Conversation and the Writer’s Voice

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A TOPIC CAN BE both vast and yet reducible to the most simple of terms. Here’s an example: a writer is a person who does things with words. Whether her goal is to inform, deceive, terrify, entertain, charm, persuade or seduce, a writer will have to do it with words. A reader, also, has nothing but words from which to cultivate the pictures, emotions and experiences which are ‘in’ the text. A writer’s voice is a big topic, but the topic does indeed rest upon these objects called words. And words alone.

Not only every writer, but every person, has a voice. Research has shown that communication is to a great degree physical, and that body language and tone are inseparable from this thing called voice. Imagine sitting down with an old friend, and that your friend begins to speak – but in another’s voice. If you try it, you’ll see immediately that it’s quite unnerving. The voice of the other will change how you perceive your old friend, even if everything else remains unaltered.

By everything else I mean the technical nuts and bolts of communication: foremost among them words. We can talk about these tools as literary devices, but they apply to anyone who uses language. We all have a vocabulary, and our own way of using it. Diction refers to our word choices (grub, brekkie, collation, repast, meal, let’s grab a bite), and theme can refer to the kinds of stories we tell. People who fall naturally into sports talk will have a lot to say on the themes of war, such as conquest and defeat. There are words and a tone that best suit conversations about sport, and when you add all of these together – the diction, the theme, the tone and so on – you get a voice.

Every writer has a unique voice (mine is deep and manly, obviously), made up of these nuts and bolts of communication. You are constantly making decisions as a writer that will create your voice. Which word do I use? How long should this sentence be? What punctuation do I use or avoid using? What order will I put the words in? (Into which order should the words I put?) Should I employ irony, and how much? Each of these decisions will become a part of the final product, your voice.

Then there’s the reader. I might imagine you and I sitting at a bar over a drink. Or we might be in a large lecture hall, you in the audience and I at the lectern. Or in a small room, where I’m the doctoral candidate defending a dissertation. My voice is going to be different in each of these imagined settings. How much familiarity do I assume? If I imagine my reader is an old friend, then I’m going to take a lot for granted. There’s certain things I’m not going to explain, and I’m going to take it as granted that we share a similar sense of humour and a similar background of experiences. In case you are wondering, my readers fall into the category of old friends. I have a number of reasons for making this decision, and I won’t go into all of them – but I’ll tell you a few.

Eventually, if things go as I hope, a reader will become an old friend. And what’s an old friend, if not someone who enjoys your voice? Your friends will probably share your sense of humor and your wit and your values. If someone hates your voice and your sense of humor and your values – and there will be people who do – they’re not going to want a conversation. It makes sense to assume an open relationship. I think that, like many people, I’m at my best in an informal setting with a drink in my hand. That’s where I believe my voice has its best showing. It’s not that I don’t get on with teetotalers, but whether we’re at your kitchen table or in a meeting hall, I’d like some food and drink. It works for me. Food and drink always further the cause of sociability, so I call upon them, even when I’m in the realm of imagination.

This is where it gets interesting, for me at least, because now that I’ve sketched out the mechanics of voice I can explore the practice. We all have many voices. Your voice in a doctor’s office is probably not your voice in a bar or at church or talking to your best friend. You’ll use a different speaking style and a different tone. Your words will be chosen according to context. All of these will still be your voice, but they won’t all be the same. Because I’m working out challenging and complex ideas, I’ve chosen a semi-formal voice for this essay. This is my complex ideas voice. I would use this voice in a bar if the topic came around to something that required deliberation, and then I’d switch into something else as the topic changed again. That’s how voice works in practice. A writer’s voice should be fluid and nuanced and nimble, the more so the better.

Now let’s mess around with voice to show you what I mean.

