Monday, July 9, 2007

Narrative Voice

I remember an exchange with Chris Offut and Sherman Alexie on Salon's Table Talk a few years ago, a conversation about story and voice. For Offut, it was story that came first. For me, it was the voice, and still is. When I was a child, I heard a voice as I read--an almost physical reality; reading was a kind of hallucination. Writing for me is a venture to recover that voice.
I may begin with an idea, a story line, a character, but I've never been able to complete a work of fiction or a poem until I hear in the words some distant echo of that experience. It's not a matter of waiting for inspiration; the voice doesn't just come on its own. I work over a passage or a scene, or a single line--writing and revising and re-writing, draft after draft until I hear it, and until I do hear it--I'm lost, cannot find my way to the end. Sometimes it will be there from the opening lines, as in my story, Theology of Anorexia (Salmagundi, Winter-Spring 2003). Sometimes I will labor for weeks or months before I find it. For
Godzilla's Eye (Laurel Review, Summer 06), a story of some 5,000 words, I went through more than 500 pages of drafts.
Nearing completion of my second novel, almost ten years after that conversation, I would describe what happens in less mystical terms, but narrative voice is still the central aesthetic problem in my writing. I have to know--deeply know, who or what is telling the story, voicing the poem. It's what holds everything else together. This would be less difficult if it were possible to select and apply a conventional device (more or less what I did in my first short stories), but in my novels, I have to force the issue, push beyond the conventions--or find new combinations. In the last year or so, I began to see emerging both in my recent poems and in the novels, the idea of divestiture, an erasure of identity. We fill the room with furniture, and say--this is what we are, this is who I am. To hear once more the echoes of the voice, you must empty the room.

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