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Use Your Voice, Part II

Posted on Saturday, December 29, 2018 at 12:08 AM

Without you, nothing matters.

By Peter P. Jacobi

A love of words: Dylan Thomas, the amazing poet who lived life to the fullest and wrote to the fullest, had a philosophy of shooting for the bull's-eye, using every trick at his individualistic disposal. He had the ability. He had the willingness. He had voice.

Among his writings, one finds this, and pardon me if I've shared these thoughts before: "I fell in love -- that is the only expression I can think of -- at once, and am still at the mercy of words, though, sometimes, now, knowing a little of their behavior, I think I can influence them slightly and have even learned to beat them now and then, which they appear to enjoy....

"There they were, seemingly lifeless, made only of black and white, but out of them, out of their own being, came love and terror and pity and pain and wonder and all the other vague abstractions that make our ephemeral lives dangerous, great, and bearable. Out of them came the gusts and grunts and hiccups and hee-haws of the common fun of the earth. And though what the words meant was, in its own way, often deliciously funny enough, so much funnier to me, at that almost forgotten time, were the shape and shade and size and noise of the words as they hummed, strummed, jiggled, and galloped along."

Respect the Words

Dylan Thomas loved words, loved what he could do with them: manipulate them, give them the three-dimensionality of a life on their own. Playwright Tom Stoppard deeply cares for words, too, advising: "If you look after them, you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you are dead."

Getting the right words in the right order: there is the beginning of creating a voice for yourself; using the language appropriately and with grace, with eloquence and elegance, with gusto and flamboyance, if that's your game, as it was often with Dylan Thomas, with subtlety and calm, with mystery and magic, with whatever issues that come from your inner self and writer personality, with whatever your imagination begs for.

Finding Your Own Voice

Creating and mastering voice is profoundly hard. And consider the disturbing fact that you, as writer, will need to come up with more than one. There is, of course, the voice I've been discussing: your own, which must pervade your copy throughout your manuscript. But what you are writing may call for the presence of additional voice or voices.

If you are writing a story populated with people, and those people are characters of importance in your story, each of those characters must possess a voice, a personality, a way of acting and interacting and speaking that distinguishes him or her from others in your copy. Each must contribute an atmosphere, a mood, a glow, a sense of being. These are part of voice, meant to show the impact this person has on what surrounds him or her.

This goes whether you're giving a fictional character a biography or character to a nonfictional real-life figure. Your voice becomes multidimensional: part all yours (the you in you), parts in characters you're building seen as only you can see and build them, thereby also giving believable validity to the lives and personalities of others that inhabit the story. In other words, there is the needed canvas of your own writer's voice recognizable and distinctive; there are the voices created (in fiction) or captured (in nonfiction) by you for human elements in your manuscript that make them individual, singular, true to life.

Good playwrights succeed at that. It is critical for their work. The plot, the subject matter, the environment -- coming from a strong writer, all these will make known or reintroduce the writer's craft and artistry, his or her artistic voice. The characters will plead their own case for attention if you've rewarded them with voices of their own.

Creating voice takes sensitivity and obeisance to what you are striving to achieve. Here are some goals to aim for, blended, now and then, with readings to exemplify what I'm asking of you.

Know the Basics

Voice: Even before you search for that you in you, there is the basic matter of writing correctly, properly. Know how to use your language grammatically. Know your spelling. Know your punctuation. Know how to make sense. Know that you're saying what you mean to say, not what you think you're saying. Know there is flow in the writing, that you're moving smoothly and actually from sentence to sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, idea to idea in logical progression. Know that you're practicing completeness and not leaving your reader dangling. Serve up the basics of good writing.

Read Aloud

All my professional life, as practitioner and teacher, I've preached a four-word commandment about what I've just told you, the very best way to lift the quality of writing all by yourself: READ YOUR COPY ALOUD.

I cannot tell you how many times I've sat down, one on one, with a student, going through his or her assignment, with the need to remind that student, "What have I told you again and again?" Perhaps the answer would come: "Read your copy aloud."

"And did you?" I would ask. "Yes, Professor Jacobi," would come the reply. Then, I'd force the miscreant to read a sentence from the turned-in copy. It would, of course, make no sense, or little sense, or create confusion. My student really had not obeyed.

Dear friends: Read your copy aloud. I don't mean mumble it or enunciate it just to yourself but in actual silence. Voice your copy to give it voice. Let the words ring. Allow yourself to hear as well as see the words. Eyes and ears together make for the best editing.

To have voice, your writing must also show purpose, a goal, a reason for being. I must sense that you, the writer, are writing for a reason, with some sort of goal in mind, with a need to fulfill, with heat in the belly. I'm not saying a crusade is required, but as your reader, I want to recognize that something urgent from within has propelled you into this project, that in some evident way, you have been drawn in by a story or a feeling or a person or happening that has come into your life and is pushing you to make artistic comment.

Purposes vary. Reasons for writing vary. Fellow writer Anne Tyler states her purpose this way: "I write because I want more than one life. I insist on a wider selection. It's greed plain and simple. When my characters join the circus, I'm joining the circus. Although I'm happily married, I spend a great deal of time mentally living with incompatible husbands."

I'm in full agreement with Tyler. We do live twice, the life of everyday experience and the life we share with those we create in words, whether those words are shaped into fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. It is the world we three-dimensionally live in and the world we make materialize on paper....

I had not intended to stretch my exploration of voice into still another part, but more needs to be explored. So please wait patiently for part three next month. And forgive me.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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