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What We Write When We Don’t Write For the Internet: Looking For A Voice In All The Wrong Places

Once, a long time ago (in Internet terms; for non-digitally based life forms, it was about twelve months ago),someone paid me a compliment about something I’d written. You have a great voice, she said. It was a very nice thing to say,  and even more so to hear it from someone who is an amazing writer, because voice is something writers tend to worry about. Mostly because nobody is sure exactly what it is that makes a voice, but everyone agrees it’s a good thing to have.

Voice is more than just style. It’s not that hard to imitate a style, as anyone who has read my Raymond Chandler–J. R. R. Tolkien crossover will have seen. Even the really out-there stylists can be imitated–you could, for example, mix a World War II engineering text with random pages of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to come up with a fairly good imitation of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. You would not, however, have Pynchon’s voice, the thing that can make a forty page digression on an obscure meteorological phenomenon in Central Asia seem gripping, goofy, and lord help us even a bit profound. (If you like that sort of thing; I do, or at least I know I did once.)

Voice is a lot of things: but if I had to define it for myself, it means using all your quirks, knowledge, style, tics, vocabulary, word choice, hell, even your spell check and thesaurus, to create an effect that not only communicates what you want to say, but does it in a way that is uniquely you. Maybe once we’d have called it wit, but this is America and the twenty-first century, and we don’t have time for anything that can’t be barked out at a personal improvement seminar.

On a number of levels, I’ve had to learn a lot about voice.

I mean, there’s the physical one: I literally do not speak with the same voice I used to have. I spent several months working closely with a very kind actress to give me something that would not continually mark me as trans at all times. We worked our way through a bunch of fifth-generation generic Deborah Tannen stereotypes to get there. (End sentences on a rising inflection! Use qualifiers a lot! Speak with an oscillating pitch!) We ended up mostly ignoring them, and I ended up with something that made me sound a lot more like other women of my age and background.

But there’s also my writing voice, which has changed quite a bit since I began primarily writing nonfiction. See, I’d always thought I’d end up a fiction writer, but it never quite gelled. (I suppose the fact that I often began story ideas by looking for the theme of the piece should have been an indication that maybe I wanted to be in a less, ah, figurative line of writing–but then, as my transition date shows, I’ve never been all that good at listening to myself.) What’s odd is that my writing voice has become much closer to my speaking voice, where before one of the criticisms I used to receive about my writing is that I wrote in a somber fashion quite unlike my sarcastic public persona. (My poetry has always been priggish; about all I’ll say about it is that I can write bad blank verse extremely quickly.) I think that there are two things that caused this to be so: first, my blogging is on subjects that involve me on a personal level, so that draws my voice into them; and second, not really ever having had a “male” voice (more on that in a bit), I tried to borrow some of the more famous ones. Now, every writer shows influence, but in my case I think I was looking for a template to fill in the blanks I didn’t have.

My early writing style ping-ponged back and forth. I relied a lot on Short. Declarative. Sentences, a la Hemingway or Raymond Carver. (I had a major Carver infatuation for a while that has since abated, and the stories of his that I still like are the ones where he put some of the words back in.) Luckily for us, none of this work survives. But as for the Faulknerian influence…ye gods…

On the mantel next tot the clock that no longer worked he kept the frameless photography his uncle had given him of the people waiting to see Lincoln’s body in Cleveland. It had been raining that day, and the umbrellas the people carried warded off a rain that was invisible save as a gray wash over the whole scene. Over the pavilion a sign hung: THE NATION MOURNS. it said, THE NATION and MOURNS. with a period that had always fascinated him; it seemed to him that the single speck signaled the end of an era more clearly than even the bullet-defiled body that lay in state below it. In the early morning light he thought again that there must be many such periods ending many such sentences, segmenting all of time and experience…

…and it fucking goes on like that for PAGES and PAGES, with the occasional reappearance of THE NATION MOURNS just in case you hadn’t been beaten the reader around the eyes enough with that, and entire pages composed in italics because I thought that would be cool or something.

I wrote it in college, setting the story in New York City (where I had never lived) and in 1912, a year clearly of great relevance to me because I was a silly young writer without a clue. And maybe because I sneered at the idea of writing science fiction (I was in my haute-literary-snob period) and historical fiction was my subconscious substitute. Hell, I even had my character meet a suffragette, and have a highly embarrassing conversation that I will not reproduce here, that was made even more shameful for me because I dropped the quotation marks in homage to Cormac McCarthy.

Don’t hate me.

