Photo by Jamie Moncrief/Copyright

Saturday, August 14, 2010

can you hear me?

"Sing, sing a song, sing out loud, sing out strong..."
I'm currently reading Eat, Pray, Love. I know, I know, I'm way behind the curve, but I've been reading a lot of romances and middle-grade/young adult fiction, filling the well of inspiration for my own work. I really want to see the movie -- I *love* Julia Roberts, and Javier Bardem looks positively yummy -- but for some inscrutable reason, I can't bring myself to buy a ticket until I've read the book. The Universe insists, and I've long since learned not to argue.

I don't read many memoirs. I think the last one may have been Joan Didion's National Book Award-winning The Year of Magical Thinking. Unfortunately, that book -- brilliant as it was -- quashed my desire to read more memoirs. After a year of almost daily miracles, which Didion moved past without seeming to notice, she concluded that there is no God, "no eye on the sparrow." It depressed me for weeks.

The movie trailers make it clear, though, that Eat, Pray, Love is a celebration, not a pity-wallow. So I'm reading it. And if ever there were an antidote for Didion's hopelessness, this is it.

Elizabeth Gilbert deals with weighty subjects, but the woman is hilarious. In real life we'd probably start shouting at each other within five minutes of meeting -- our politics are polar opposites -- but I love her on the page. Possibly because of the journey she chronicles in the book, she has a wonderful sense of the ridiculousness of her own existence, the insanity of taking herself and her life as seriously as we all tend to do most of the time. It's downright refreshing. But it's not just her outlook that entertains. It's the way she expresses it, the fresh similes and memorable images she uses to sear her truths onto the reader's brain. Her voice comes through, loud and clear, insecure yet brash, on each and every page.

As a novelist, I struggled long and hard to put my finger on that elusive must-have known as voice. Ask an editor to give you an example of voice, and it's likely she'll point you to a story full of dialect. But dialect is not voice; for someone grappling with what voice is, finding it in a book full of dialect is an exercise in futility. In memoir, though, nothing stands in the way. The writer doesn't have to be anyone other than who they are, so their personality is free to come out on the page, unfettered and true. I've never read a better, more in-your-face example of voice than Gilbert's. So if you're a writer who struggles to understand what voice is, read Eat, Pray, Love. I guarantee you'll finally hear it and know, on a gut level you'll never forget, what it is.

The challenge, once you instinctively know what voice is, comes in how to translate that understanding into fiction. Fiction is filled with many voices. Each character's must be unique. Yet, like a haunting melody that is almost -- but not quite -- beyond the reach of hearing, the author's voice must underpin each one. It's the musical staff on which the notes that form the characters' melodies hang. Take it away, and the whole symphony falls flat.

Voice has many expressions. It comes out in word choice, sentence structure, in simile and metaphor, in the cadence of a paragraph, a chapter, a novel. I've discovered, however, that my voice is clearest, strongest, most alive and memorable when the theme of my story is firmly fixed in my mind as I write.

For a long time, I didn't think my stories had themes. But the more I concentrated on character over plot, the more my themes began to emerge. Theme is especially evident in Guns and Gardenias (recently renamed Traitor to Love). In fact, it reared up and slapped me in the face about halfway through the first draft.

At its most basic, the novel's theme revolves around the tension between duty and honor and the fact that, although we tend to think of them as one and the same, they are often in conflict. In Traitor to Love, the conflicts between duty and honor play out in the crucible of family loyalties. One lead character is blindly devoted to family; the other is on a vengeance quest sparked by a family member's betrayal. Each muddles duty with honor, and each must learn the difference to find their way and claim their happiness.

Looking back at my previous works, I now see that the tension between duty and honor surfaces again and again, but is never fully developed. Why this subject interests me above all others, I'm not quite sure. But now that I know it does, I'm actively working to explore what it means -- to me, to my characters, and to my stories.

I don't think it's coincidence that this novel, where the theme is so strong and clear, marks the first time my work has been recognized for voice. I still have the scoresheet from the contest where a judge singled out the novel's voice for praise for the very first time. When I read her comment, my immediate thought was: I have a voice? When did that happen? In mulling the question, the link between theme and voice at last became clear.

