Notes on Experience, Story, and Voice

Joe Linker Pizza Face by Emily“The idea that everyone has a story to tell (which underlies the notion that anyone can write since all a writer needs is a story) is strictly correct,” Jenny Diski said, writing in the London Review of Books (7 Mar, 21) about Marco Roth’s memoir, “The Scientists: A Family Romance.” Well, Henry James thought so, anyway. Continued Diski, echoing James, “If you were born, you’re in there with a story.”

“Every talk has his stay,” James Joyce said. But does every story have a voice? Is the writer’s job to tell the stories of those without voices? Is the critic’s job to decide how long the voice’s stay is welcomed, if at all? Not if Joyce had anything to stay about it: “Why? It is a sot of a swigswag, systomy dystomy, which everabody you ever anywhere at all doze. Why? Such me” (FW, 597). But even if one has a story with an illuminating voice, should one talk? And once one starts talking, must one tell all? Well, maybe not all, there are time and space constraints, after all. Ah, and there’s the rub, what to tell, and what to withhold.

Memoirs, like all forms of writing, have narrators: is he, or she, reliable? What have they left out? And even if they’ve tried to put everything in, there’s the problem of point of view. Would the story tell of the same experience related from another’s point of view, someone else who was witness? A memoir doesn’t contain fictional characters, but real people, but to the reader who has never met them, they may feel and sound like characters. The characters speak, but are their words reliable? The memoirist creates a set, described, composed, like a family photo album, and adds tone, the attitude toward the experience, all drawn with words that suggest as well as denote. And there is that slippery, mercurial ball of memory we always seem to be chasing after. We might call that ball ambiguity.

And writing in the March 18 New Yorker, Adam Gopnik says, “Thanks to the Internet…anyone can write” (21). The assumption is that not everyone should. All these amateur bloggers serve up knuckle balls to the professional writer, though the proliferation of adult amateur softball leagues doesn’t seem to hamper the work of pro baseball players. How many family garages or basements sport bands? That they don’t all reach Nirvana doesn’t invalidate their experience, as much as it might hurt our hearing. Why is the amateur spirit more tolerated, if not enjoyed, in music, arts and crafts, gardening, cooking, and sports (golf, anyone?) than in writing?

Henry James, in his essay “On the Art of Fiction” (1894), talks about experience, and answers a question about whether or not one individual’s experience might be more valid and valuable than another’s when it comes to writing about that experience. James is speaking of fiction, Diski of memoir. But memoir might be the most flagrant of fictions, since it attempts to disguise its narration as truth. But what makes any experience worth writing and reading? For James, the more cloistered a life’s experience the more opportunity for close reading of that experience. The only requirement is that one pay attention: “The young lady living in a village has only to be a damsel upon whom nothing is lost to make it quite unfair (as it seems to me) to declare to her that she shall have nothing to say about the military…The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it – this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, ‘Write from experience, and experience only,’ I should feel that this was a rather tantalising monition if I were not careful immediately to add, ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!’”

Maybe everyone has a story, but not everyone has a voice, but through certain kinds of experience one might discover one’s voice, the expression of which might be realized in writing. But the expression of one’s story might also be realized in music, nursing, or plumbing. Maybe the writer’s job is to tell the stories of those without voices. But a more instructive way of thinking about experience, story, and voice might be to say that the writer’s job is to reveal voice where story is found in any one individual’s experience (not necessarily the writer’s), so that a reader might enjoy a kind of reading epiphany, realizing it’s the significance of their own experience being reflected. The reader hears her or his own voice. One need not be a writer, or a reader, to experience one’s own voice. But first we must find our voice, and where will we find it amidst all the wrack and ruin, the dry brine, the commercialism and the consumerism and the garbage sloughing like wax dripping from our ears, and deep in our ears a muffled sound like gigantic iron church bells echoing? But if indeed that’s our experience, how should it be voiced, or should we keep it silent?

