Tuesday, October 11, 2005

BJH: Hearing Voices: Part Two

(Continued from previous post )

In addition to the voices described in Part One, there are other narrative "choices of voices." A story narrated by a terrified thirteen-year old Irish girl who’s just arrived in America is going to be starkly different (at least we would expect it to be) than that of a college student who was born and raised in Minneapolis, just as an eighty-year-old widow’s narrative voice isn’t likely to resemble that of a forty-something who’s obsessed with staying young.

A story might be told in the voice of a middle-aged alcoholic fisherman from Maine. He’s never quite sober, and his narrative voice will reflect that. And if a narrator lives in a never-lifting fog of severe depression, her voice won’t be similar to that of a young woman in the exhilarating throes of first love.

We have a wide range of fictive devices to use in developing a narrative voice in addition to the core personality, the character, and background of the storyteller: the length of our sentences and paragraphs, the words we choose, the way we handle description and setting through the narrator’s eyes, and more.

Because the variety is so vast, it’s crucial to keep in mind consistency. Although occasionally a narrator may change tones and go from carefree and lighthearted to tense and obsessive, he’s still the same person, and you can’t forget that. He's not you, and you must keep your focus and not let him lapse into your own voice. There will be-–there must be-–a difference between your personal voice and your narrator’s voice. Yes, you’re telling the story, but unless you’re writing an autobiography you’re telling that story through someone else’s voice and viewpoint. If you don’t want to jerk your reader around, it’s vital that your narrator maintain his voice. The tone may change, depending on the scene described and the emotion accompanying that scene--but it still remains your narrator’s job to let the reader see the scene through his eyes, not yours.

An example: For decades, Pete Hamill has written as both a reporter and a columnist for the New York Post, The Daily News, and New York Newsday. He also held the position of editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News. He’s covered murders, the Vietnam war, the Ireland "troubles," Olympic Games, earthquakes and other disasters, and reported from just about anywhere in the world you can name. He’s a hardline Irish American from Brooklyn who worked as a laborer and a graphic designer before turning to journalism. He’s written essays, columns, news reports, novels and other pieces all over the map. As a no-nonsense journalist, his writing is salty and to the point, sounding as you might expect it to sound. Here’s an excerpt from Piecework, a collection of his essays on current affairs:

"We all knew the legend: back home in the coal country of Pennsylvania , he’d played basketball and football, he’d been a boxer. In the age of Hemingway, such credentials were more important than they should have been .... It was not in me, then or now, to fawn over famous men; by the tough code of the ‘50s, that just wouldn’t be hip. But the Bennington girls had no such restraints, and they went for Franz the way sharks go for drowning sailors."

And here’s an excerpt from his novel, Snow in August, a book I’ve recommended to just about everyone I know who loves to read for the sheer power and magic and beauty of the writing. Interestingly, I have heard nothing but exuberant raves from those who have read it, including the hardest of the hard-nosed readers. Snow in August, by the way, is an exquisite, brilliantly written story of an eleven-year-old Irish Catholic boy and Rabbi Judah Hirsch, a Prague refugee (neither of the two main characters is the narrator). It takes place in 1947 Brooklyn, and is told in third person multiple:

"He rose into a frenzy of words and letters, hearing sounds from his mouth that he did not think, moving to music that nobody played, rising into clouds, moving palaces across distant skies, speaking to birds, joining hands in a dance with Mary Cunningham and the Count of Monte Cristo, soaring and swooping and breaking for third, up, rising up, full of rain and fire and salt and oceans, all the way up, chanting the letters that named galleons and cowboys, pirates and Indians, borne by the letters, swept through golden skies above the crazy world, above Brooklyn, above Ireland, above Prague, above the fields of Belgium .... And then fell to his knees in utter emptiness."

You have to know the context of the scene, of course, for this to make any sense. But do you hear the difference between Pete Hamill’s voice and that of the narrator, even though Hamill is the author of both excerpts?

Again, I emphasize that you must do what Hamill is a master at doing: keep the narrator’s voice consistent throughout the entire story, and keep your own voice out of it.

The ability to manage this with the power of a writer like Hamill might be part genius. But even genius requires practice and work and experience. Years of it. So be patient with yourself.



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