There are like people who totally talk in this voice. I mean, there’s like, literally millions of them, you know. This is the like voice of many young people in the neighborhood where I live. I mean, it’s cool and everything, and I’m just saying you can totally hear this voice in your head, like the way it sounds and stuff, right. I’m not saying it’s like only young people or whatever, and you know some like older people have this voice too, like people in their thirties and stuff, but yeah it’s totally how people talk in like bars and stuff, for sure. See how everything like changes along with the voice, like the speed and length of the sentence and the punctuation and stuff. It’s like fast and fluid and energetic and chatty and like has its own vocabulary and tone or whatever. It’s distinct.

Okay. That’s one voice you’ll hear in the world, there are others, informal, chatty, human voices – on blogs, on YouTube. In magazines. Whatevs! You surf around, you know what I mean. This is a voice you’ve heard, too. Ohmygod DON’T tell me you haven’t! Are you serious? It’s the voice of celebrity gossip columns. You see it. All. The. Time. Seriously! It’s kinda like the voice you just heard, but more self conscious. This voice is a catty, sarcastic voice that likes to laugh and have fun and then go out dancing, ha!

Then there’s the establishment voice of commercial print media. According to recent reports, the audience of this voice is undergoing a historic decline. The changing tastes and reading habits of Internet users is now a well-established trend, with not only print, but also mainstream online publications, struggling to make up for lost revenues. In a world of vast, accessible and cheap information, the marketplace of news and entertainment has been turned upside-down.

Even more marginalized is the academic voice, a construct interpolated and always-already (re-)inscribed by the problematic intersection of ideological and commercial discourses in which the academic voice is itself posited as a kind of double movement, both within and without, constitutive and critical of its inescapable ideo-socio-linguistic imbrication.

That’s about as much of that as I can take. By now I’ve made my point, that by drawing together elements of syntax, diction and tone you get these things called voices. Much of the challenge and fun of writing, and of reading, is in the encounter of these elements – the text’s voice. If you go to the website McSweeney’s, you’ll discover an entire industry of manipulating voices to humorous effect. Here’s an example.

Socrates On the Red Carpet.
By Bob Woodiwiss
– – – –
SOCRATES: Welcome to the 86th Academy Awards. We are live here on the red carpet at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, and the stars are out tonight. Like the lovely and talented fan favorite approaching now, a lady who just might take home her second Best Actress Oscar, Sandra Bullock. Good evening, Sandra. You look stunning, as always. Who are you wearing?

SANDRA: Valentino.

SOCRATES: And…?

SANDRA: And? There’s no “and.” I’m wearing Valentino.

SOCRATES: Yes, obviously, your trainer-hewn physical form is draped in tangible designer fashions but, in a more essential, holistic sense, are you not also wearing, or, to be less metaphorical, bearing, the values, the views, the emotional residue of all—father, mother, siblings, peers, teachers, The Ex Who Must Not Be Named, et cetera—who have figured significantly in your life? Shouldn’t one’s emotional couturiers receive equal acknowledgement on this night?

Clever stuff. Much of McSweeney’s humor results from combining dissimilar elements of voice. The titles alone will show you what I mean: “I Hope You Enjoy This Artisanal Knuckle Sandwich,” “Henry David Thoreau Can’t Take Much More of These Goddamn Steam Whistles,” “The New York Post Covers the Trial of Socrates” and “Baby’s Touch ’N Feel Guide to Russian Literature.” One of the best ways to learn about this thing called voice, in my view, is to read humor – especially subversive, irreverent humor. I read a lot of Mad Magazine when I was growing up, and I suspect it had a lasting influence on my tendency to this day to prick over-inflated reputations, undress the emperor, and focus on the absurd. Whatever else I may be up to, irony is a big part of my writerly voice.

Once you have these elements in your arsenal – a vocabulary, a familiarity with literary history and various writing styles and tones, a sense of your ideal readers, and an ability to play with the mechanics of language – writing becomes a matter of engaging the reader with your tools, by creating a compelling voice. Once you’ve done that, the conversation can begin. And, with any luck, it will continue for years and even decades.

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