Voice is now a strength noted by virtually every judge in every contest I enter. Ironically, I still can't hear voice in my own work; I suspect I never will. Perhaps no fiction writer can. I've come to realize, though, that at its core, my voice is who I am, what I believe, the value map by which I find my way in this maze we call life. Most of us are too close to the trees of daily existence to see the forest, too close to ourselves to know who we really are (or too insecure to feel comfortable expressing it). But after years of searching, my personal belief is that to find your voice, you must first discover what you believe in deeply -- your personal theme -- and then sing that song without fear or apology.

What is the key to voice for you? Do you hear it in your own work, or only in the works of others? Please extend and deepen the discussion by sharing your thoughts, strategies and questions, along with your best examples of voices you love.

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  1. Great blog, Bernadette. I recognize other writers' voices rather easily, but have never been able to hear my own in spite of people telling me it's strong.

    After thinking about it for a long time, I finally figured out that it's because I read a lot in a different language. That predisposes me to choose certain words, certain sentence structures which might no occur to an English only writer.

    But I think there are many paths to voice, and this is just one of them. Voice is probably an expression of the accumulation of all our experiences.

  2. Fantastic post!! I enjoyed reading it! I've noticed my favorite authors are my favorites because of their voices. I could read anything they write, even (as the cliche goes,) their grocery list and enjoy it. I loved your insight about how theme relates to voice.

  3. It took a very long time for me to understand exactly what "voice" is. Many fellow writers kept saying I have a Kathleen Woodiwiss voice, but I can't see it or hear it in my own work. I love Kathleen, but I don't particularly want to sound like her.

    I think you hit the answer to my dilemma squarely between the eyes. I believe my true voice came through clearest in my second manuscript where my heroine struggles to understand why everyone in the world doesn't believe exactly as she does. I now look back and see this same theme in my other works, but in a less direct manner.

    My muse disappeared for over a year. Now I see it's because I couldn't figure out what drives my protagonist to do and think the things he or she does. Now I know.

    Well done, Bernadette! Thanks a gajillion for helping me discover my voice!


  4. New readers! How exciting! i'm so glad you popped by.

    Clarissa: An accumulation of all our experiences -- that's a great way to think of voice. After all, experience makes us who we are, and that's the source of our voices.

    Nicole: Welcome! Who are some of your favorite authors? Do thry tend to revisit the same themes again and again?

    Lisanne, I'm so thrilled you found inspiration and insight for your own writer!s journey. Muses are so fickle, aren't they? Hope yours is back to stay!

  5. Excellent way to think of voice. I've struggled to understand the concept for years, and I think editors and agents struggle to describe it. But, by George, I think you've got it! Unless we are truly aware of the thread that weaves all aspects of our work into a piece, we probably don't have a recognizable voice. Instead we are likely to have a chorus of competing voices each wiping out the other, allowing for no discernable song.

  6. Well said, Bonnie! No wonder "Island Sting" is such a big hit.

  7. What a great post, Bernie! I do think that what you love and care about will surely help your voice come through strong and clear. And the passion behind your personality will come through on the page. Thanks for sharing your journey.

  8. Wonderful, thoughtful post. I'm glad I discovered your blog.

    I think it's sometimes hard to differentiate character voice from authorial voice, especially when it's first person, but they are different, and I think you hit on some important points. Now to go back to my WIP and think about theme and voice...

  9. Welcome, Jacqueline. I'm glad you discovered the blog, too. Would love to hear about your wip sometime and whether theme helps with voice for you. It actually has solved so many issues for me, I'm beginning to think it should be Creative Writing 101! Or maybe it is; not a course of study I ever got to pursue in college.

  10. Excellent post, Bernadette. Comparing voice to a symphony was ... perfect! I've been away for awhile, going to look through back posts and see if I missed the second part of your "meeting" with your romance hero :) Loved that first introduction in the bath!!

  11. Bernadette, exceptionally good post. I believe each of us has an unique voice, but sometimes authors allow critique partners to squash their natural voice. Like you, keeping the theme/plot in mind helps me focus on the characters and their journey as I write.

    I haven't read EAT, LOVE, PRAY yet, but plan to before I see the movie. I don't usually like memoirs, but like a little book of short memoirs, TEXAS TEARS AND TEXAS SUNSHINE: VOICES OF FRONTIER WOMEN. My affection for this book no doubt is because I loce Texas history. LOL

    Today I was able to sign on as a follower.