Making the Muse Be Your Monkey

I came across an article from the New Yorker by Louis Menand today that had some great insights about writing.

Although it starts off as a review of Lynne Truss' ubiquitous new book, Eats, Shoots, & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, it soon becomes clear that the point of the article isn't so much to discuss the book as to use the review as a launching pad for a meditation on what makes writing good.

Some bits I found interesting:
One of the most mysterious of writing's immaterial properties is what people call “voice.” Editors sometimes refer to it, in a phrase that underscores the paradox at the heart of the idea, as “the voice on the page.” Prose can show many virtues, including originality, without having a voice. It may avoid cliché, radiate conviction, be grammatically so clean that your grandmother could eat off it. But none of this has anything to do with this elusive entity the “voice.“

The reason this resonated for me was that, more than anything, voice is what keeps me reading. If the voice of a novel is irritating or unconvincing or unoriginal or simply nonexistant, I can't force myself to finish a story. All other factors are irrelevant. Maybe I was able to when I was younger, but now I derive almost no pleasure from reading something that doesn't personally create a voice for me. And when a piece of writing does have an engaging voice, it can keep me riveted, at the expense of food, sleep and personal hygiene.

I also liked that Menand discards the myth that voice has any basis in truth, in the sense that it should sound the way the writer sounds in real life:
Wisdom on the page correlates with wisdom in the writer about as frequently as a high batting average correlates with a high I.Q.: they just seem to have very little to do with one another. Witty and charming people can produce prose of sneering sententiousness, and fretful neurotics can, to their readers, seem as though they must be delightful to live with. Personal drabness, through some obscure neural kink, can deliver verbal blooms.

This is the truth. It's a good thing writing exists, I think, for the sake of all of the terribly boring people whose fascinating thoughts we might otherwise never know.

For this reason, however, it's easy to think that authors may choose, in writing, to invent a persona that they can't be in real life—they can seem funnier or more intelligent or charming than they are able to convey by other means. After all, if people could be as interesting in real life as they can be on the page, then writers would all have thousands of friends and would therefore never write. But Menand argues against the idea that a writer consciously invents a “persona.” Rather, he sees it as something less manufactured: the Voice either comes or it doesn't on its own.

To this I can add my own experience. Everything that I've written that, to me at least, has seemed to work on some level, always had as its source that little spark of inspiration, the germ of something that seems to come from another place. The process of extracting that idea, of developing the germ once it has made its appearance, is for me an intensely pleasurable one. Characters speak to each other on their own and plotlines develop themselves. And the times that I have attempted to just pound something out (especially in the case of fiction) without waiting for the Voice to make its appearance, I have invariably been disappointed by the results. Talk to any writer worth reading and they'll tell you the same thing. Those who don't believe in magic probably never had it.

So how does a person make sure that the Voice shows up more often? Menand doesn't really address this question, but in my case, it seems to wait until the absolute last moment that I need it, and then comes about an hour and a half later. For this reason, I love deadlines. The more deadlines I have, the more of a nervous wreck I become, but I also feel more alive and productive, because, even if the Voice comes late, it nearly always does arrive. The goal, I guess, is to give myself as many deadlines as possible and hope that the people that depend on them will forgive my unreliability. Another good technique for getting the Voice to come around is to give myself a lot of unrelated projects to do, and then shirk my responsibility by writing instead. The kiss of death for creativity, at least for me, is to have a lot of free time when it would be perfectly convenient to write.

If the Voice is so patchy, is he really worth pursuing? For those of us who believe in the power of writing, and who truly love to read, it goes without saying. The Voice is the glimmer of a personality behind the words on a page, the paradoxical evidence of magic in language. It's what's human about a book, what makes you love a character and feel like you know him. It is what makes it, in Menand's words, "more painful to stop reading than it is to keep going." The least I can do is listen when he comes around.


Post a Comment

<< Home