So, I’m wondering if this has ever happened to you. You’ve been out. Maybe running some errands, you went to the gym, picked up your dry cleaning, whatever, and somewhere along the way you called home, left a quick message for your spouse or kid, you know, the one that is completely unnecessary but fills the unused space of thirty seconds waiting for your iced coffee at Dunkin’. Not enough time for a round of Angry Birds, but too much time to stand and do nothing, God-forbid. The message that says you’ll be home at such-and-such a time, even though nobody really cares.
So you get home, nobody’s there and the little red light on the phone answering machine is blinking. You probably don’t even have a landline, much less an answering machine, but let’s just say. You’ve long forgotten that you left a message and so you hit play and a voice comes on that you have never heard before. A voice so whiny, high-pitched and nasal that you pity the owner of such an annoying sound. And the things the voice is saying make no sense to you. “Yeah, it’s me. I didn’t get that thing. The whatsit, you know. I was absolutely appalled at the prices so…” Who even says that, ‘absolutely appalled’? And then it hits you. You’re listening to your own message you left less than an hour ago. But you don’t recognize your own voice.
Maybe that’s the way it is with writing. You’re a novelist, well, an unpublished novelist, a novelist who’s been at his first attempt for a couple of years now, so not exactly a raw novice, but nobody’s inviting you to sit on Oprah’s couch, if she still had a couch. She probably has lots of couches, she’s a wealthy woman after all, but you know what I mean. Anyway, you’re writing this novel, and you’re having a hard time recognizing your voice. There’s your voice, and there’s the dozens of other voices you’ve collected, reading all the writers you’re supposed to be learning from. And those other voices are all competing for attention and real estate on your page, the page you’ve been laboring over and deleting and rewriting and leaving to go check if the mail came yet and coming back and oh that plant looks awfully dry, better get up and water, and your breathing gets a little faster and you need to just stop and put your head down for a minute. Wait, that’s me, not you.
It’s not just writing that has this voice problem. Before I began my novel, I had been an artist, a painter, for some forty years and I like to think (I like to think a lot of things) that at some point I arrived at my own ‘voice’ in the work I produced. It didn’t come easily and it didn’t come right away. You look at a lot of art to become a painter, at least I did, and that brings you back to the same problem. First it was van Gogh. Pronounced ‘van Gacchhh’ if you’re a pretentious art scholar, or say, anyone at PBS. He was the Romantic painter I wanted to be, living in an attic, eating paint, cutting body parts off for love. Turns out he was just bat-shit crazy. But I was twenty-one and all my paintings wanted that intense, full-volume color and abandon that Vincent had shown me. Or Picasso, the artist no painter can get away from. Not only did I feel compelled to mimic him, but the bastard had seventeen different styles. So I lurched from the Blue period to the Rose period, through Cubism, on to Neo-Classical, and don’t forget his erotic work, making paintings that were part me and part lecherous satyr. But you do enough of that and eventually you find your own style, your own ‘voice’.
So you have to figure that the writing will follow a similar course and that your own voice will emerge out of the forest of authors clamoring for space in your head. If only they weren’t all so damned persuasive in their arguments. Here’s what I mean. My own novel, “Big Shot“, begins with a simple declarative sentence.
Harry hated the smell of potatoes.
Clean and to-the-point, maybe too simple, but there it is. That’s how it reads now, but when I was reading James Joyce it had a different sound.
The stink, nosy rosy, of tattoo tatos! Harry Ha! He did hate.
And then, after reading Michael Chabon’s new novel Telegraph Hill.
A hatless, besmocked, bakery maven Jewish boy, a boy off the streets of New York, that marvel of industrial pulchritude, Harry, Harold, Heshie by his friends, abhorred, detested, stood in abject revulsion, might say he wasn’t at all fond of, the apple of the earth, le pomme de terre, the poor, undeserving target of his odium, the lowly, earthy spud.
And I love the sparse, very British wit of Nick Hornby.
2. His list of hates.
4. Top of the list, potatoes
5. In that order
And for sheer chutzpah, there’s nobody like Philip Roth.
Harry, that Lower East Side Jew, did he suffer, it’s what he did best, you shouldn’t know, and from what? Potatoes. Don’t ask what he did with them.
So you keep those voices in your head, you let them argue and vie for your attention all they want. You’ll never get rid of them but eventually they’ll settle into a cozy room with a fireplace in the back of your head, drinking cognac and tossing around bon mots for eternity, but you won’t listen to every one of them, only occasionally borrow a turn of phrase or a point of view. They’ll never miss them, and you listen closely for your own voice, and when you hear it you turn up the volume and let the music play on.