Mi, a name I call myself; or, More on Voice

In response to my last post, friend David Graham wrote, “I’ve finally come to believe that ‘voice’ is not something to concern myself with. Others will or will not tag me with such a thing, but it just messes me up to think about it. I simply (ha! it ain’t simple!) try to write as well as I can & in the process figure out what I want to say (which for me always happens in the revision process, not before.)…In a similar way, worrying about originality is for me mostly a dead end. I love something Levertov said: ‘Originality is nothing else but the deepest honesty.'”

I thought about that for a while, and replied, “I wonder if it’s not the author that has a voice but the poems themselves. I know I get annoyed when a poem of mine starts having a kind of woff woff self-aggrandizing tone of some British lord or Oxford don. I have to shove it off its high horse. Then other poems just think they’re so damn funny they start laughing at themselves so hard I can’t understand what they’re saying.”

And soon after that exchange I found this notion by Richard Russo in the eponymous essay of his new book The Destiny Thief: “I’d been told before that writers had to have two identities, their real-life one…as well as another, who they becomewhen they sit down to write. This second identity, I now saw, was fluid, as changeable as the weather, as unfixed as our emotions. As readers, we naturally expect novels to introduce us to a new cast of characters and dramatic events, but could it also be that the writer has to reinvent himselffor the purpose of telling each new story?”

That feels both interesting and true. I don’t think it’s contradictory to think about an author’s voice and the voice of a poem or a story. Both voices exist, creating a mini chorus with every piece.

As I look back on my work, I discern a certain McCabeness about most of it, even as the tone and timbre, rhythm and diction, impulse and objective, snap or murmur, are quite different. (Although I confess, I sort of feel like if I’ve read one Russo book, I’ve read them all….)

How else to explain this than there is a voice in the poem itself that it’s my job to summon in creating it and honing in revision? And yet because of the limitations of my own self (even with all its multitudes) the range of voices summoned in the poems will be limited as well, and will sound like me without my trying, or worrying too much about it. If my poems sound too much like someone else, then, as David indicates, I’m probably not clear on what I’m trying to say and am not working from that “deepest honesty,” and it’s my job in the revision process to sort that out.

So this idea of “finding your voice” may be like so many other classic pieces of advice — overly simplistic, often taken too far, yet containing some useful truth. Like “write what you know” or “never lend money to friends.” Well, yes…but, I have this thing called an imagination. And I could really use $20.

I guess you find your voice by finding your deepest concerns and writing from some authentic core. Or that’s the task, anyway. Easier said than…well…said.


The Revolution is Just a T-shirt Away: Finding Your Voice

Debra Spark’s article in the recent Writer’s Chronicle “Jump Already” was both interesting and anxiety provoking. She traced in a few writers and painters the point in their development after which they seemed to come into their own as artists: Russo found his downtrodden mill-town milieu, Rothko his color squares. You can see, she says, in their earlier works their efforting, their borrowings and derivations, but after a certain point, their work is singularly their own. This, of course, plays into my constant anxiety that I am not working hard enough, deeply enough, pushing myself creatively enough. Have I plateaued? How do I know? Have I jumped forward recently? Or am I just stumbling along at snail’s pace? Or running in ant circles? There was something she said about the artist finding some true inner voice. What the hell? How can I tell some true inner voice from some fake outer voice? I talk in fake voices all the time. My husband finds himself amused/annoyed when I suddenly scream “Preet Bharara!” in high pitched alarm at some new tale of the demon barber of Cheat Street. I am not infrequently Cartman. What does it mean?

David Brooks’s column the other day talked about Ernest Hemingway, who, Brooks avers, lost his way in the thicket of his own fame and booze, but still was able to exhibit flashes of that thing that made him him, and one reason is because of his dedication to work. So I come back again and again to that idea: doing the work.

But I think that deep sense of self from which some authentic art can form might be accessed — and here again is an ongoing theme for me — through play. When I think about play I think about tearing things up and putting them back together again. I think about giving voice to inanimate objects. I think about that edge of giddiness, that burble of laughter in the chest that hasn’t quite come out yet. I admire my friend Beth who seems to have such easy access to that playing place, that silliness that’s not fluffy necessarily but engaged in fun. Laughing the way to truthiness. I think about P. G. Wodehouse. I think I need to find some old Donald Westlake books featuring Dortmunder and the gang. Okay, I gotta go. I have serious work to do.

In the meantime, here are some lines of Billy Bragg’s “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward”:

“In the Cheese Pavilion and the only noise I hear is the sound of people stacking chairs and mopping up spilt beer and someone asking questions and basking in the light of the fifteen fame filled minutes of the fanzine writer mixing Pop and Politics he asks me what the use is. I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses while looking down the corridor out to where the van is waiting. I’m looking for the Great Leap Forward….The revolution is just a t-shirt away.”