Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Voices In My Head

When Marlena finished reading The Jubilee Express, Maureen Johnson’s story in Let It Snow, she texted me to talk about it. “I liked it;” she said, “it was Maureen in a way that most of her books aren’t.”

I agreed.

But now I'm wondering why.

One of the biggest difficulties facing a young author—both creatively and for essays—is finding their voice. This critique (“lacks individual voice”) often prompts complaints and uncomfortable musings, because it’s a bit disconcerting, obviously, to be told you don’t sound like yourself. Doesn’t everything you say, write or do have your voice? Isn’t that the point?

I understood what Marlena meant. Generally, I enjoy MJ’s personal blog a lot more than I enjoy her books, because I love MJ as a person: her humor and quirkyness and eloquence. The problem that comes with people you love writing books, however, is that they aren’t writing as them. They’re writing as their narrator, or as their protagonist. The Jubilee Express was exemplary because Jubilee was the closest a main character has gotten to Maureen’s personality; as such, the prose sparkled (as MJ loves sparkles) with what I can only describe as “honesty.”

Cue uncomfortable thought number two: are writers dishonest?

I wish I could remember who said this, but I remember being told once that someone preferred non-fiction to fiction because they “didn’t like being lied to.” Well, first of all Mr. Person-I-Can’t-Remember, your grammar sucks. And second of all, as an author, that kind of scares me.

I like to think of my characters as real people. Whole, separate, different from me. Obviously, we have to have few things in common—everyone on the planet has a few things in common. But if I imagine myself as a source of light (say, the sun), then my characters are mirrors (or moons): reflecting my own light back at me. Shining with light and life—real—but only if I write them so. After all, they need me to exist in the first place. So if I, as an author, need to start with my own personality as a template every time, then every change that I make is a bend in the mirror: twisting and altering it until the funhouse image looking back bares almost no resemblance to me at all.

But does each warp in the mirror rob my writing of a little bit of truth?

I can’t be sure, because the problem seems to go both ways. As I said, I was familiar with Maureen Johnson, her blog and her personality, before I read her books. But what happens when it goes the other way around?

So let’s talk about Sarah Vowell.

I read a few of Vowell’s books for the first time two years ago, knowing nothing about her. They were her latest, and so she came off not only as hilarious, well-informed and brilliant, but as seasoned. Practiced.

For those of you who have never read Sarah Vowell, here’s an excerpt from one of the essays in The Partly Cloudy Patriot:
…there are few creepier moments in cultural tourism than when a site tries to rewrite its past. Once, I took a boat tour up the Hudson and visited a seventeenth-century Dutch farm. At the farm there was a different tour guide at each station—the bridge, the mill, the manor—and to a man (they were all women actually) they described the farm’s slaves not as slaves but as “enslaved Africans.” As in “The mill was worked by enslaved Africans.” Or “Over there were the cabins of the enslaved Africans.” Or “That was the job of the enslaved Africans.” After a while I couldn’t stand it anymore and cornered one of those shawl-wearing tour guides and asked point-blank why on earth nobody used the world slave. And in that sing-song dialect of teenage girls, in which every ends in a question mark, she replied, “Because ‘enslaved African’ describes slavery as something that was done to them? Instead of what they were? Enslavement was not their whole identity?”
“Um,” I asked, “isn’t the whole point about being a slave that you don’t have a choice to be anything else?” Prettying up the word slave with that adjective-noun construction makes “enslaved African” sound nonchalant. As in “Those were the cabins of the jolly leprechauns.”
I adore her writing. When reading it, the voice in my head is cool, collected, smug. Shooting off lines as though they’re not funny when they are with ease; a kind of a Rory-Gilmore-ten-years-later voice.

And then Hannukah hit, and two things happened.

The first thing is that I asked for more of her books. I’ve read her most recent three, and so I wanted to round out my collection. The thing about going backwards, however (which, slightly related fact, I’ve done with MJ too; saved her first two books for last, I mean) is that writers really do improve over time. Practice may not make perfect, but it really does make better. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised when I started reading Radio On—25-year-old-Vowell’s diary chronicling a year of… well, listening to the radio—and found that she didn’t “sound” like herself. In fact, she sounded an awful lot like Chuck Klosterman. While one could argue that any witty young writer who focuses on grunge music sounds like Klosterman, I really wasn’t expecting the brashness, the anger and bitterness in Vowell’s normally light, teasing prose. It was like I was watching a video of her awkward, rebellious teenage years.

But should a decade really make a difference? Well, obviously, yes. A decade ago, I was writing such gripping tales as Wangdoodles and The Wacky Invention. Do those carry my voice? God help me, I hope not. But they’re still mine; I could deny it, but those (god-awful) stories are a part of my personal literary history. Who am I to disown them?

So Sarah Vowell did a little growing up. Okay, so did I.

And then the second thing happened: I actually *heard* her voice. Curious to see if she’d written any columns or articles on Barack Obama, I googled them together. I found a video clip of her on The Daily Show. Cue the shock:

[Okay, I tried to embed the video here but it wouldn't work, so be a dear and click the link?] (THE LINK.)

I knew that she’d done the voice of Violet in The Incredibles, but I thought that was just, y’know… a voice. Not HER voice.

So which is it? How she speaks, or how I, reading her words, assume she speaks? Or do one’s vocal chords have no bearing on one’s textual voice at all?

Again, familiarity gets in the way. I think of the essay Hayley wrote to apply to colleges; how I hadn’t needed to listen to her read it out loud on fiveawesomegirls because I could hear her so clearly in my head. How I have trouble writing my own work after watching a few hours of John Green on blogtv, because I’m hearing him narrate, not me, and I start to phrase things as he would rather than how I would.

… I’m horrible at ending blogs. I always want to cap it off with a “what do you think?” One of the reasons that I’ve never done this before is that blogs, I find, are for people with opinions who know what they’re talking about. Not that I don’t fit both of those categories, but I feel very uncomfortable broadcasting them here as though I’m the only person who is right. I don’t think I am; why should you?

So I think what I’d rather do is introduce a topic and then open up some dialogue. My bit’s covered, so now it’s your turn:

What do you think?

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