- Michael Ondaatje, Running in the Family
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I begin at roughly 5 in the morning most mornings and drink coffee and write - something, anything - until I have to clock in and work for pay. There are times those two plus hours are flown past in the time it takes to drain the cup, and other times, well... let's just say I know how to make time crawl. All I need to do is have nothing to say.
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There is a teaching that was part of my work at Columbia College Chicago in the Fiction Department (back when there was the luxury of such a thing) that tried to make students aware of this remarkable force in writing: voice - the voice of the story, the voice of the author, the physical voice in one's throat, your own voice in the voice of the story as you read it out loud. Sounds gibberish-y, I know, but it was trying to describe the un-noticed, un-attended, obvious truth of all writing: it sounds like something. And if the writing was thrumming it sounded unlike anything else.
You know this is true in your day to day life. The patterns and tics and pat phrases of your speech and the way those familiar to you speak are well-worn talismans of recognition: Uncle Joe always says, "Ain't that sumthin'" in that high nasal pitch, Louise's vocal fry makes every word sound painful, your daughter says "swag" instead of "cool." It surrounds you and you take no notice of it. Yet, I can think of few things that hold more potential for unfucking what is fucked in your life than listening for and understanding voice - your voice.
Hemingway sounds like Hemingway: short, sharp, declarative, forward.
Calvino is Calvino: elegant, learned, questioning, patient.
Ondaatje is ever the poet he started out as: the startling image rendered meticulously, whispering, refusing to let go until he is satisfied you can't help but see it as he does.
We easily recognize the voice of authors and mistakenly refer to it as style. Nothing is further from the truth. Voice is inescapable. Style is interchangeable.
So, if this is true in writing, and it is true, what then does it say about your voice - not your writerly voice, but the voice of your life?
What story have you been telling and how? Do you even know you've been telling a story, that the things you do or don't do are the warp and woof of your life, your tale?
This is not a small thing.
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Let us begin by putting forward some definitions.
1. Your physical voice is the primary source of what I am calling "voice."
2. Your physical voice is an extremely limited understanding of "voice."
3. Words, the representative symbols of sounds, carry further meaning than sound alone.
4. Words strung together to tell of some experience carry additional freight.
5. Rhythm in stringing those words together is the beginning of the "voice on the page."
6. The "voice on the page" is a hybrid of physical sound, symbol, and the utterly unique filter of the one assembling the story.
7. This filter is the product of experience and intention.
8. The marshaling of these resources (sound, symbol, rhythm, meaning, intention and experience) is the sole task of the one seeking to be heard.
9. When you first start out you can't help but borrow and copy from the examples closest to you.
10. Over time, if you are faithful to this idea of being heard, you leave the copies and listen for your own way of doing it.
11. Once you hear your own voice, you would rather die than lose it.
12. I am not talking about writing anymore.
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Half a page–and the morning is already ancient is simply how it goes. Fallow times are not to be shunned. You work at your work - whatever it may be - and keep the faith with yourself, in yourself, that what you are doing matters to you. What is essential is listening for and swimming in the sound of your life in its desire to know and be known. We fuck ourselves when we abandon the cause, when we think it isn't for us, when we never realize it could be so.
Your experience and intention are not fixed, but fluid. They respond to your honest effort.
Now go, you have a story to rewrite.