The still, small voice

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“Digital Equalizer” by panupong1982
courtesy of Free digital photos.net

Human beings rely, first and foremost, on their eyes to navigate the world. I know I do — I cherish my ability to see all the beauty that’s out there. And of course we talk about seeing as believing. The powerful influence of what we see cannot be denied.

And yet, strangely, the Book Princess pointed out to me that in both Shakespeare and the Bible, seeing is not considered believing. Hearing is.

Shakespeare has great fun with this. His women disguised as men will often still telegraph the truth with words, and even their voices. In Twelfth Night, Viola, when disguised as the boy Cesario, says, “I am not what I am.” The other characters, blinded by appearance, yet do hear the truth in her voice. Orsino tells her: “Thy small pipe is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound.”

The Bible is even more replete with stories of the primacy of voice as a source of truth. When Jacob tries to deceive his blind father, Isaac, into thinking he’s his brother Esau, he puts goat skin on his arms to make him as hairy as his brother. And yet, when he talks, Isaac wonders:

“The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”

Much later, in the book of Kings, Elijah’s encounter with God makes a similar point. God sends a wind and an earthquake and a fire, but He’s not in any of them, only in the “still, small voice.”

So what is it about voice that brings us closer to the truth than other things? I can’t say I know, really. Helen Keller famously said that she would rather walk with a friend in the dark than alone in the light, presumably because the sense of hearing connects people to each other. And maybe that’s it — from sound comes language, and from language our humanity first grew. If I had to guess, I’d say it had something to do with that. 

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Voice

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(image source: Wikipedia)

Last week I talked about voice in writing, and how important it is to “touch the mind” of your character. Now, admittedly, voice is a slippery term. If you look it up in M.H. Abrams’ famous A Glossary of Literary Terms, you might find yourself confused, because voice there is strictly about the author behind the work. He says: “We have the sense of a pervasive presence, a determinate intelligence and moral sensibility, which has selected, ordered, rendered, and expressed these literary materials in just this way.”

Well, yes. But for me, the word voice encompasses a lot more than just that. I use it to mean tone, too, and the atmosphere of the book. So, if you’ll allow me my less than rigorous definition, let’s explore why voice makes such a difference in a book.

Working with high school students a while back, I used to like to pull out great examples of narrative voice so they could hear how differently sentences can hit the ear, and how much that rhythm can establish the emotional feel of the book. Here’s an example:

From A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursual LeGuin:

“The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea.”

Compare that one to this:

From Holes, by Louis Sachar:

“There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.”

Both of these examples open up books in which there’s some kind of magic going on. But LeGuin’s rolling, slow sentences reflect the waves of the island world she’s made, somewhere far away and filled with legend. She’s writing myth. Sachar’s staccato sentences and simple vocabulary tell us we’re going to be very much in the here-and-now, in a world where you’d better be a little bit cynical if you want to survive. His magic is going to come as a surprise.

So voice builds the world as much as it builds the characters and their points of view. That’s why it’s so wonderful, and why books, in my mind, will always be the best form in which to tell stories. Movies are wonderful, big, and full of things to enjoy, but movies are mostly about what you see. Books are all about what you hear. And since the dawn of time, stories have been taken in, first, through the ear. Next time I’m planning to explore a little more of why that might be.

Touching minds

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Among the many things that stood out about my recent visit to the second grade was a comment by one of the students about perspective. She didn’t call it that, of course, but what she said was even more interesting. After our discussion about the five senses, and how writers try often to show, rather than tell, using those five, I read the class some excerpts from some of my favorite books. One was The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White. Another was the new book Timmy Failure by Stephen Pastis, a fellow Candlewick author whom I met in Kansas City. A funny book about a boy detective who thinks he’s awesome when in fact his name is all too descriptive, Timmy Failure opens with Timmy telling us how amazing he is, and how everyone else simply pales in comparison. After reading the first few pages, I asked the kids if they noticed any of the five senses used in the excerpt. Were there things Timmy was seeing, hearing? Were we, as readers, smelling anything with him? Touching anything? As a matter of fact, we weren’t. And I thought I might have stumped them. But one intrepid girl raised her hand and said, “We’re touching his mind.”

Wow. Just wow.

Not only was that a very accurate way of describing that first chapter, but what a beautiful way to put it!

Yes, we were touching Timmy’s mind all right, and finding out what it felt like to be him. And that takes me to the subject of voice, the hardest, and also the best, part of writing. To get the voice of a character, you need to understand his or her point of view, how he or she experiences the world. Getting to that place where you “touch his mind” is, for me, the way into any piece of writing. I sometimes start with ideas about plot, or theme, or even setting, but I’m never really launched until I’ve discovered what the minds of my characters feel like, and what their voices sound like. And isn’t that the essence of what it means to be a writer? Trying to touch your characters’ minds, and, through them, the minds of many others.