After college, the things I wrote tended to alternate between historical fiction — half a novella about the Civil War, a story set in 19th century Austria, something I just overflow with knowledge about (not), and terse little pieces that tried to be like the magazine stories that everyone admired so much at the time. What strikes me as both obvious and annoying about them now is the utter absence of believable female characters. The stories I worked on before I lost my virginity (and even some after) always had women as uncaring objects of desire; afterward, they mostly lurked on the corners, in the very best tradition of Guy Fiction. Take my Austrian story, for example, which centered around a hapless, talentless hack who was trying to write a sonata. What I see now is that his story wasn’t the interesting one; the interesting stories were those of the two objects of his desire, a scullery maid, and the daughter of his noble patron, a talented pianist being forced into marriage with a French armaments manufacturer. (It’s not what it sounds like: the guy was hapless at love as well as at music.) Like I said last week, the thing about writing as a guy is that it is so pervasive that even someone who wants to not be one ends up writing like one.

About all that I can enjoy from those early efforts is that the female characters, even though I drew them so badly, always pulled a little spark into my writing. I won’t award myself too many points; the writing is too painfully Dudely to make up for whatever fragile tendrils of other stuff snuck their way in. Still… re-reading this section from the Austrian story — the scullery maid is breaking up with the main character — doesn’t fill me with shame, maybe because it has the vaguest sketch of feminist intent:

“This can’t go on,” she said. “It’s scandalous, and shameful. I won’t continue like this!” Tears were in her eyes, but he kept his hands miserably at his sides. “I never meant,” he said, “I never wished you harm.”

“I never thought you did.” She had composed herself now. “But truthfully, sir, what else can happen now but to end things as they are? You have no reliable prospects of yet, and Karl—“ She shrugged. “A soldier’s life may lack for glamor, but there are compensations. Karl has promise. Perhaps he will even become an officer.”

“Perhaps.” Gottschalk was surprised at his own bitterness. Hadn’t he schemed for this moment? Hadn’t he swallowed his pride and begged his brother for help? Yet at the decisive moment he only wanted to hang on a little longer. “My prospects are not so dim, you know. The Marquise wants me to accompany her to Paris. I’ve already finished an important composition; in the proper setting, who knows what is possible?”

“Herr Gottschalk, I must deal with what is here and now, and forget the merely possible. I have already thought this through, even before you gave me the money. You can have it back, if it makes this easier.”

“I meant what I said,” he grated.

“It doesn’t really matter.”

There are other brief glimpses: the wife of one of my characters doesn’t get any characterization until the last page, but that characterization still rings true to me, or at least not outlandishly false. The last story I tried to write before transition was actually praised by someone in my writing group for doing a good job of capturing the life of a female New Yorker. (It was a pretty bad writing group, though.)

I didn’t write this just to rag on my brief and unpublished career as a fiction writer. I started out by talking about voice. Because one of the key divisions we make in judging people’s gender is their voice: I know this better than most. But our written voice is important too, and again I might know a bit about that — though in my case, it was much more about shedding my attempts to find an inauthentic voice from my male models in order to find my real voice.

But would that it is was so simple. Because just like we make different judgments about voices depending on the gender of the person who speaks with them — Janis Ian’s voice is called beautiful, but Antony Hegarty’s similar voice is “ethereal” or “weird” — so too our perceptions of the authenticity of an author’s voice depend upon our perceptions of the author’s gender. Take, for example, the remarkable story the male writer Bev Vincent relayed (the whole essay is really worth a read, except for a bit of trans fail at the end):

The editor says: “The story seems far too personal, introspective and emotional for a man . . . It is hard to imagine a fellow from a place like [the setting] uttering the following line.” The editor then provides three sentences from my story as examples. He or she continues, “And I can’t think of many guys from [setting] who call home every Sunday afternoon to talk to their family” [Emphasis his or hers]. Another brilliant insight: “Most men don’t think deeply about the dewy greenness of nature.” The ultimate conclusion: “She [sic] needs to write more convincing [sic] from a man’s perspective.”

I pause here to note that this was the most autobiographical story I’ve ever written, and all the things that the editor complained about were my real observations and my real thoughts cast into the mind of a fictional character participating in fictional events. I did, in fact, call home every Sunday afternoon to talk to my parents, while they were still alive.

So yeah, to echo my sister-in-initials M.R. Fall’s point: you can write brilliantly, and originally, and utterly authentically, but if you’re perceived to be a woman you’ll always have your work challenged, at best, and ignored at worst. Whereas if they think you’re a dude, you’ll be fine: because anything you write about men will be considered brilliant (“a devastating exploration of the inner emotional landscape of the modern man” if your character, say, has an emotion not normally portrayed in a Nintendo video game, or “a stark presentation of modern masculinity’s continuing relevance” if he, say, blows up a bridge full of cars.) And whatever you write about women–well, guys don’t write about women. Even the ones who really are women, sometimes.

