Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Writer's Voice (1 August 2015)

[The Praxis of Wording & Worlding]

"To the young writer, the search for a style is inexpressibly urgent; it parallels, on the aesthetic plane, the individual’s psychological search for identity—that is, for an authentic self-hood and a means for its unfolding." (1)
- Helen Vendler Coming of Age as a Poet (2003)
“We cannot accept everything, but wisdom consists in separating out what we should accept and what we should not.  It also consists of separating out what we should trust and what we should not.” (115)
-        Robert C Solomon Spirituality for the Skeptic (2002)

I have long been a ‘scribbler;’ someone who plays with words, seeking to reflect on and describe something vividly imagined_ or that is perhaps staring me in the face.  I started ‘scribbling’ on paper very soon after learning to read and write in Grade School.  I still ‘scribble’, though hopefully I now ‘write’ more than I ‘scribble.’  All writers ‘scribble’ – they play with the pen and paper; keyboard and screen—or with the feather of the mind dipped into the ink of imagination – seeking to bring forth what has grabbed their attention in some deeper, non-superficial way.  Writing is often a process of discovery.  How did I get from being a ‘scribbler’ to being a writer?

I’ve been re-reading the excellent little book by Helen Vendler[i] cited in the epigraph above, and being reminded – by her adroit discussion of a Poet’s coming of age – of my own process; moving from initial vivid and often driven scribbling to Wording and Worlding, along the way finding my own ‘voice.’  I’ve found my voice at least twice, and then lost it, only to re-discover it later—each instance of my ‘voice’ being different.  Life experiences, interests and the development of the craft of writing itself has brought forth a different mature ‘voice’ at three different points in my life.  Each time I have realized my ‘voice,’ it is has been more mature and more deeply satisfying, though I now write prose almost exclusively, and rarely write verse.

Realizing a ‘voice’ is something everyone experiences; it is part of self-realization—‘growing up’ and coming together into a mature person.  It is especially important for a writer, as words and speaking them are our venue.  To have a voice is to be able to express yourself articulately and with a reasonable originality.  It is to be able to re-present in words the various phenomena – internal and external to yourself – that attract your attention and inspire you; and to do it in a way that seems ‘accurate,’ genuine,’ or at least communicates what you are trying to express.  One’s ‘voice’ is one’s ‘signature sound.’  It is the vehicle through which you stand forth in the world.  For a writer, all early scribbling is but a preparation for that moment of initial authentic expression when we say, “Here I am; I speak and will be heard."

Until that moment, a ‘scribbler’ is an apprentice to the Muse. [ii]   From that moment on, they are a practitioner, potentially on their way to mastering their craft; which is also to be on the way to Wisdom.[iii]  But there are always obstacles, and many practitioners never realize their voice; they falter along the way—they get lazy, they get distracted, they never find a productive focus, or other priorities just get in the way of crafting with words.  But once the voice begins to be realized, a significant trailhead has been reached.  There is then hope that something genuinely poetic may eventually come forth through you.  Your wording of the world may stand, at least for a while.

This initial ‘speaking’ is an arche of deep import, fostering the sett(l)ing of directions, which will have been tested and adjusted, chosen, rejected and refined throughout one’s apprenticeship to the Muse; the ‘source’ of inspiration.  From the moment of one’s first real poetic self-expression until the discovery of a true style, a writer evolves in their art, opening toward a future ‘perfection’ of their craft.  That ‘perfection’ will always loom out there on the path before you, beyond you; and yet one’s ‘true style,’ once begun to be realized, instantiates that perfection at one moment and then another and then another … in the gyre of the writing life.  Once realized, a devout writer’s voice continues to evolve throughout one’s life, and may be instantiated multiple times, as it has been with me.  Yet there is a moment in the flux & flow of self-becoming when it first crystalizes and becomes a touchstone.  That moment; that touchstone—is a rune of your ‘chosen’ Path[iv] – that is, the ‘way’ of best self-realization for you; a particular and unique individual with all of your gifts, talent, baggage, hopes, dreams and fears.  I travelled many ‘paths’ before finding the trailhead of my ‘chosen’ Path.

