Authors in Search of a Voice
May 7, 2012
I was having dinner the other night with two friends who are working on novels. Soon the conversation turned from politics, which everyone is getting sick and tired of, to more meaningful discussion; punctuation inside a parenthesis with quote marks. Not really. But we did turn our talk to creating the written word.
We were divided into three distinct camps: one who loved to explore the words in deep meaning, taking hours sometimes to craft a single sentence (It is going to take him a lifetime to complete his first book.); the second camp was that the exact words matter less than the plot and its many twists. (Keep them guessing and turning the page.); finally there was my camp – something of a hybrid of the two, where words coming out of a character’s mouth or thoughts with in the character’s mind and are vital in setting the stage for things to happen, but knowing that things happening are what keeps a reader moving along.
Now, it doesn’t matter to me which camp you fall in because the real thrust of the argument came when one of the two gentlemen I was dining with suggested that we take a chapter from each other’s books and rewrite it in our own style then compare how we would have worded it. To me, it sounded like fun. Something of a classroom assignment from creative writing days at UT Austin.
My slow, methodical friend was a bit put off by the notion. “I’m not too sure,” he said, thinking of the right words to replace my haphazard language that seems to fall to my typewriter keyboard as if by some muse from above sprinkling me with just enough verbiage to get by for one day. “This may take me a while.” We laughed and told him he had one week. We would meet for lunch the following Wednesday and compare notes.
We each sent a short synopsis of our work and then the chapter. Ed sent the preceding chapter and the following chapter, just to give me more fodder for my thought process, which I found very helpful. As I dug into his words, I felt as if I were trespassing into someone’s field to steal apples or watermelons. I was an interloper into his very personal thoughts. It felt weird at first, but soon I settled in and began to write.
What I discovered is that the language he had used was not that different than the words I would have placed in context, although his vocabulary in parts (especially in narrator description) was rich and flowing. I pushed on, giving it my best minimalistic charge. When I was finished I had done the same chapter in exactly 652 words less than he had written it in. Not sure that was good or bad, but it is what it is. David took my chapter and actually lengthened it by almost 500 words. And I can say he improved it greatly.
As we reconceived on the following Wednesday and shared our notes, the conversation around the table ceased and we were all engrossed in the work before us. Finally Ed spoke. (Remember, he is the deliberate one – always searching for a better word to make a deeper point.) “Mildred clawed her way back inside the domicile of the rusted Ford truck as the jaws of winter snapped at her angrily, sneering at her, taunting her. She kicked at the door shutting out the beastly intruder as best she could and closing her eyes to await the fate or perhaps the doom, which, upon the horizon, watched her. She feared that one mistake – one misstep– would be her downfall. With depleted resources, she rested. Outside the wind scoffed at her and pleaded to be let in.” He paused, then picked up my sheet.
“Mildred was freezing. She could barely feel the door latch of the old Ford truck with her ungloved fingers. – fingers that could barely move. Every motion was a heroic exercise in self-preservation. She pried the rusted door open; its frozen hinges fighting her until finally succumbing to the last ounces of her fading strength. Then she lunged in as winter’s wind chased after her. Her fate, she feared, rested in the hands of some distant entity watching her and waiting. Waiting for her to make a fatal mistake. She and the haunting wind would ride out the night’s storm together.”
David took out a piece of paper and said he had attacked the same chapter on his own. (He had originally been assigned my work.) He began reading, “The day was frozen; lead-gray clouds whipped along by gale-force winds as Mildred made her way to the old Ford truck. It was her only hope for salvation. Its doors were frozen solid – closed as if to deny her entrance to the sanctuary. She struggled and fought at them, until one finally yielded and admitted her to the semi-warmth of the cab. There she lay on the cold plastic seat and listened to winter’s wind scream at her. In the distance she was sure that her fate was being observed by some stranger. Alone. Aloof. Waiting to see if she could make it through the night.”
We looked at each other and smiled. We had told the same story in three, very moving and very appropriate ways for our styles. It was a fun exercise that you should try with your writing buddies. See where someone else’s’ path may take you. And then see how you would create your own way through that story.
Remember, there is no right and wrong in this exercise. Only the journey of finding new voices and new ways in which to express your story. Good luck and keep writing.
(By the way, Mildred was rescued, but I promised Ed not to tell you how.)