The writer of nonfiction uses a different voice from the writer of fiction or poetry because there is an implicit contract, recognized by both writer and reader, that the person doing the writing is representing a self very close to the person who actually lives the life—someone whose ideas these are, whose experience this has been, whose account carries authority and insight. So voice in nonfiction is, by definition, only a partial mask.
Voice also functions differently within nonfiction—a genre that ranges from article to essay to memoir to brief lyric. Each entails a slightly different stance, and stance has a profound influence on voice. We’ve all been taught to write in a public voice—we can all do that—and even though our styles may be different, we recognize our common cause. Yet sometimes we want something else; we want to project an interior voice that announces itself as being wholly unique: an individual, differentiated voice so close to the inner self that we recognize it as projecting a nearly physical property, a bit like hearing yourself in the mirror.
In coining the phrase “The Naked I,” Margot Singer assumes just such a distinctive identifier. We encounter it in so many writers—the expansive fireworks of an Albert Goldbarth sentence, the steady, reflective rumination of Sven Birkerts, or the intimate, flickering connections of Dinah Lenney. What use is this distinguishing voice? Why do we search it out?
There are many answers, but I will say that this naked voice is the stamp of individuality in a world of conformity; it opens a space that reveals a writer’s most intimate, most personal concerns. The questions that it frames are “Who am I within this throng of voices?” and “How do I assert my unique self within the common language?” Even if that idiosyncratic voice is fairly formal, there is probably something in it that, if we were playing poker, we might characterize as a “tell.” Something the reader recognizes, even subliminally, as providing a glimpse beneath the emperor’s clothes.
For years I wrote poetry, hoping to happen upon my true voice. Oh, I had a poetic voice, but the question was: did I recognize myself in it? Sometimes yes, but often no. Yet the first time I attempted an essay, there I was, staring right back at myself from the page. The sentences rolled out—not constructions so much as embodiments. They did not sound like anything I’d ever said out loud, and yet they sounded like what I’d been hearing all my life: a fleeting accompaniment, half observation, half commentary, that seems to be trying to put things together, make a connective tissue. Even in childhood I walked around with that singular voice in my head, one that never depended on grammar or syntax, never put a period at the end of a sentence.
The “tell,” in my case, was the incomplete sentence. Fragments pouring out without any sense that they needed to be attached to pronoun, verb, tense. The mind at work. Quicksilver. Thought as process. In writing the personal essay, my subjects were, if not only my own life, at least also my own life. The impulse was to enact that inner life. Recapture. Enliven. A kind of lopsided answer to William Stafford’s question: “Ask me whether / what I have done is my life.” Surely that’s how we measure a life—from outside—but surely we know better, from inside. Enacting the interior life enables me to ponder its meanings, and I have never felt this more keenly than in my latest project, in which each short paragraph stands alone, yet together they explore the extremes of interconnection. Anecdote, observation, association—all of a piece. The voice, striving for the ruminative essence of interiority:
To step up a curb. To move from the street to the sidewalk by picking up one foot and placing it on the curb. . . . To take the body from one plane to the next. To takethe air intothe lungs, to find the center of gravity, to hoist the body into the air, to breathe the body onto the curb.
But that’s deliberative, and I’m far more interested in the restless movement of the mind. One way to access that is what I will term the “roving question.” My writing has more question marks than the work of almost anyone else I can think of. I find this amusing, because usually I at least have an inkling of what I’m trying to say. However, I like to follow the connective tissue that, in some way, is a line of inquiry. I want to feel the question forming on the tongue. Ferret it out. So the questions are almost rhetorical, an inner prompting. Even the sentences can sometimes have the breathless quality of questions, and by following the elusive threads, I can uncover the real issues I am only half aware are mine.
Who will be left to remember the Mynah bird pacing his cage at the Edinburgh Zoo? “Where’s Charlie? Where’s the pretty boy?” over and over, in his little old-man’s voice. . . .Looked you straight in the eye as he called and called for his oddly lost self.
My questions are not aimed at constructing a logic, even though the essay form almost seems to demand logic; instead, they deflect rather than connect. My basic motivation is to dismantle. I want to extricate myself from the formality of logic so as to be closer to what starts idea in the first place. As I see it, my primary impulse is generative. I want to evoke the moment in all its intensity, its uncertainty, its still-to-be-discovered connections, then follow it through. Here is how, by deflection, I was to see into the potential bifurcations of my illness:
There were two, as in any good story where people revolve around each other. Two cups and two plates. Two differing dreams. Two ways of measuring the future. Every sentence reminded her of the lack of the verb to be. Every sentence she spoke cut off at the point of projection.
On my bookshelves, the place where I most often meet a similar voice is in the fiction of Edna O’Brien. Somehow she is able to capture the deep, chaotic interiors of her characters. By the way, her recent memoir has none of this inner mystery and all of the name-dropping, perfunctory drive of conventional autobiography; it’s as though she has never heard of “the naked I.”
Still, I recognize in O’Brien’s fiction some of my own devices. But are they devices, or the natural DNA of this evocative type of inquiry? Sometimes, for example, I use an auditory image—the ck ck wa-heee of the redwing blackbird, the slow drip drip of snowmelt—to engender a scene, or a mood, or a Proustian ache of recovered time. Sometimes, I use unexpected metaphor—the “steady whine of what might have been” or a caboose as “missing punctuation mark”—in a marriage of concrete and abstract that can take you quickly from this world to another:
The fingers split and you lift out of yourself, like geese that take to the air, gripping the air as though they could pull themselves going, gone into its body.
O’Brien’s passion is passion. Mine is time—and memory. I don’t think I could capture their fleeting qualities if I weren’t a good typist. My fingers can almost keep up with the pace of my half-thoughts. Paper and pen would be anathema. All I know is that the process feels like one of capture: snaring the words before they fade forever. Perhaps it’s not necessary to ask why we listen for that voice in the mirror. We’re just giving ourselves a chance to keep company with our secret centers. A place to meet ourselves coming and going.