Shaun Levin

The Voice You Choose Is Not Your Own

In Writing on June 20, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Teaching writing is an opportunity to articulate your understanding of the craft and its aspects: point of view, character, plot. That sort of thing. Recently I said to a student that point of view – or voice, because they are almost the same thing – is the most fundamental aspect of writing fiction. Then I came across a playful but serious piece by Chuck Wendig about character, where he says that character is the be and end all of the undertaking that is the novel. But no matter how interesting or complex or dramatic a character is, the way a story is told, the point of view from which it is told, the voice in which it is told, is what will keep us reading. For us as the writer, being clear about the point of view will keep us focused and clearly positioned in the world of the novel. Point of view will be our shock-proof shit-detector. The clearer we are about the point of view, the better we will be able to see when we slip out of it.

First person, second person, third person, omniscient, whatever you want to call them, none of these POVs are actually monolithic points of view. There is not one type of first person, or one type of omniscient. It’s about a relationship and a distance to the narrative. Where is the voice situated vis-a-vis the story. The point of view is something we create; it doesn’t just happen. Point of view is a decision. Bomberg’s decision to leave his mark on the world through teaching – after he’d become disillusioned with the painting world and his non-acceptance into it – was what gave his voice the authority it had. The strange thing, though, is that he is now known for his paintings, and his writings about art are all but forgotten, ignored. Only a few extracts are published in William Lipke’s book.

It’s hard to explain point of view, because what you’re telling the writer is to step out of themselves, to understand that the voice they are telling the story in is not them. Voice is not just whatever comes out when you put the pen on the page, not just whatever gets put paper. Voice is something you have to feel. It’s a character in itself. It is, like Chuck says in his piece, a skin you put on. The process of writing a novel and working out how to tell the story is a process of forgetting the self, of stepping out of what you know, of disappearing. It can be terrifying and it can be liberating, and I think there are moments early on in the project when we get glimpses of that voice, that slipping out of ourselves, but then we retreat, we step back into the familiar, which is a bit more amorphous.

Writing is about disappearing. Into other characters, other worlds, other voices. And if we’re going to do it well, we have to be prepared for that. And at the end – right at the end of writing the novel – you come out and you don’t really know that you’ve been away, or where you’ve been. It’s like a dreamspace, like being hypnotised. I think men find it harder to grasp what voice is. Women are taught, for example, to read as men. Men (and I probably mean white, Christian, Western, middle class, straight men) often assume that whatever they say is monolithic, correct, that where they are standing is everywhere, as if to stand everywhere were possible.

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