Bill was on extended disability leave, and could stay out of the office for several more weeks; but it bothered her that he didn’t want to go back to work. He’d always been ambitious; in the early days, when the company had still been struggling, he would work twelve- and fourteen-hour days, and before his illness he had still often worked on the weekends. But now he was content to stay at home, not even helping out around the house, disappearing for much of the afternoon and evening.

Rhonda went to Lisa’s soccer awards dinner alone, even though their daughter was named best midfielder. She was spending more time at the office. They had lost several cases recently. Bills were piling up at home and at work. Lisa was sullen much of the time but wouldn’t talk to her about it; she couldn’t tell if there was something wrong, or if it was just teenage anxiety. Halfway through a phone call to her sister, Rhonda broke down in tears. There wasn’t anyone for her to turn to, she sobbed. She’d never felt so alone in her marriage.


  1. Mel wrote:

    “Most men don’t think deeply about the dewy greenness of nature.”

    I didn’t realize every character had to be like “most $foo” instead of an individual. (I kind of boggled at this one, because…Thoreau? Aldo Leopold? Edward Abbey? Gerald Durrell? John McPhee? SERIOUSLY?! I think men are just as likely to think deeply about nature as anyone else.)

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  2. Kathy wrote:

    Can I just say how much I loved this post? I feel my writing voice is far more authentic writing fiction than non-fiction. That I know very few people are going to see it (at least immediately) is.. freeing? Or I’m less likely to claim ownership of it.(If it;s fiction, it can’t be real, right?) I struggle more with writing online. I’ve written for my own site, read by only a handful, and, at one point, a larger website with a “reputation,” at never have I felt like such a fraud than I have at the latter. It’s hard to get away from that “inner critic” that says, “Is this okay?” “Am I offending someone?” “Am I smart enough?”

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Permalink
  3. EM wrote:

    I really have no idea what my voice is anymore. I know I have one but I’ve completely lost the ability to characterize or even describe it.

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Permalink
  4. GarlandGrey wrote:

    My first attempt at a novel was in high school – it was a blatant Tom Robbins ripoff and contained the sentence “People who dance with inanimate objects have the most electric fun.” Then I tried to write Chuck Palahniuk’s next book for him, then a lot of stories that owed far too much to David Foster Wallace. Needless to say, I am JEALOUS of your early, failed attempts.

    “the daughter of his noble patron, a talented pianist being forced into marriage with a French armaments manufacturer.”

    I now have a DESPERATE need to read something with this exact plot.

    Wednesday, June 9, 2010 at 7:54 am | Permalink
  5. Christianne wrote:

    I still haven’t been able to wash the Faulkner out of my own writing (and, worse still, the James Agee). My favorite punctuation marks are the em-dash and the semi-colon, if that tells you anything. I was never able to read Hemmingway, but, taking into account the subject of this post, I love James M. Cain, who wrote in much the same manner. It’s the voice.

    Most of the fiction I attempt is of the pulp variety. The kind that would have been published in Black Mask or Weird Tales (or even Spicy Detective) back in the pulp era. All very Dudely stuff, truth to tell.

    I’m not ashamed of the fact that I dig Cormac McCarthy, either. Sutree still kicks my ass. For some reason, I once got it into my head that McCarthy and Toni Morrison would be natural collaborators if they didn’t kill each other first. I’d like to read that book.

    Wednesday, June 9, 2010 at 8:57 am | Permalink
  6. roesmoker wrote:

    I also had a major Carver infatuation, which is in retrospect kind of weird because my writing tends to be the exact opposite, even when I’m *trying* to be terse! I write page-long paragraphs, or paragraph-long sentences, unless I force myself to chop them up. Yet for some reason I was never a huge Faulker fan. I do love George MacDonald though and he’s a run-on sentences guy to the max – also Stephen King, I don’t know where he fits on the Carver to Faulker spectrum.

    Also, I cannot believe there ever was a magazine called Spicy Detective. Seriously? Now it just sounds like the Spice Channel made a softcore porno gone horribly awry. Maybe a Maltese Falcon parody.

    Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

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  2. […] Jun Today, C.L. Minou wrote a fabulous piece for Tiger Beatdown on the very writing topic that I find most difficult to teach: Voice is more than just style. […]