Along the way you come to realize that you are not so much scribbling all the time, but writing; you are bringing forth words that speak.  This may come as a surprise, when you first realize it!  You are “Speaking the Poetic Word.”  This is the craft of the writer; and it can only be realized through practice, study and a sincere devotion to the aesthetic dimensions of existence.  For the creative writer, life is an aesthetic phenomenon, as Nietzsche once averred.  Learning to “Speak the Poetic Word” – i.e., not just ‘say’ words or mumble pretension nonsense or (much worse) babble-on uncritically in the generic, banal verbiage of one’s culture – is essential for developing a mature voice. 

This praxis may be called “Wording.  It is a matter of seeking out the ‘right words’ for things, experiences and situations, phenomena and the mysteries of life in Earth & Cosmos that instill Awe in you and incite Wonder.  I call it ‘speaking’ the Word because writing is always some kind of proclamation—it is always being professed and is always ‘heard,’ whether in the reader’s mind or by a listener hearing the Poet read aloud what they have crafted.

Each writer will ‘speak’ in their own way; owing to their own nature (initially wrought out of their particular genetic inheritance and their environment), but also according to where their own Curiosity & Wonder have led them in the course of their creative development.  Wonder & Curiosity lead to further study & devotion; which drive the development of one’s praxis.  Practice then revises and redirects study & devotion, mixing-up a brew worth serving up from the writer’s Internal Cauldron.  After this, it is all about stirring the brew, adding to it, changing the ‘heat’ under the cauldron, etc.!  This is to say that becoming a mature writer requires hard work; work on one’s craft as well as on one’s own emerging self.  The two grow in tandem and synergize.  Poetic integrity often flows from personal integrity; the integration of the self into a self-realizing unity.  Personal integrity also arises through the struggle for poetic integrity; the forging of a voice that is not trite, stuck in stereotypes and clich├ęs or else loaded with ostentatious or affected babble.

Learning how to identify and then say what wants or what needs to be said is usually the struggle.  Themes and the objects that need reflected in one’s writing are as important as the words used to express them.  Eventually, it becomes second nature.  But in the beginning it can seem like a linguistic game of Twister – arching and vaunting, this way and then that – reaching here, now, and then there – with little or no rationale – for the perfect word, phrase, syntax, and/or rhythm.  After many excesses and failures, a devout practitioner will come to understand how language 'works' for them; how what is spoken ‘fits together’ and what its flow and pace and 'geography' will be.

As I learned to crafts wordings, I came to realize that written language has a sonic landscape, not just a grammar, and as such is akin to music.  While you can create essays, poetry and blogs mechanically; utilizing established ‘rules’ and following traditional guides to form and meter, eventually you come to simply know how words are to be sewn into phrases that work, and how lines evince rhythm and form; evoking harmony—generating the meaning that you (do or do not) intend.  This is as true for prose as it is for poetry.  This realization is usually aided by actually speaking the words I am putting together.  To hear them is to know their deeper meaning, often hidden in the complexities of their nuances and grammatical ‘tricks.’  Some writers can hear these words in their mind and know them well enough, but for many – including myself – it is impossible to know that you have realized a poetic construction of an idea or the poetic representation of an inspiring experience until you have heard the words spoken out loud.[v]

To hear and proclaim the Poetic Word with a genuine voice, a practitioner needs a ‘place’ to stand and a circumscribed horizon in which to express what is being constructed; i.e., “to Word” what one has ‘found’ to say.  Wording” is in many ways a setting up of a stage on which the Theater of Worlding can be put on.  A writer’s charge can thus be understood as forging a play of existence; and as such it needs a stage suited to it.  To establish the horizons of a story, essay or poem is to intensify the listener/reader’s focus and allow a more effective expression of what is being conveyed. 

Apprentice writer’s often ‘run all over the place’ (I know this from experience, and have seen it in other novice writers), grasping for words to put together from hither and yon.  But the landscape of such writing oft ends up so diffuse and wide-ranging that it dilutes what is coming forth within it.  If you put the idea, emotion, experience or phenomena you are trying to express on a ‘stage,’ the written work will suddenly become much more intense.  For a story or narrative poem, the stage on which it is set is its world.  That world might be the Cosmos itself, or some small niche scene from daily life or from one’s emotional experience.

