I have written other articles about my 37 years of silence, as well as my long term shutdown from writer’s bock. Like many limitations, it’s an obstruction we bring on ourselves. Some time after I broke free of it, (another story) I was speaking about the experience with a woman who didn’t know me well, and she suggested, “You finally found your voice.”
At first I thought that was a lightweight way to characterize a struggle that often seemed nearly fatal, but later I realized she was right. We are born with a voice that is a wail like any other, and it takes time to grow into our mature manner of speaking or writing. To start with, at a minimum it requires that we know who we are. For me, that 37 years was a journey from there to here, and had it ended at any earlier point, my voice wouldn’t have been what it finally became.
Imitation is often an early part of this process. When I was writing before the blockage descended I spent some time being Ernest Hemingway, then William Faulkner. Both had done it sooner and better than I ever did, and I never stopped to wonder what writers they were imitating when they started. Perhaps they always wrote like that, but now I doubt it.
Your true voice may disguise itself but it will not hide. In my recent novel about a bioterror attack, Beyond Terrorism: Survival, one of my main characters is a black woman. Lee Carter was not easy to write. Slowly, painfully, she shook herself off and stood up on stage. With an unexpected grace, she caught her balance and eventually began to improvise her own lines. Then I knew I had her right. As the author of the book, I spoke through her, but the way it came out of her mouth was distinctly her own.
Our house, with its two bedrooms and a separate apartment, is now populated by dozens of my characters from eighteen books of fiction. Clearly, some of them are dodgy types. When I get up in the morning they are sitting around in the living room with their shoes off and their feet up on the hassock, and they stay up long after I go to bed. They get into the peanut butter and the potato chips when I’m not around. Occasionally the gin bottle also takes a hit. I tried marking the label at the current level, but they merely refilled it to that line with water. I can tell this. I recently had a martini so weak that I could’ve frozen it into a popsicle and given it to a five year old with no ill effects. They add strange things to my grocery lists. For example, what are pierogis? Does Mega have them? Who made all these long distance calls to Falls Church, Virginia using TelMex, not even Skype?
Sometimes they don’t bother to refill the ice cube trays, either. The Paul Zacher Agency is poking into my business, looking in my checkbook, and sometimes giving me unwanted advice. They do not know their own limitations as well as I do. They whisper things in my ear as I sleep, and I wake up not knowing whether any of it is true. Worse, often I don’t care.
Yet I am all of these people, both one at a time and all at once. This used to be called schizophrenia, but I’m sure there’s a fancier word for it now. Mental health is like elementary school math. The terms change every five years and you begin to think you don’t know anything about it anymore, even though there is nothing new in the field of arithmetic except the way it is taught. While I’m not always in control of this mental flash mob, in tyrannical fashion I do kill them off now and then out of sheer pique, or cause new ones to be born without notice or proper gestation. I also have shameless favorites that I invite back into the stories on the condition that they must be on their best (or worst) behavior. Think of the outrageous Barbara Watt in the early Zacher mysteries. Or the elusive Colombian singer Yasmin Montoya in Daddy’s Girl, a woman who makes herself available sexually to Paul Zacher, but in absolutely no other way, which frustrates him beyond belief.
Perhaps this is why the author’s voice takes so long to develop. It is more like a braided rope than a single-stranded wire. Every filament is unique in its mode of expression, and when all are speaking, it’s closer to cacophony than chorus.
I am tempted to conclude by saying, So this is what it is. Yet this is not precisely what it was yesterday, nor I suspect, what it will be tomorrow or next year. Each additional day’s experience changes the current in the pool from which we authors draw our daily catch.
There is no perfect pitch in the author’s voice, but much vibrato and tremolo. It is a range of arpeggios, triads, octaves, and the occasional grace note. It can go from whisper to crescendo in a heartbeat. And back. It is at once complex and simple, deceptive and honest, old and young. It is the quintessence of reality even though it exactly mirrors nothing that really exists.
We will recognize its mature timbre when the story is well told, when it pulls us in and compels us to make it our own story as well. The reader will become coauthor, not of the book itself, but of the experience of the book, and will close the cover at the end with a long sigh of satisfaction and a need to go traveling once more, and very soon, with this same author and the siren song of his voice.
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