Whose voice?

The other day I was reflecting on how, unlike retinas and fingerprints, voices do often sound alike — that, indeed, there are probably only so many permutations of sound the human vocal chords can manage. As such, it is surely conceivable that not only could somebody pretend to be me, to raise or lower their pitch so as to imitate mine, there has to be someone (undoubtedly more than a few) who sounds exactly like me. I simply don’t know enough people actually to daily deal with this potential bit of confusion.

Similarly, the voices we inhabit in our writing are rarely our own. They are sometimes an immature aping of that of another, and sometimes even our genuine “voice” is indistinguishable from immature aping. By way of confession, for a long time, during my graduate school years, I was considered to be mimicking Mark C. Taylor. (I have since murdered all who made that observation, but am today comfortable enough in my own skin to mention it as an example. ) These days, I suppose the accusation might be that I am merely striving, and poorly at that, to write like William Gass. Though, mind you, I would be far more pleased to be mistook for John Hawkes or Katherine Anne Porter.

What about you? Whose “voice” do you inhabit or inhabits you — whether as a welcome guest or a demon eventually to be cast?

18 thoughts on “Whose voice?

  1. over the past year or so i’ve been reading a lot of jeanette winterson, especially some of her newer quasi sci-fi mythic stuff. i didn’t really think it had been affecting my own voice until someone else told me that some of my academic prose actually made them think of her work.

    i have to admit, that made me feel a little guilty. perhaps i’ve internalized the taboo against plagiarism so that my sense of what constitutes trespass extends even into voice.

  2. In fiction, I went through an undergraduate period where I was aping Douglas Adams, then Tom Robbins, then Donald Barthelme. All in different drafts of the same story. My undergrad newspaper columns had some terrible attempts at Lewis Lapham. Most of my writing learning has necessarily been unlearning.

  3. I date the unraveling of my first marriage to the day that my wife spent thumbing through contemporary novels, then looked at the draft of her own novel and, upon realizing just how ruined it was by her love of Henry James, retreated into an impenetrable melancholy.

  4. I used to teach a course that required a lot of writing from sophomores who mostly couldn’t write to save their lives. Delightfully for me, what started as a historical hermeneutics course became a writing workshop. Kind of fitting, really. One of my exercises for them was to select a writer — fiction, academic, whoever — and then a topic — again, whatever, I didn’t care — and write a page openly imitating the writer. The willing and the brave read theirs to the class, and we grilled them how & why their writing “sounded” like their influence. (The idea being I wanted them to verbalize multiple layers of the influence.)

    I would also have students take long passages of writing that they liked and transcribe it by hand or by typing, in hopes that in doing so they would begin to see how writers they valued constructed ideas. This is a practice I still do, in fact, to get a hold of the architecture of another writer’s thought.

  5. Do voices often sound alike? Not if that means that any two are likely to sound alike. But fingerprints, also, can look alike; that’s why you need to be careful when taking and comparing them. Maybe not just any two will.

  6. In poetry, Geoffrey Hill, unavoidably. In prose, I rip off Adam Phillips more than I should (if I start going woolly, it’s usually an attempt to reproduce his knack of floating suggestive generalisations past the reader). I think I’ve mostly got Derrida out of my system, thank goodness: there’s already far too much Derridiarrhoea about (although who knows what the correct amount would be? A controlled emission would presumably no longer qualify as “…diarrhoea”). I don’t know how much of an influence Badiou-in-translation has been on me stylistically; it may be too early to tell.

  7. Ben, you wrote: “I would also have students take long passages of writing that they liked and transcribe it by hand or typing, in hopes that in doing so they would begin to see how writers they valued constructed ideas….to get a hold of the architecture of another writers’s thought.”

    I thought this was interesting in the since of music. I married a musician 35 years ago, and as he was teaching me how to play guitar, he would say, “Pick a guitar player whom you love how they play and copy it to a tee. Once you have their way of playing down, you can then branch out into your own method.”

    My thoughts are or interpretation of what is happening with your writing exercise – in the choosing of the favorite writer and how he expresses himself or the guitar player and how he plays – brings a witness to your core of expression. i.e. when I began learning how to play lead guitar back in the 70’s, some people would hear a hint of Santana in my licks. I never listened to Santana yet, but when buying and listen to his album – my spirit leaped because he was melodically expressing everything I was hearing but didn’t have the experience or know how to play yet – so I copied everything he did and then took on my own interpretation as the years went by. Food for thought.

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