Friday, May 10, 2013

Trying on voices


One last reflection on writing.

In a recent New York Times Book Review last-page essay, the always interesting Pico Iyer praises writers who try different voices in their fiction. He recounts the ways our voice changes depending on who we are addressing, something that becomes especially acute in an increasingly globalized world where many different voices contend for attention.

Iyer acknowledges various novelists who have consistently adopted different voices based on their experience of cultural diversity -- Mohsin Hamid and Zadie Smith, for example. He writes: "What they are telling us is that for an increasing number of people worldwide, it's only by remaining constantly mobile, keeping you voice as fluid and versatile as the world around you, that you can begin to be true to who you really are.

My own life experience has been distressingly homogeneous, and I suppose because of that my voice has been dully consistent. I remember the first time I felt I had found my voice, after many years of struggling to become a writer. It was when I wrote the first sentence of The Soul of the Night: "Yesterday on Boston Common I saw a young man on a skateboard collide with a child." The child flew a few feet across the Common; I saw her fly across the galaxy. The rest of the book was an easy riff on that theme. And the next book, Honey from Stone, followed in the same comfortable voice.

I was off and running. Twenty-years of non-fiction, following that little girl's cosmic trajectory.

But fiction. Fiction is different. Fiction demands different voices, lest every character be the same. And not just the same, but atavars of the author. So now began a second challenge -- finding my way out of a voice that had served so well.

I suppose that writing in different voices was more challenging than finding my own, and consequently my fiction has been less successful than my non-fiction. But it has been personally gratifying. In Chattanooga, for example, I tried to tell the story in a half-dozen different voices. In the first draft, they all sounded rather alike. So then came the work of distinction: old, young, male, female, sexist, feminist. Only the reader will know whether I (and Dan) succeeded, but this I do know: In reaching for distinctive voices I discovered -- as Iyer suggests -- some hitherto unexpressed things about myself.