Wednesday, 19 October 2011
'who are you really'?
'How to write fiction'. It's full of interesting pieces by different writers, and also has short writing and freeing exercises. The section that drew me towards it this morning, however, was on voice.
'Who are you really'?
Your 'voice' lies somewhere between your conscious and subconscious mind. Finding that place is a challenging exercise in self-confrontation.
Do you have a voice? Can you recognise a voice when you hear one? And while we're on the subject, what does 'having a voice' actually mean?
How to kill a living thing
Criticise it to its face
Say how it kills the light
Traps all the rubbish
Bores you with its green
Harden your heart
Cut it down close
To the root as possible
For a week or a month
Return with an axe
Split it with one blow
Insert a stone
To keep the wound wide open
Do you hear a voice in those lines? Despite being unable to pronounce her name, the author Eibhlin Nic Eochaidh's voice is so clear to me, I'm tempted to offer her a chair and a cup of tea.
Many would-be writers spend far too much time nervously scrabbling about for a voice, but the word itself is horribly misleading. 'Voice' (unlike 'power' , for instance, or 'presence') suggests a superficial quality, one that can be manipulated by having singing lessons, or by changing the tone, volume, or accent.
There is nothing superficial, however, about voice when used in the context of writing. Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.
So... what is the essence of your personality? What is the clearest expression of your DNA combined with a lifetime of experience? What does the combination of nature and nurture add up to? In other words, who are you? Who are you really?
If you don't know, you need to find out. Self-knowledge is essential not only to writing, but to doing almost anything really well. It allows you to work from a deep place - from the deep, dark corners of your subconscious mind. This connection of the subconscious to the conscious mind is what gives a writer's voice resonance.
Read a great writer and you'll feel the resonance - it's the added dimension of power that can't quite be explained by mere talent. An ability with words is nice, but it's not a voice.
Connecting with your subconscious mind is not easy. It requires confronting difficult facts - about yourself and about the world. Can you know who you are without understanding your own weaknesses? And what frightens you? Can you know who you are without understanding the evil, the selfishness, the cruelty of which you're capable? OK. And the goodness, kindness, brilliance as well
Of course the biggest, darkest question of all is death. Not an easy question to meet head-on. Some people naturally confront death. Some seem incapable of not confronting it. Woody Allen says that when he was a small child he lay in bed, terrified, contemplating eternal nothingness. So, apparently, did William Golding. Many people, however, live their lives in evasion of the central fact of existence.
Of course it is perfectly possible to be a writer without facing death face-on, without years of psychoanlaysis, and without a tendency towards depression. But the resonant, powerful, exciting voice that grips you in its thrall is likely to be a voice with a good deal of hard-won wisdom about humanity.
Which brings us to 'throughness'. 'Throughness' is a word I've borrowed from dressage; 'The supple, elastic, unblocked, connected state that permits an unrestricted flow of energy from back to front and front to back'. Synonymous with the German term Durchlassigkeit, or 'througlettingness', it is often used in conjunction with the word 'connection' - define as a state 'in which there is no blockage, break, or slack in the circuit that joins horse and rider into a single harmonious unit; the unrestricted flow of energy and influence from and through the rider to and througout the horse, and back to the rider'.
Now think, for a minute, of your subconconscious mind as the horse and your conscious mind as the rider. The goal is a combination of strength, suppleness, and softness. If the rider (conscious mind) is too strong, too stiff or unsympathetic, the horse becomes unresponsive and dull. The object of the dressage is to create an open, graceful exchange of understanding and energy between horse and rider.
In writing, a powerful flow of energy between conscious and subconscious mind will result in extraordinary occurences. Characters will behave in ways you had not anticipated. Twists of plot will astound you. The part of your brain that concocts elaborate dreams while you sleep with emerge in daytime, informing your story in ways you might never have anticipated.
A book written with an exchange of energy between the conscious and subconscious mind will feel exciting and fluid in the way that a perfectly planned and pre-plotted book never will. Writing (like riding, or singing, or playing an musical instrument, or painting or playing cricket or thinking about the universe) requires the deep psychological resonance of the subconscious mind. It requires throughness and connection, and only then will the reader feel the surge of power that a clever borrowed voice never achieves.
The good news is that you can achieve throughness by writing. Practice, in other words. Write first thing in the morning when your conscious brain hasn't quite taken over yet. Write letters. Or essays. Write and write and write, and athen look at what you've written to find out who you are.
Last bit of advice? Stop thinking about your voice. Think about your life instead. Live. Take risks. Seek wisdom. confront the unconfrontable. Find out who you are. Let your voice gain power as you go.
Then write your book.