The still, small voice


“Digital Equalizer” by panupong1982
courtesy of Free digital

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. 


File:AWizardOfEarthsea(1stEd).jpgSachar - Holes Coverart.png

(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.

The Joys of Rereading

Cover of "To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Ann...

Cover via Amazon

There are certain writers whose voices never stop echoing in my ears. At the age of 12, I read To Kill A Mockingbird in the seventh grade, and realized, suddenly, that people could make magic with words. I’d always loved stories – my father used to sit in the doorway to the bedroom I shared with my sister when I was little, and read by the light in the hall. Sometimes he’d read mysteries – Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys – doling out chapters like candy — (just one more, please!) until either he or we fell asleep still wanting more. On the best of those nights, though, he would tell his own stories. And those stories planted the seeds of a writer in me.

But it was not until I read Harper Lee‘s To Kill A Mockingbird that I learned the magnetic power of voice. That novel gripped me from start to finish, and I remember thinking, right when I finished it: Wow. I want to do that.

I never stopped thinking that. And that’s because something about Miss Lee’s voice just kept echoing and echoing. I loved it so much I returned to it again and again over the years. I think I stopped counting when I’d read the book about 13 times. I read it first just to be back in that place, with those people. She’d made them all that good. But after a while, when I’d begun to study writing in earnest, I read it to understand how she put things together, how she achieved what she did. I’ve never gotten tired of it yet.

I wish she’d written another book. But that one has kept me for a lifetime.