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Voice Makes It Interesting

Posted on Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 10:07 PM

Releasing the "you" in your writing.

By Peter P. Jacobi

For some months, I've thought it is about time to focus on the subject of voice, a matter I haven't directly addressed for quite a while. And then, a book came to my attention that seemed to say to me: "Yes, do it. Tackle voice."

The book is called One Word, Contemporary Writers on the Words They Love or Loathe. Molly McQuade, a generously published writer of prose and poetry, put the book together for Sarabande Books, an outfit headquartered in Louisville. I find it a fascinating collection that includes the choices of 66 authors. The words selected stretch from the indefinite article "a" through most of the alphabet, ending with "wrong."

Language Reflects Your Voice

Novelist and short story crafter Marilyn Krysl chose the word filthy. Here's part of her argument:

"'These are filthy,' my mother said in 1946.

"She tossed my father's bloody slaughterhouse clothes into the wash. We lived in prairie country where earth -- its soil, which I thought of as dirt -- was the dominant fact. Filthy: the word meant really dirty, soiling something my mother would have to scrub by hand, and hard. I went outside to my chipped basin in which I mixed dirt with water, and made mud figures, one female, one male: Adam and Eve. I made mud pies to feed them, whispering the word filthy, feeling with my mouth the fricative f, the long purl of the l, the quick stop of the y. 'Filthy,' I crooned over my mud, this goopy, good, filthy malleability.

"I knew mud made things filthy, but I did not experience mud as dirty. Mud had texture I liked to feel with my hands. Mud, made of water and dirt, the world's basic ingredients. Even people were made from it. 'For dust thou art,' my grandmother's Bible said, 'and unto dust thou shalt return.' Everything was made of filthy mud, and so could not be bad. 'Wonderful mud,' I crooned, good, filthy mud."

The very choice of the word "filthy" reflects voice. Krysl's approach to the subject of "filthy" reflects voice. Her use of language reflects voice.

Voice means releasing the you in your writing. Voice means locating and making use of and encouraging and honoring your individuality by allowing it to invade your work. Know that because it is you who are wading into the thickets of a new assignment, you have the opportunity to invest it with what only you can bring to the task: your mind (how you think and imagine), your heart (the belief system that guides you, the views that motivate you), your background (from which and where you sprang, who raised you and how), your experiences (what life has taught you), your personality (the sum of the aforementioned and how they've come together in one body and mind and soul). The mix is you alone, the product of the soil, the earth, the garden that has been your existence.

Consequently, the flower that is your talent will differ from that of others. This is significant, if you let yourself be you when you plan, prepare, and put to words an assignment. The essay on filthy contains the content it has and reads the way it does because Marilyn Krysl authored it. Were any other writer to have chosen the same word, the exposition built around it would, most likely, have been far different.

A Historic, Detailed Voice

Poet and editor Dan Machlin chose "invisible," and says of it, in part: "Rarely do you come across a word with such inherent nostalgia -- a word with untold mystery and magic. Invisible is a traveler. It harkens us back, with its shimmering meaning, to the different eras of its use. It carries the weight of intellectual longing -- Plato's invisible world of forms outside the cave of our sensual existence. And it recounts the origins of visibility itself: the Gnostic Apocryphon of John, which tells of the incomprehensible spirit who preceded the material universe, who was somehow visible to himself in his surrounding light, but invisible to all others."

Machlin takes a more scholarly route than did Krysl, a route historic, larger-scaled, detailed, heady.

Very Brusque Voice

Brock Clarke, novelist and teacher, in no-nonsense fashion casts contempt upon the word very. He asks: "Is there a weaker, sadder, more futile word in the English language than very? Is there another word as fully guaranteed to prove the opposite of what its speaker or writer intends it to prove? Is there another word that so clearly states, on the speaker's or writer's behalf, 'I'm not going to even try to find the right word,' or 'No matter how hard I try, I'm not going to find the right word?' Is there a less specific, less helpful, less necessary, less potent word in our vocabulary? There is not."

That's brusque and stinging, a "So there!" handling of the word. And, a reminder, not so incidentally, that we should be careful about using that word, very careful.

Wistful, Personal Voice

Nonfiction writer Mimi Schwartz selected forget. She begins almost wistfully: "True, you don't want to forget the teapot on the stove, the one that never seems to whistle reliably as water boils to nothing. Or the oatmeal that crusts into permanency if you forget it's cooking while you take a bath."

Her exposition ends in personal grief: "Forget your mother's last year and the fury of your 'Mom' or "Mother' that proved you were no longer the good daughter. Because she was no longer the mother with the bright smile framed on her dresser, confident and stylish in her red satin dress with hair so thick and black. And so reasonable then, before her eyes and memory failed, before her hair became wisps of gray and she stopped listening to good advice..."

Voice Makes Your Copy Interesting

Ardor and baffle, colander and eek, fiasco and ickybicky, lilac and negligee, quipu and solmizate, thermostat and wool are among the other words in One Word. You'll find the list interesting (another of the chosen). And you'll be reminded throughout that voice is important. It makes copy interesting.

Use it.

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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