
What about the other reader, then, the one to whom the text, once that
voice is established, reaches out, the one whom the text has desired all
along? This takes us back to a fundamental question: for whom are we writing?
Kylie Tennant, author of over 20 books including 10 novels, always claimed
she was only writing to make her father and husband happy, that she was
writing for just two people. Drylands, Thea Astley's last novel,
was according to its subtitle written for the world's last reader. When
I first read that I decided it was me. And it is my book. (That it can
be your book too doesn't take away that fact.)
In an age of marketing, writers and students are required to think of
the reader, to define their audience, to claim their corner of the market.
Who are you writing this for? is a common question. The young adult
market? The twentysomethings? The reading group demographic?
But we also know that books written purely for oneself have the capacity
to speak to a vast readership: CS Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia
were written well before the advent of a clearly defined children's fantasy
genre; JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was written long before
the term Young Adult was a gleam in a media strategist's eye. Lewis famously
said that he wrote his fantasies because no one else was writing the kind
of books he wanted to read. In markedly different ways, both texts are
conversations with the authors' selves.
For the perfect literary kiss I can't think of a purer voice in all of contemporary Australian fiction than that of the narrator of Murnane's novel The Plains, first published in 1982. Murnane's simultaneous intimacy and distance, personal involvement yet consummate detachment, means that in his prose we receive a remarkably unmediated voice, one that is innocent, has converted the whore of language into the virgin of fictional prose, has returned to paradise before the fall. Murnane is at once writing his own life yet is as far removed from autobiography as you can get. Or, to use Barthes' singing voice terminology, he has created a grain of the voice, one that is not personal, yet is individual, dramatic and expressive on every necessary technical level, one that emerges from deep within the cantor's, the writer's, own language. A voice, if you like, that is fully embodied. Where we hear the lungs as well as 'the tongue, the glottis, the teeth. the mucous membranes, the nose ' (Barthes 1990: 296).
The voice of the reader
But my final and most difficult question is this: how do we teach all
that? The problematics and complexities of acquiring and refining voice
are reflected in the literature. Here the how-to guides are, I would suggest,
pretty well useless. Cultivating voice comes with some weird advice, ranging
from the bizarre to the puerile, for example the advice to dress all in
one colour and sit down to write, to write in the dark, or with your eyes
closed, to take a voice on a walk with you. Alerting students to the voice
of an individual text is meant to be the best way. But merely examining
the brilliance and ingenuity of another's voice can often fill one with
envy and despair, bad qualities to have on board when trying to write.
Or it may lead to what Dorothea Brande famously defined as a 'contagiousness
of style', what you might call infectious reading:
'a newspaper, a novel, the speech of someone else, even your own writing,'
she warns, 'all have a circumscribing effect' (Brande 1981:
138). But is this entirely correct? We have all encountered students
who don't read much, who seem not to like reading, who claim, with that
astonishing mix of arrogance and naivety, that their policy is not to
read while they compose the Great Australian Novel or whatever, as if
theirs is a literary alchemy so pure that contact with the printed word
will taint or infect it, to use Brande's metaphor.
This argument is plausible when the application of voice is restricted
- as it frequently is - to narrative voice (do we write this story in
the first person, or third person, and so on) or style (is this voice
ornamented, 'natural', ironic, playful, etc). But we are talking about
voice that extends beyond the author, to that of the text. Voice, as Paul
Dawson has argued, is a 'narratological concept': it
does not indicate the inner self of the writer, it indicates the 'speaking
position of the text itself' (Dawson 2003: 6).
'Authenticity' in writing is said to be the key to synthesising the narrative
voice and what we might call the emotional, expressive voice of the author,
the embodied voice, in the one text. Commonly we will explain to our students
that the way to assert voice is by learning to read as a critic, to read
as a writer, to be a critic as well as a creator of one's own work.
I would not disagree with any of this, but I think there is one crucial
step beyond this, whereby the speaking position of the text is established
by an utterly indispensible aspect: the voice of the reader. Show,
don't tell has become a mantra repeated in creative writing classes
the world over. Reveal via action, dialogue, implication, rather than
outright statement, we tell our students. But it is rarely explained why
this is so important. What is not told becomes what is articulated, because
the voice of the reader is permitted its role in the creation of narrative.
Maybe it becomes the true voice of the text. For in creating the text
I am invoking a reader. It may be just a father or husband, like Tennant,
or a whole nation full of book club readers, but the reader is the implied
object of the text. When I write I imagine the reader is reading it, and
this means the reader's voice is articulating, creating the words. This
is the real voice of the text. When the author remembers the reader and
allows the reader's imagination to assert itself. (This is why showing
not telling works, why hints and gaps and absences are more potent than
spelled out utterances.) When the reader steps in and fills in the gaps.
Thus the text is only ever a palimpsest, a draft, a black-and-white outline,
for the reader to superimpose their imagination. The reader is talking
The voice of the text is one that never justifies, complains, explains, berates, defends. Where there is no position of the author. It is a paradoxical, perhaps even confronting, thought: the more experienced a writer, the more voice is retrieved and projected, the more it disappears. Voice becomes the story, exactly as in that Lopez piece, 'Murder':
List of works cited
Debra Adelaide is the author or editor of 10 books including the novels, The Hotel Albatross and Serpent Dust. She is a regular contributor to the Australian's book review pages, and a senior lecturer in writing at the University of Technology, Sydney.
|Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page
Vol 11 No 1 April 2007
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb