A Voice

Activity Being Avoided: dishes
Music In My Head: Going Nowhere – Elliott Smith
Tea Being Drunk: orange pekoe with milk
Book Being Read: Angry Candy – Harlan Ellison

Having decided on an audience, I’m now working on a voice.
Now, voice is a difficult word to describe. Dictionary.com describes it as “the sound uttered through the mouth of living creatures”; that makes no sense when applied to writing ’cause I don’t hafta talk when I’m writing. The easiest way to think about it is this: how do you identify the voice on the other end of the phone as your mother’s, without her announcing herself and without you cheating by looking at the call display? An author’s voice should be as distinctive as… your mother’s voice. You should be able to pick up a book and, at hello, say, “Elegant, eloquent, precise: that’s Timothy Findley’s writing.”

Voices are, of course, allowed to change — there’s little evidence of Findley’s early voice (as in The Butterfly Plague or The Wars) in Spadeworks – but there will always be that unique timbre to identify the writer.

As with the audience, I’ve started this process by approaching my voice antithetically.

I don’t like dialogue.  There won’t be a lot of dialogue in my stories.

Dialogue is for movies and plays and Platonic discourses. Dialogue is for figuring out where your kids are and where they’re going next, and for getting the appropriate amount of chocolate in the weekly grocery purchase.

Dialogue is not entertaining. Dialogue is a means of communication.

I recently finished reading A. S. Byatt’s Sugar and Other Stories: brilliant, with very little dialogue. Each story is stuffed so full of ideas that I’ll have to read the book another four or five times to suck all the juice out; it’s an activity I’m looking forward to. I feel much the same way about the writings of the Bloomsbury authors and Yann Martel’s work. They, like Byatt, use dialogue sparingly, as a tool, with distinct purpose. If the character says something, it’s because the reader needs to pay attention to the fact that the character needs to say this to the world. It’s important that the information not be left locked up in the character’s brain. It’s important.

Modern literature ticks me off – trashy literature, actually. Chick-lit where you have to read page after page of a discussion held at a girls’ brunch. (I’m female: I know precisely how much of “girl talk” is relevant.) Everything reads like a movie scene – and if it doesn’t, some idiot will misuse the “show, don’t tell” maxim.

Take away the dialogue and you have narrative.  I like narrative.

Narrative is the bread, and dialogue is the butter. When there’s too much butter, the story slimes around in your mouth and becomes cloying. You gag on the story. It makes you hunt around for a bottle of wine to clear away the taste and the memory.

The best part of a story is getting into a character’s head. For a short while, you are permitted to become another person. But if you have to talk, then you’re outside the character. In our heads, there’s no dialogue; there are no words, just Form that becomes words once it hits the ends of our tongues. Narrative gives the reader the Form; dialogue reduces the Form to pabulum.

Yeah, yeah, I know: too much bread and your mouth gets dry. I do, voluntarily, butter my stories with a little dialogue. Pure narration has an intensity that can become wearisome quickly. (Although, it takes a helluva lot before I get weary.)

I find it difficult to identify the other parts of my voice. I do know that it’s quite masculine (do what you want with that, Freud), but the other aspects elude me. Someday, I shall have to bribe some trusted writers to show me the various identifying parts of my voice.

(Do I have enough wine?)

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