I once heard my author, L, tell another writer that her troubles with the novel she’s writing—the one where I’m the main character—became more manageable the day my voice finally came chattering up off the stack of manuscript pages on her work table. This was terribly important, because the novel is written in the first person. I’m telling the story, so my writer has to know how I sound.
That conversation happened at a retreat for writers and artists at a Benedictine abbey on the Prairies. Each writer had a bedroom that also served as a studio, and so L’s work table was close by the bed. Here, in more detail, is what L said to her friend: I’d given up. I couldn’t work anymore. I hated the novel. I lay down on the bed, and I was just looking up at the ceiling and thinking about nothing in particular, and I heard Kate’s voice come chattering up off the page.
Certainly I was relieved to hear her say she’d found my voice. Now she could rewrite those two hundred sorry pages using words and phrases that would feel more natural to me. I would be more at home in my own story. I might even have new thoughts; at the very least I’d be in a position to better express the thoughts she’d already given me. This was all to the good, but there are two things about L’s comment that I can’t just let slide by: First, I object to the verb chattering. I do not chatter. I prefer to think I muse, consider, recount, make pithy observations, and deliver insightful commentary, along the with odd joke. Second, she makes it sound a bit magical, this idea of my voice just starting itself up like that. I suppose I can forgive her use of chattering. I know that L chooses her words with much more care when she’s writing about me than she exercises when she’s talking to a friend over a glass of scotch, and for this I’m grateful. As for the magic, well, no.
I do love it when L lies down to take a break, because the restrictions she puts on my behaviour in the normal course of her work are lifted. The controlling part of her brain takes a back seat, and I get to dance or sing or go out to the movies. It’s kind of like after midnight in The Nutcracker. Which, again, might sound like magic, but really it has to do with what happens inside the human brain, which I wrote about in this post.
I remember an incident from a few years ago, when L was out for a morning run with a friend. L had been to a new restaurant the evening before, and when her friend asked if the restaurant was any good, L replied, Yeah, we liked it. We had a really good feed. They ran on for a couple dozen steps more, and then L’s friend said, We do betray our rural backgrounds, don’t we, when we use expressions like ‘really good feed.’
L supposed so. She was a little embarrassed to have reverted to her small-town manner of speaking. Was it sort of like the immigrant who’s worked hard to learn English, and then comes a situation where they just need to swear, and the swear-word comes out in Ukrainian or Polish or Arabic or whatever? And did this mean that matters to do with food were as elemental, as primal, in L’s experience, as situations that called for swearing?
Here’s what I think: She should be glad she can fall back so easily into an earlier voice. My voice didn’t rise magically from the sorry stack of pages on L’s work table at the abbey, it rose up from inside L. It braided itself together from the contents of a big basket she carries around, consciously or unconsciously, in her mind. The basket is full of words and intonations; and a jumble of sensibilities to do with what’s funny and not funny, some of which are at odds with each other; and various ways of encoding cynicism and hope and love and despair; and quirky turns of phrase and turns of attitude. L has collected the basket’s contents over her lifetime to date, from voices she heard growing up in a small town, voices she heard when she worked as a waitress at a still-impressionable age, voices of people she was close to in her early twenties, people she’s worked with, volunteered with, had arguments with. The voices she’s most likely to channel in unguarded moments are the ones she heard between ages zero and twenty-five. My manner of speaking is a composite of voices she knew in her twenties, including her own. I’m happy she’s held onto those voices; if she hadn’t, I’d be mute.