Saturday, July 26, 2014


Last spring, when I was teaching Esi Edugyan's remarkable Half Blood Blues, I found myself asking my students an off-kilter but strangely crucial question.  The novel's narrator, Syd, has to choose, he believes, between "getting the girl" and laying down a track of remarkable jazz--an apparent choice that leads to many ethical dilemmas.  I asked how many of them would be willing to spend the rest of their live without love.  Since they were in their early twenties, an eternity without love yawned before them, and they could understand the profundity of his dilemma.  Then I asked if they'd be willing to spend the rest of their lives without a voice that was heard and believed credible.  The room went startlingly silent as they imagined themselves faced with a future nearly as painful as living without love.  Bless them:  they proved something I've long believed:  that our need to have a voice is nearly as integral to our sense of well-being as our need to be loved by someone who sees us as we are and loves what she or he sees.

More recently, reading All My Puny Sorrows made me think about voice.  I always tell my creative writing students that the right voice is the foundation of almost anything we write; frequently I make them rewrite the opening to a story or a couple of stanzas of a poem in a different voice--to shift from first person to third, or third to first.  As writers, we can get into habits that seem merely technical preferences that turn out to have a profound effect on how we see or represent the world we are creating.  But Miriam Toews' novel makes so clear what can happen if you find the right voice--the right tone and perspective--to tell a story.  I suppose she could have used an omniscient narrator, but Yoli's slightly manic, disorderly, casual but loving voice provides the crucial counterweight to her serious artistic sister's decision to commit suicide.   The novel would have been either unbearable or pompous and stodgy told any other way.

I finished the novel on the same day that I undertook a massive revision of one of the poems I'd been finding slight and insubstantial, a poem that said "Cool!  There's a Rothko in a back lane in downtown Saskatoon" and not much more.  There was more to be gotten, and I certainly found the "more" when I slowed myself down to the pace of considered revision (rather than trying to keep up the pace of fevered composition).  I found the similarities between how the world around us changes constantly and how for some people forgetting is a kind of forced, speeded-up change.  Here were my final lines about the young woman who paints over the door to create the Rothko and her father, who has dementia:

In the untroubled silence between them
she’ll wonder how to tell change
from forgetting
except to think of doorways
and the words we write on them.

Okay, I've come to some metaphysical conclusions--or at least the statement of a metaphysical problem--but the whole poem was so stodgy.  When I went to bed that night, Toews' novel  threaded through my thoughts, and I realized that I needed to use the first person.  Here's the opening in the new version:

What does a Fine Arts
student know about business,
except maybe the difference
between what’s good and what sells?
So the insurance guy comes and says
the back door is all wrong.  The sidelight
breaks in two seconds and the perp
reaches in and unlocks my deadbolt
in a trice.  Also, don’t put your name
on the door back here:  keep ‘em
guessing.  He’s looked at my prices
but hasn’t thought about how someone
hungry for high or oblivion
can fence a Benjamin Chi Chi repro
or an owl by Josie Iaqluk
on a Saskatoon street corner.

The new voice brought a new sensibility into play, one who could think about perps and business.  Whew!  She had enough spirit to save the poem.  Once she got around to the problem of her father, we might have a better sense that the profound question she's asking is one that most of us face at one time or another.

One of the traditions of Sage Hill is two nights of student readings.  We're kept to a tight schedule--five minutes. Finding the right five minutes in your manuscript is an excellent exercise for finding a moment of weight and significance.  Then we introduce the next writer.

I've long been in awe of the fact that composers can work with a limited palette of tones and rhythms and create music that differs not only in melody and harmony, but in its expression of a frame of mind, a world view, an emotion, attitude, experience.  Night before last, half the students read and I experienced a similar awe:  we all have a similar set of vocal chords, and students at Sage Hill represent a paradoxically idiosyncratic and yet homogeneous part of the Canadian population.  We worry about the same kind of human challenges, though from different angles and temperaments, but our expression is often as singular as the voice our lover recognizes, even when the phone connection is bad.

I'll bet each one of you has sometimes opened a book you've taken from the shelves of a library or a bookstore, read a couple of paragraphs, and put it back.  Somehow this voice doesn't speak to you, or you don't quite trust its view of the world.  Stories are integral to who we are.  The well-told story enchants, enthralls, grabs you by the throat, as Lawrence Hill did in  his reading last night.  There is something ineffable about the well-told story:  it's one of those moments when vision--the sense of which stories are important and the knowledge of why this story is important--and craftsmanship--the knowledge of the story's structure, the ability to get a character to rise off a page--come together in a fusion that reaches right off the page.  But I wonder how many of us must first find a smaller pearl:  the right voice.  A voice that's made of vocabulary, syntax, world view; a voice that speaks a historical moment and a place in society.  Voices themselves are windows or doorways into new perspectives, new rhythms of thought. The more voices that rattle around in our heads, the richer our sense of the world.

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