Thursday, June 12, 2008

I can't quit with a good subject...

Tabitha had some great comments to make about my recent post on voice. This really is a topic that I am struggling with now, as I don't think my current WIP has a good enough voice (because, mainly, I'm so busy working on plot that I'm ignoring other elements, like voice...and, you know, grammar). So I don't mean to beat a dead horse, but...

What is voice? I dunno. It's a little indefinable, isn't it? I can't give a simple answer, but here's the way I think of it. Imagine two high school kids in art class. They both love to draw. They both study their high school teacher's instructions. They both have the drive to be artists. But when you look at Susie's drawings, you can tell that this kid may be creative, but she's no artist. It's just not there. She could study the technical side of it all she wanted, but she'll never make more than lines on a page. But then look at Annie's drawings. She needs improvement, sure, and she's certainly not da Vinci yet, but there's some indefinable quality that makes you know that this kid can draw. She's a natural. Even her doodles seem to come to life.

Now, the kid who doesn't have that natural-born artistic quality and the kid who does can both go to college and study art. They can travel Europe, study the masters, whatever. But the kid who doesn't have the art inside her won't ever be able to produce the stuff that the kid who does have it can. With study, the kid who doesn't have art can make a passable drawing. She could even be good at drawing...but her work won't be in museums. The kid who does have art...that's a whole other story.

In my opinion, this applies to all artistic endeavors. There's a difference between photographers and people who just take pictures. There's a difference between emo kids who write angst-ridden poetry in their darkened rooms and Maya Angelou. There's a difference between someone who writes with voice, and someone who writes without it.


Can voice be taught? Tabitha made an excellent point when she said:
If you mean that Voice can't be taught in the way 5+2=7 is taught, then yes, it can't. Or, if you mean that *finding* one's Voice can't be taught, then maybe. I suppose it depends on whether pointing someone in the right direction is considered teaching.

Still, that's only one aspect of Voice. And I truly believe that the rest can be taught.
Can voice be taught? I don't know. I agree with Tabitha in that this will depend on one's definition of voice, and in some ways, I still think that no, voice can't be taught. But I do think that voice can change, and that teaching can change us...so...maybe.

Here's my ideas on it. In my above example, Susie just didn't have that artistic spark. But let's say that something brilliant happened to her. She got pregnant and had a child. Her world view's changed, now. She looks at the world both as her own person and as the mother of her child. Now, let's say that she starts to really study the work of Mary Cassatt. She's inspired by the work, and goes to a class taught by a teacher who specializes in that vein of art. Now she has the drive, and has grown in skill. Her art will certainly be better...and she might have now become the type of person one could faithfully call "artist."

I suppose, in that way, voice can be taught for a writer. Technically, I'd argue that the books we as writers enjoy reading work as mentors and inspiration for our own writing, and every time we read a book, we learn about voice (if we're paying attention). Likewise, attending a writing class could provide the basis for developing a better voice.

But it's not that easy. Despite all this, I still contend that there is some element of voice that can never be taught. That you either have it, or you don't, and if you don't, you'll never get it. Perhaps I am somewhat jaded because of my experience working with high school kids on creative writing. Some of them are brilliant. Those kids make me want to weep because they're so good. Some of them...well, they try really hard, and they do everything technically right, but...they don't have it. They'll never be writers. They'll never progress to more than teen-angst-Fallout-Boy-ripoff poems. They'll never make a short-story that anyone other than their family and friends will read. This is bitter, and it's sad, and I'm fully aware that despite the fact that I've been writing novels for five years, I may be in that category as I've yet to be published.

In any artistic endeavor, there is an artistic spark that, without it, the artist can never truly be an artist. Some people can't do math, or have a terrible memory for dates. Likewise, some people can't write, and some can't draw, and some can't sing. The thing that makes artists so terribly sad is that some, despite their dreams, can never be what they want to be.

But it's not that depressing, either. This is all not to say that if you don't have a voice, you can't be a writer. I don't think you can write effectively without a strong voice, but I don't think you should give up if you don't have one now. Part of voice relies on drive. Looking at my high school students, I can see that some of them are simply not good writers, but I would never, ever tell them to quit. If they're passionate about it, who knows what could develop? In high school, everyone's passionate about something. And although mostly they're all just passionate about getting into each other's pants, some of the kids have the passion to write or draw or sing. Maybe part of voice is just sheer stubbornness not to fail.

I'd like to think so.
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