Cupcakes and Storytelling

Image courtesy of piyato / FreeDigitalPhotos.net"

Image courtesy of piyato / FreeDigitalPhotos.net”

Last week my niece, who is in second grade, told her teacher that her aunt is a writer, whereupon her teacher wrote to ask if I would mind coming in to talk to the class. I said I’d love to, but was a little stumped as to what to talk about, since Zebra Forest is not exactly right for second graders, given some of its darker themes. So she asked me to just talk about what it’s like being a writer.

What’s it’s like being a writer. Well, that’s a huge subject, and one I could probably talk about for a month at least, but for second graders, I decided it would be better to talk about what you do as a writer, since that’s at least more concrete and won’t likely bring me to tears of joy and gratitude (not appropriate for a second grade classroom).

First thing I did, though, was pass out cupcakes, because when I looked at the calendar, I realized I was coming in on my niece’s eighth birthday. For me, this was a most happy coincidence, and one that also made the kids especially receptive to my talk, since who doesn’t like cupcakes?

When the cupcake eating was done, I started by asking the class what makes up a story. I got one really great response to the question, when a girl said: A beginning, a middle, and an end.

Yes, definitely!

I also got some answers that spoke more to the writing process than to the content of the story, for example, the kid who said: Brainstorming and editing. (This one was on a poster on the wall, and clearly something their teacher had been stressing, which was nice to see.)

But what I was getting at, and what eventually we talked about, was that a story will have a character and a plot. They knew the word character, not plot, but one person did offer that a story needed to have a problem, which I loved, and which is exactly right. Finally, we talked about how writers use the five senses to bring the story to life. We started out by coming up with a character – a girl named Sarah – and a setting – a farm. Then we began with the sentence “Sarah got up in the morning and went to milk the cows.”

From there, I had them embroider that little bit of narration with what Sarah might have seen in the barn. They came up with a red cow with a sore leg, a horse sleeping in a stall, and a bunch of chickens and their six new eggs.

And so the scene took on something:

Sarah walked into the barn first thing in the morning and saw the red cow standing in the corner, her leg a little lame. The old horse still slept in his stall, and she shooed the chickens away to find they had laid six new eggs, bright as pebbles.

Next the kids thought about what she might have heard in that barn. They had a great list:

The cow mooing;

The horse snoring;

The chickens clucking.

So the scene changed again:

Sarah walked into the barn first thing in the morning and saw the red cow standing in the corner, her leg a little lame, mooing softly. The old horse snored in his stall, and as she shooed the chickens away, they clucked and scattered, revealing six newly laid eggs, bright as pebbles.

From there, of course, we needed to know what Sarah might have smelled, touched, or even tasted. When we’d gathered those bits, we ended with this:

Sarah walked into the barn first thing in the morning and breathed in the scent of fresh hay and old food, the stinky-sweet combination of the pig sty and the barn. She saw the red cow standing in the corner, her leg a little lame, mooing softly. The old horse snored in his stall, and the chickens clucked as she shooed them away, scattering to reveal six new eggs, bright as pebbles. She sat down, fingering the rusty handle of the milk pail. Soon enough, the milk splashed, and she stuck her tongue out to catch a few drops of the warm, sweet spray.

We talked, then, about the difference between a scene like this, packed with the five senses, and our first sentence, which got us into the subject of the old writer’s rule: show, don’t tell. When you show, you feel like you’re in Sarah’s story, experiencing it with her. Of course, you can’t always show. There’s a place for telling, and I asked them what would happen if we decided to do this for every moment of Sarah’s story. What if she were going to go across the country to attend school in the city, where she’d meet a bunch of new friends. Would we want to feel her walking out of the barn, getting ready, going to the train station, buying her ticket, sitting on the train, looking out the window, arriving . . . . Well, no. That would get long and boring. And so the kids began to understand that wonderful balance of scene and narration that makes up a story.

After that, we had questions, some of which were great, including this one:

Do you eat sweet things to get you to think sweet thoughts?

Well . . . I definitely eat sweet things. Let’s leave it at that.

And finally, at the end of the week, my niece arrived with a packet of thank you notes and drawings for me. They were all spectacular, but here’s my favorite line:

“Dear Mrs. Gewirtz, Thank you for the visit. . . . I wish you could visit again. With more cupcakes.”