1. This business of voice. How to speak of it? It is a little like trying to write about blood. You’ve been taught that blood is of you, in you, but you can’t hear it unless you put your hands over your ears.
2. Does a voice engage senses other than the ear? Does a voice have a scent, a taste? Can a voice summon up red wine or pomegranate or Cherry Kool-Aid?
3. Can you see a voice? Does it make a design on the page? Does Jenny Boully’s “The Body” look different from Barry Lopez’s “Flight”? Well, of course.
4. Or is voice simply about patterns, gestures repeated. A quality about the nouns? The ratio between single-syllable words and multi-syllabics? Clusters of syllables in sync with a breathing pattern. Paragraph lengths. A combustion of sentence lengths. Patterns of causality. Multiple sentences pivoting on “but.” Patterns inside paragraphs: an abstract statement moving toward evocative image, an evocative image leading toward an interpretive statement. A tendency toward expansion, a tendency toward subtraction.
5. Voice-driven, voicey: You are at a loss to come up with satisfying definitions for these terms without turning them into a judgment, and you don’t want the terms to suggest fakery, especially when it comes to writers you admire. In the words of one contrarian, decidedly not-so-nice reviewer: “In MFA parlance, voice may actually mean a hyper-charged, galloping, contextless spree—such as in Junot Diaz or Jonathan Safran Foer or Colson Whitehead—choked with metaphors, overwritten, edgy, hip, cool, self-conscious, rapid-fire . . . disguising any honesty and sincerity in writing.” All expressed in an overwritten, edgy, hip, cool, etc. sort of voice.
6. If the opposite of “voicey” is a voice that’s unadorned and consistent and in sync with human speech, then where do we put Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, with its worked and descriptive surfaces? Is it not naked? Is it less naked than one of those short, plainspoken memoirs you might have read on The Rumpus?
7. Finding a voice. Is it like finding a pair of pants on the street—or an outfit? You keep coming back to the word finding, which implies a dualism. Two roles: lost and found. But can a voice be less-found? Can you lose your voice the way you might lose your pants if you were having a very good time?
8. You were unknown to yourself and now you are not. You will exist from the here-on-out. Others will affirm that, and your signature outfit will open doors for you.
9. Don't you just want to get lost a little while? Don’t you want someone to do something to you that might make you lose your cool, wrench your voice to another register, lower or higher? Don’t you want to be an animal?
10. To be Joan Didion, to negotiate all the projections and expectations onto the project of your work. Wow, today. Another Tuesday in which I have to be Joan Didion, Joan Didion must sigh as she sits down in front of her laptop, confused, trying to speak her way out.
11. Joy Williams: “The moment a writer knows how to achieve a certain effect, the method must be abandoned. Effects repeated become false, mannered. The writer’s style is his doppelganger, an apparition that the writer must never trust to do his work for him.”
12: Voice for sale! Plug new nouns into the holes of old templates!
13: Is it possible to overestimate the voice’s power? You might think you fall for X’s wet mouth or dark brown eyes, but it finally comes down to how X speaks, how those vocal cords rasp and drag, which tells you trouble is on the way.
14. Your favorite Joni Mitchell album: not Court and Spark with its sunned and polished surface, but Hejira. You like to define yourself as someone who values warmth, but there’s plenty of cool water in this voice, hauteur inside the intimacy. It wants to lie down with you and wants to keep separate from you.
15. Ander Monson: “The unreliability, the misrememberings, the act of telling in starts and stops, the fuckups, the pockmarked surface of the I: that’s where all the good stuff is, the fair and foul, that which is rent, that which is whole, that which engages the whole reader. Let us linger there, not rush past it.”
16. Nakedness was never just matter of content, the time you slept with your best friend’s brother in the next room or admitted you wanted to lock your partner out of the house. Nonfiction permits, encourages, and forgives candid revelation, and the real risks might be harder to grow on the page.
17. From “Bewilderment” by Fanny Howe: “A signal does not necessarily mean that you want to be located or described. It can mean that you want to be known as Unlocatable and Hidden. This contradiction can drive the ‘I’ . . . into a series of techniques that are the reverse of the usual narrative movements around courage, discipline, conquest, and fame. . . . Instead, weakness, fluidity, concealment, and solitude assume their place in a kind of dream world, where the sleeping witness finally feels safe enough to lie down in mystery. These qualities are not the usual stuff of stories of initiation and success, but they may survive more than they are given credit for. They have the endurance of tramps who travel light, discarding acquisitions like water drops off a dog.” You can’t exactly translate this, and that might be part of its appeal, but you know Fanny Howe is talking in part about voice, about how it might break again and again if it is alive to consciousness.
18. Substitute nonfiction writer for each iteration of the word poet here. From Dara Wier: “What does this poet want from me—possibly nothing at all—how involved does this poet want me to be—maybe a lot, maybe a little—in what ways does this poet want me to be actively a part of this poem?”
19. Maybe nakedness is simply an attitude toward the reader. Whom might you be talking to? How involved do you want this reader to be? If you want your reader to be involved, as in filling in white space, or making his own connections between section breaks, what decisions are you making about your reader? Is it harder to be naked in front of the “market-savvy reader”–and/or the publishing people—than before the reader you’ve always imagined, the lone soul who reads alone on a Saturday night in order to fend off loneliness? Though you hate binaries, you can’t help but divide readers into two camps: readers making connections with other readers through book groups vs. the lone reader making the primary connection with the work itself.
20. In the room of naked bodies, the sexiest people are not the worked-out ones posing in the center, but the ones off to the side, buttoning up their shirts or unzipping their pants. That in-between place, where concealment and disclosure are in transition.
21. The naked and the unnaked: the two pushing into each other over the length of an essay, a story, a poem. You like the way that sounds, though it would be a mistake to assume that the tension comes without trouble.
22. To make the pock-marked road the most beautiful road. Let us linger inside the awkwardness, not rush through it.
23. From Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote”: “You just picked up a hitcher, a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway.”
24. Two quotations courtesy of R. A. Villanueva:
“More wreck and less discourse.”
“While we dawdle and quarrel
. . . all things shout:
‘Give us new forms!’”