Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Just Be Yourself

This post is for my writer peeps who are just starting out with the craft. It’s also for my non-writer peeps who wonder why I sometimes stare blankly into space.

I’m in the middle of revising my new novel, and as I write and rewrite and rewrite again, I’ve been wringing my hands over showing versus telling, the reader’s patience for internal monologue, diction and most importantly, whether a character’s words or actions ring true — that is, whether her dialogue and actions sound like something she would say or do (by the way, I’m going to use the pronoun “she,” but it applies to boys, too. I’m just too lazy to use “he or she” constantly). And in the middle of struggling with all of the above, particularly the latter, I thought of a comment that a reader who knows me made about OFF THE MENU: “Christine, I love how I can hear your voice in your book.” Which made me think of voices in general. What does it mean, to have a voice in a novel? It’s so amorphous, like saying that one’s food has soul, or that a face has character. What exactly, is voice?

I think at the heart of the matter is a defining characteristic, or a set of defining characteristics that immediately identify a writer. I can describe friends as having certain traits because for the most part, they’re consistent. Friend A is quiet, kind and perceptive, and minus an atypical bar brawl, she is always those things. Friend B is caustically witty and unabashedly lascivious, and apart from an introspective moment or two, he is always those things. Those, by way of analogy, are their voices, and if you were to give me a quote from one of them and then ask me who said it, I should be able to tell you. So it is with writers and our voices. It’s the way we convey a message. The tone we use. The effect of our sentence structure, length and verbage. It’s how I can tell Nick Hornby apart from say, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ann Patchett from Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez. All fabulous writers with their own distinct voices.

So, why am I talking about voice? One, because this is my blog and I get to talk about whatever I feel like (ha!). But two, because recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about whether my voice is getting lost in my WIP, if the way I’m piecing the work together sounds like me. It’s an odd exercise, which I’m trying to keep in check for fear of going insane (“Does this sound like me? Does this sound like me? Who am I? What am I?”). I’ve also been thinking a lot about a couple of people I deal with on a regular basis, people who are incomprehensible to me because, for forced use of analogy, their voices are off. And after some time considering why this is (hence, the staring into space), I think the reason is because they’re trying to be other people. They’re embodying who they think we want them to be. Or who they think they ought to be. It’s not unlike the themes of OFF THE MENU, except instead of pursuing activities that fulfill everyone’s expectations, they’re changing their personalities to do so. And the result is a confusing mess that leaves me with either the wrong impression of them, or none at all. Which is likely the last thing they were striving for.

So, what’s one to do? Well, if you’ve read this far into the post, then maybe you’ve figured out why I’ve titled it, “Just Be Yourself.” It’s kind of become my philosophy as of late. Whether you’re witty, dry, boring, super serious, mousy, a Star Trek-TNG enthusiast (anyone else but me?), a dance freak—whatever—just be it and not some poor simulacrum of something else (exception: if you’re an asshole or douchebag, I would suggest that perhaps you do try being something else). Because if you’re not, the only thing people end up taking away is inauthenticity. And that takes me back to my characters, for whose dialogue and actions I keep gauging against who they are as people. It also takes me back to my own voice, which has to be my very own. And at the end of the day, what it is is what it is when I’m not trying so damned hard.

1 comment:

Trixie said...

Christine - wow! Your post and your blog is really timely for me. Congratulations on your novel!