Craft and inspiration are important, but how does one find one’s particular voice, one’s originality? In my search to understand this mystery, I enjoy reading how some of the great writers have expressed the way they find the path into themselves.
A great source of knowledge on this subject can be found in The Paris Review interviews. Here Alice Munroe says the channel to her voice is through her mother, “The material about my mother is my central material in life, and it always comes the most readily to me. If I just relax, that’s what will come up.”
Toni Morrison talks about making the writer and reader feel something as opposed to reading it. Regarding the use of the bit, she says, “In reading some of the documents I noticed frequent references to something that was never properly described—the bit. This thing was put into the mouth of slaves to punish them and shut them up without preventing them from working. I spent a long time trying to find out what it looked like…Then I realized that describing it would never be helpful; that the reader didn’t need to see it so much as feel what it was like. I realized that it was important to imagine the bit as an active instrument, rather than simply as a curio or an historical fact. And in the same way I wanted to show the reader what slavery felt like, rather than how it looked.”
Toni Morrison also says regarding emotions like anger, etc., “I don’t like those emotions as fuel. I mean, I have them, but…if it’s not your brain thinking cold, cold thoughts, which you can dress in any kind of mood, then it’s nothing. It has to be a cold, cold thought. I mean cold, or cool at least. Your brain. That’s all there is”.
William Faulkner talks about the awkwardness and how originality is rejected, and how, “Since none of my work has met my own standards, I must judge it on the basis of that one which caused me the most grief and anguish, as the mother loves the child who became the thief or murderer more than the one who became the priest”. He added, “with me, a story usually begins with a single idea or memory or mental picture. The writing of the story is simply a matter of working up to the moment, to explain why it happened or what it caused to follow. A writer is trying to create believable people in credible moving situations in the most moving way he can. Obviously he must use as one of his tools the environment that he knows…I prefer silence to sound, and the image produced by words occurs in silence. That is, the thunder and the music of the prose take place in silence.”
Ernest Hemingway discusses how great writing comes from “the iceberg”: “If a writer stops observing he is finished…but he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful…I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.”
Regarding his distinctive style, Hemingway added the following: “I might say that what amateurs call a style is usually only the unavoidable awkwardness in first trying to make something that has not heretofore been made. Almost no new classics resemble other previous classics. At first people can only see the awkwardness.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that poems were at their best when they were not completely understood. I take this to mean that the mystery in art is like the mystery of religious faith and, therefore, trust is involved. In the case of great artists, we trust what we don’t understand and there is faith. A writer needs to feel her own awkwardness and tenderness, find the channel, and make the reader feel.
Miles Davis expressed this all in the most succinct and charming way: “Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”
In my work I write about what won’t release me and, time and again, it is the lives of the unprotected. I am always following The Little Matchgirl, and she takes me where I need to go.
What do you think it takes to find your voice?
My new novel Prayers for the Stolen is out this month with Hogarth Press. Visit my website, www.jennifer-clement.com, for more on the book!