I’ve sat through a few supposed lessons on voice --in one the teacher had us discuss favorite quotations about voice in writing, in another the teacher elaborated on the technical aspects of viewpoint in literature. Recently, though I found another door into voice in young adult literature.
My writing partner and I read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and I thought, "Okay, now this is a book with voice!" Arnold Spirit's voice IS this book. It's distinctive and memorable. It's because of the voice that you can't put the book down. How did Alexie do this?
I discovered that the reviews excerpted in the front of the book held a lot of clues about how Alexie captured Arnold's voice on the page. So I got out my highlighter and started marking key words in those reviews.
Time and again reviewers referred to the novel's HONESTY. Breathtakingly honest, emotionally honest, tell-it-like-it-is, unapologetic emotion, raw feeling, doesn't pull many punches, profane, fearless, fierce observations, brutally honest --all these terms are repeated throughout the reviews. I got a gut feeling then. You know how a lot of times you have to force yourself to write? Maybe it’s because we get afraid of writing from that place of honesty. When we go there, we find a lot of unsettling stuff, stuff we could avoid by checking e-mail or grocery shopping. Writing from your gut, that where the honesty is, the source of voice. And when I really go there, that’s when my characters’ voice start speaking up.
Here's another term that reverberated through Alexie's reviews --FUNNY. So hard to come by in novels the older you get. Here's how the reviews put it: no-holds-barred jokes, devastatingly funny, sharp wit, sardonic insight, raw emotion leavened with humor, hilarious language, self-deprecating. Now not every story is funny, but I've also heard it said that comedians are the saddest people. Humor is sometimes the only way we can get at what's hardest for us to face. Which takes us back to honesty, doesn't it?
Of course there were a bunch of descriptors in the reviews about Sherman Alexie’s LANGUAGE. Jazzy syntax, emotionally spring-loaded and linguistically gymnastic, narration [that] is intensely alive and rat-a-tat-tat with short paragraphs and one-liners, verbal succinctness. If I pay close attention, I thought, there might be an element of voice I could craft –the sound of the language. So I started getting into the rhythms of characters’ voice, started hearing them as music. I would let the actual words blur temporarily in my mind in order to just hear the pacing and intonation of their speech. A voice’s rhythm says a lot about a character’s internal state.
In the back of my Part-Time Indian edition, there is an interview from the artist, Ellen Forney, who did the cartoon illustrations from Arnold Spirit's viewpoint. She makes some interesting comments about drawing that can be applied to voice in writing. "Arnold's artwork needed to span different situations and moods, so his drawing style needed to change as well." There are some drawings which capture well-developed ideas, some realistic portraits which evidence intimacy with his subjects, some portraits drawn from photographs showing distance between Arnold and his subject, and for special reasons some even combine realism and cartoon. The illustrator even compares Arnold’s sketchbook to a diary –a haven of voice. Forney made me consider how a voice would change depending on who the character is talking to or who he’s feeling. I started tuning into not only distinct voices, but also each voice’s range.
I hope this gets you started thinking about the qualities of voice. I'm not suggesting analyzing voice to an extreme --that would kill it off pretty quickly. We all know it needs to flow. But if we write it off as totally elusive than how can we improve? I believe we can help ourselves tap into that flow with some study. How would you characterize voice?