Each writer’s imagination is unique, and thus the angle(s) each creative person has on the world; as well as on the human worlds in which they find themselves living—is to some extent idiosyncratic, though always part of the continuum of human possibilities.  The struggle to develop a voice is caught up with sorting out the words, phrases and ideas that are genuinely yours from those that have been uncritically absorbed from your environment; stereotypes and stock characters, the mundane and deadening vocabulary (though superficially ‘exciting’) learned from advertisements and pundits who seek to co-opt your mind, attention and allegiance, and so on.  As you Word your World and create stages for proclaiming the Poetic Word, you come to be able to weed out what seems artificial and stock from the more genuine expressions that come to you.

We all come to awareness of ourselves – as we waken from childhood into adulthood – already programmed with our own cultureware, and while most of this is useful for us to live life in a particular society, learning to Speak the Poetic Word in your own voice involves sorting through this pre-loaded social ‘software,’ seeking for runes and touchstones of the most authentic experience and expression of life that we can imagine, deleting what will not help us realize our own voice and Speak the Word; Wording and Worlding.

So I often say that every Wording implies a World; the situation in which the action of the story, blog, essay or poem, however particular in its vision – whether narrative, expressive, intuitive, reflective, dramatic or oratory – may be writ large; seen on a wider, deeper, broader tapestry.  For any particular Wording to take place; to be successful—it must be set within an inferred World; one that implies metaphysical assumptions and sets up a cosmological framework—i.e., a set of assumptions about the nature of the reality in which the written text stands forth and speaks. That ‘World’ can be a reflection of the objective, external, day to day world, or it can be a constructed, fictional world—wherever we find the touchstones of poetic inspiration.  The irony here is that by the focusing of horizons, the Worlding broadens and deepens.  Just as in a good play; the ‘world’ implied by the physically limited stage allows you to see more (or, at leastm should do so—if it is well constructed).

To write – and not just scribble – I need to find the poetic touchstones in whatever has inspired me and then attempt to Word them into a Worlding that reflects, speaks and incarnates what inspired me to start putting finger-to-keyboard.  This, in sum, is what it means for me to have a voice at this point in my life, fifty years down the road from where I first started putting pen-to-paper.  The process of finding my voice as a writer has been a long and sometimes strange struggle; but every time I create a text that Speaks the Poetic Word as I understand it, I know that the hard work and discipline, study and exhaustion were all worth it.  To be able to speak in one’s voice is an often rich and rewarding experience; all the more so if others respond to it and enjoy what you have written.





[i] Helen Vendler Coming of Age as a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath (Harvard University Press, 2003).  This was followed by Poet’s Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats (Harvard University Press, 2004) and then Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill (Princeton University Press, 2010).  Taken together, they cover the beginning, middle and end of a poet’s life.  They are each excellent reads.

[ii] THE MUSE – a metaphorical way of referring to the psychological, emotional and experienced source of inspiration.  This ‘source’ exists within ourselves and yet may have touchstones in the external world around us.  If we see this ‘source’ as existing outside of us (For me, it was early-on connected to the Moon as a mythic phenomenon) it must eventually be internalized.  Inspiration operates as a kind of existential algorithm.

[iii] WISDOM is the kind of knowledge that helps you live life well; living it to the fullest with integrity in the pursuit of excellence.  It is not just technical knowledge or social know-how.  It is the kind of knowing that deepens your experience of existing and that enables you to cope with the way the world is, the nature of life,  suspended between where you are and what you could be at its best.  Learning any craft – the craft of writing included – should so interface you with life that you grow in Wisdom as you develop your craft.

[iv] This happened for me the first time in the Winter of 1983-4, when I was bringing the Yuletide stories about the Whittiers to fruition the first time.  It happened a second time in August 1994, when I wrote a poem called “Evening Prayer,” (see my book Tales from the Seasons, 2008; p. 73) after which I wrote in that voice for about 8 years before the gyre of my interests turned and I lost that voice.  Whether or not I will find a new voice for poetry at this point in my life is a question that cannot be answered.  My prose voice, however, continues to develop and evolve.

[v] For me, this is just as much the case for prose as for poetry.  While writing a blog, essay or story, I eventually start reading it out loud to myself in order to sense the flow and pace of the words; to hear how it all hangs together.  Prose has a ‘sonic landscape.’