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My submission deadline is fast approaching and I’m swinging for the fences now.  I’ve changed the piece to present tense, a verb tense I’m not always comfortable with.  I question my motive when I do this.  But I’ve got to do something. When that doesn’t work, I change the point of view. Then when that doesn’t work, I dig in like a soldier in the trenches, determined not to give up but unable to gain any further ground.  But what is it that I am not satisfied with?  How many more words to delete, images to insert, details to define?  All helpful, but I feel like I’m chipping away at a boulder.  That’s when I stop to wonder, what exactly is this thing that’s not working in the story?  I scramble for words but ambiguous phrases like, “It doesn’t feel right” and “It doesn’t sound authentic” come to mind. I’m no closer to discovering what this means than than I am to solving it.  The piece runs cold, dull to me.  That’s when it hits me.

In the City Arts & Lectures interview with Jennifer Egan and Vendela Vida (to be aired on KQED radio on 8/27/11), Jennifer Egan remarked about the importance of finding the right voice in her stories.  Otherwise, she said, the narrative will fall flat. Dull.

Voice – that nebulous term often heard in writing workshops.  You want to hear it linked with words like “strong”, “consistent”, “believable”.  So what is this narrative voice that everyone talks about? It is a combination of language, diction, syntax, dialogue character development, etc.  Some writers will have a fairly similar narrative voice throughout all their stories, while others will use different voices for their stories.

Once I find the right voice, language, word choice, etc. fall into place like dominoes.  The narrative voice works like a tuning fork for me.  Once found, it helps me to focus on the truth or truths of the piece.  Without it, I feel like I’m grasping in the dark.

The process through which [voice] finally emerges is a refiner’s fire of mystical components, made up of honing the basic skills of storytelling, devoting plenty of time to read a wide assortment of talented writers who have found their voices and put them to good use, and then undertaking, meticulously and slowly, the ancient enterprise of wordsmithing: the careful selection of each and every word and phrase. (Rozelle 3)

But finding your narrative voice isn’t the kind of writing skill you can develop with a how-to-write manual.  Although it can be learned, it isn’t something that can be taught in a classroom, according to author and creative writer teacher, Ron Rozelle:

[Students] will have to dig round for that on their own.  I can point them in the right direction, can show them examples of other peoples’ voices and can even tell them when they haven’t found it.  But finding it is a personal expedition. (3)

I search through all my books on writing and the internet for some formula or exercise to help me.  At the very least, I want see what other writers did to find the narrative voices in their stories.  Not surprisingly, there is no magic pill or sure method to find the right voice for a particular piece.

I am surprised, however, to read recommendations that writers should not copy other writers’ voices.  I disagree.  Michael Cunningham’s The Hours comes to mind.  He certainly wouldn’t have been able to write it if Virginia Woolf hadn’t written Mrs. DallowayThe Hours is brilliantly evocative of Virginia Woolf’s stunning writing, including her stream of consciousness technique.  It is an homage to and a rewriting of another novel, and yet a unique work of art on its own merit.

In grad school, I’d heard of one successful author, who once admitted he’d intentionally copied Annie Proulx to write his collection of linked stories.  And he got away with it.  Good for him.  His collection ended up as a New York Times Notable Book and won several awards.

A few years ago, in Picasso’s Museum in Barcelona, as I snaked my way through the strategically lit rooms and corridors of the Picasso Museum, I noticed how much non-Picasso-like the painter was during his earlier years.  There was no evidence of that abstract cubist we’re most familiar with.  In fact, his varied, pre-cubist works reminded me of other painters, from Toulouse-Lautrec to Van Gogh to Gaugin:

A very interesting trait of Picasso was the way in which he was able to emulate the styles and methods of other painters and as such create paintings that were still original.  The influence of Van Gogh is clearly visible in The Death of Casagemas, as well as in Portrait of Jaime Sabartés (The beer glass) with their heavily textured impasto, dark contours and contrasting colors. The accuracy with which Picasso reproduces the style of Gauguin in The Absinthe Drinker is uncanny, but he adds his own subtle Picasso line. (Jansen n.p.)

The way I see it, it’s not about copying or not being original, it’s about discovery.  So if you’re looking for ideas on how to find the right narrative voice, you might try this exercise to help in your search:

  1. Pick out a few books or authors with distinct narrative voices. Don’t forget to look at non-fiction, like memoirs, and fiction in other genres.  This how I found out that one of my stories fit more in the romance, or chick lit genre rather than the literary genre.
  2. Rewrite from memory the first page of your story three (or more) times, each time imitating the narrative voice used in one the books or by authors you picked out earlier.
  3. Read each aloud.  Listen for rhythm, cadence, the sense of character within the language itself.
  4. If the voice does not fit, you’ll know right away.  Before moving to the next, see if there is anything in what you have written that may get you closer to what you are looking for.   Think of an old-fashioned radio with a knob for a tuner.  While one writer’s voice might not fit, a variation of it may.  You may only need to move the knob over just a titch, as a good friend of mine from the Midwest says.

Again this is about discovery, so you can try imitating other voices that are close or vastly different from what you have now.  You do, however, want to pick out ones that would logically fit your story.  For instance, let’s say you have a story about star-crossed lovers, you probably shouldn’t pick out a story written by George Saunders. But then again, a love story ala George Saunders might be interesting.  You never know.

I also highly recommend Nicholas Delbanco’s The Sincerest Form: Writing by Imitation.  He explores the craft of writing through the stories and techniques of contemporary authors, with exercises for new writers to imitate the craft of these master storytellers in order to hone their own fiction writing skills.

I wish now that Michael Krasny had asked Jennifer Egan and Vendela Vida to elaborate more on discovering their narrative voices.  As it usually happens, after the City Arts & Lectures interview was over, I thought of the questions I should have asked during the Q&A, so I’d like to pose them to you:

How do you determine the narrative voice of a particular piece of work? Is it known right from the start or is it developed as you write?  And what happens if you aren’t able to get the right narrative voice?  What do you do to find it or to bring it out?