If I had to articulate, in one phrase, my original intention when I signed up for a creative writing course I would say that I wanted to ‘find my voice’. I imagined something like the ending of The Matrix, when Neo starts to see the coding that forms the structure of his world and is able to manipulate the code to do exactly what he wants it to do. Surely that must be what it is like to find your voice—for your writing to flow smoothly and easily and to be in perfect control. And I do feel a lot more in control of my writing now than I did four years ago, but I have also realised that ‘flow’ is an elusive quality that doesn’t necessarily equate good writing.
‘Narrative voice’, as a concept, is slightly easier to pin down—it is the tone created by diction, it is about word choice, sentence structure and length, cadence and rhythm. But ‘finding your voice’ seems to encompass more than just tone.
‘Finding your voice’ is about knowing what you want to write about as much as how you write it. It is about finding out what it is that you have to say. Toby Litt recently gave some great writing advice on the Word Factory website, he said: “Write about what you absolutely don’t want to write about.” There’s a challenge. It sounds counter-intuitive but I know that the things I am afraid to write about—the things that expose me—are things that I really need to write about.
But ‘finding your voice’ does not necessarily give you free reign to inflict it on other people—at least if you want other people to ever read your work. Finding your voice is also about identifying your own weaknesses. I grew up reading Jane Austen, and Charlotte Bronte and so my natural inclination is towards verbosity and a certain formality. I also have a predisposition towards indecisive qualifiers like: ‘a bit’, ‘slightly’, ‘really’ and ‘quite’. I know that I need to commit to my adverbs and adjectives with more conviction. When I have written a piece I usually have to go back and cut out a lot of it.
Recently, over a weekend, I was attempting to write a contemporary short story, as well as an article on Clerkenwell Design Week and a Jane Austen-inspired short story for a competition. The Jane Austen story came very easily and naturally—I could do wordy and pompous without even thinking about it. My contemporary short story was too wordy though so I was attempting to ‘Raymond Carver’ it, but I found that I had, instead, ‘Raymond Carvered’ my Clerkenwell Design Week article and produced a piece of journalism that was dull and uninspiring in the extreme—in all of its understated, read-between-the-lines subtlety. I had to go back to the article and jazz it up with some enthusiastic adjectives after I had finished Carvering and submitting my contemporary short story. Even though it comes more naturally to me I have not resigned myself to only writing stories set in the Regency.
This week I read two books that use a distinctive narrative voice to add to the characterisation of the protagonist. In both cases the narrative voice could have been alienating to the reader but for the skill of the author.
The Restless Supermarket by Ivan Vladislavic was published this month by And Other Stories, and is narrated by a retired telephone directory proofreader, Aubrey Tearle, living in Hillbrow, Johannesburg in the twilight years of Apartheid. A book narrated by a grumpy, grammar pedant sounds like the worst kind of torture, fortunately it is also very funny:
Wessels was waiting for me as usual in the Café Europa. Properly: Martinus Theodosius Wessels—but I am afraid that I think of him as Empty. Empty Wessels make the most noise. Or in this case, makes the most noise. Appropriately it grates the grammatical nerve-endings. Errors of number are Wessels’s speciality.
With the help of his friends at the Café Europa, Tearle embarks on the pinnacle of his life’s work: The Proofreader’s Derby, an epic collection of grammatical and typographic mistakes.
Hillbrow has a bad reputation even by Johannesburg standards. After having lived in Joburg for eight years, Hillbrow was an area that I still didn’t like to drive through by myself at night, particularly on New Years’ Eve when, according to local lore, appliances are hurled out of the windows of high rises. But back in the day, Rocky Street, Hillbrow was the place to be, and Joburg-resident Vladislavic evokes Hillbrow with warmth and affection. The Restless Supermarket is a haunting portrait of urban decay but also a poignant depiction of a changing world from the bewildered perspective of one who has, to some extent, been left behind:
Has my whole life come down to a pile of papers, I asked myself, and those riddled with corrigenda? Would I have to say, looking back, not ‘It was all one big mistake,’ but ‘It was an endless succession of little mistakes’? More than I care to remember, let alone to correct. There might be some saving grace in a great mistake, boldly made—but in an unbroken line of piffling errors?
I also read the Costa Prize winning debut novel The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer. At first I found it a frustrating read—the narrative voice is disjointed and not always coherent. The introduction of the narrator’s brother Simon, on page 5, is quirky and memorable though:
I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never that same after that.
As you read on you begin to realise that the disjointed narrative voice has a specific implication about the narrator and the ‘quirky’ revelation about Simon takes on a more ominous tone.
There have been wonderful stories told from the perspective of a protagonist seemingly on the autism spectrum, including Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. One could even suggest that these stories run the risk of romanticising this condition. Schizophrenia is a lot less liable to be romanticised and a lot more difficult to write about. Nathan Filer’s background as a mental health nurse and psychiatric researcher obviously put him in a good position, but apart from the practicalities, he writes about mental illness with a poetry and an empathy that you don’t find in the textbooks:
If the tap choked and spluttered before the water came, he was saying I’m lonely. When I opened a bottle of Dr Pepper and the caramel bubbles fizzed over the rim, he was asking me to come out and play. He could speak through an itch, the certainty of a sneeze, the after-taste of tablets, or the way sugar fell from a spoon.
I believe that finding your voice is, to a certain extent, about confidence. And it takes confidence to write with a narrative voice that has the potential to alienate the reader. But from a reader’s perspective it is the writer's confidence that allows us to trust them and to follow them, whether they’re going to Hillbrow or to a psychiatric ward in Bristol—I’m not sure which is scarier.