We might read something and question the author’s authority, the authority of his or her voice. But the author of the writing should not be confused with the speaker of a narrative. Even if the writer who tells us the “I” of her poems is indeed her own voice, and that is the reason she writes, to describe her world, her reality, using her own voice, we still might think in terms of author and narrator, not necessarily the same. How does the writer decide what to put in and what to leave out of her poems about her reality? That decision making is the process of narration. Because as authors of our own narratives, our own stories, we still create characters, even if we call those characters ourselves, as in the memoir. This is why I said above that the memoir is perhaps the most flagrant of fictions.

Maybe no one has a voice, and we are all voiceless. We might all have stories, but we are all helpless, writers and non-writers alike, to voice those stories. This is why we keep writing, why there is no end to storytelling, amateur as well as professional. Earlier this year, a couple of houses on our block replaced their sewer lines to the street. I watched the workers and the job progress. I had done this kind of work with my father, years ago, and I marveled now as I did then at the simplicity of the technology, which has not changed much over the years. “Just remember, shit runs downhill,” my Dad said, handing me the shovel to dig a sewer pipe ditch. “That it do,” he said, concluding his short story, the voice of experience slowly dripping off as he walked away to more complicated, but no more important, matters on the job.

Related Post: Correcting, Grading, and Commenting: Right, Wrong, and Indifferent

118 thoughts on “Notes on Experience, Story, and Voice

  1. At least you understand the difference between a narrator and the writer behind the narrative voice. I published a memoir two years ago and many readers, sadly, seem to have no idea that the narrative voice in it is merely one of many choices I might have made — they attack the writer’s personality instead of having the knowledge that what the writer has chosen to reveal is merely one part of a much larger/longer story. Elizabeth Gilbert saw a similar hysterical reaction to her life choice’s, described in her best-seller Eat, Pray, Love.

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    • Thanks for reading and comment, Caitlin. I looked up your memoir, “Malled” – great title. Will check it out. Have not read the Gilbert book and was unaware of that reaction, but Janet Groth’s “The Receptionist,” which I read and liked very much, also apparently had parts questioned, not so much for the narrator’s voice, but for why certain things were included. I guess there’s no end to misunderstandings: on the other end of the spectrum, the TV viewer who thinks soap actors are real people. Maybe they are.

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  2. Writing allows me to express and share things I never would with anyone through my regular voice so my writing Highlights the voice I don’t have. (If that Makes any sense)

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    • We have different voices for different subjects, and different vocabularies – speaking, reading, writing. And most of us speak differently depending on the audience that might be listening. So, yes, it does make sense.

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  3. This is the reason i created a blog, i might not have the most amazing posts but i wanted to document my thought’s and travel’s and how i feel about certain topic’s. Your post was very thought provoking and definitely worth reading and enjoyable so thank you for that

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  4. I was relieved to see the voice-searcher find his theme restatement after a few mid=paras seeming to wander. All the way through I was reminded of Plato’s figure of the cave, in which he makes witnesses seated with their backs to the entrance believe the shadows on the back wall are the reality.
    I believe concern re one’s ‘voice’ can be a useless worry. If I speak my piece, others will form their own opinion of my ‘voice’, but most won’t be as concerned to name it as a worried writer.

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    • Oh, good! I hope… [Later] But I wanted to say something more here, in this reply, something about memorizing lines, committing particularly poetry lines to memory. Something I think warrants daily practice. Take something away from the eye and give it to the ear and to the memory. … If you are still around, thanks for the comment that got me thinking about this….

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  5. This piece moved me. I’ve been working on finding my voice my whole life, but I find it a terrifying endeavor: having a voice is a great responsibility, and it opens the door to great vulnerability. Thank you for this grist for my mill.

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    • Thanks so much for that comment. Yes, to speak is to be vulnerable. The voice is illusive, until one gets a glimpse of it, but like any bird, it takes off without warning. Here’s a piece on voice you might enjoy – in it, Menand suggests that even veteran successful writers worry that the voice may not come back: “One of the most mysterious of writing’s immaterial properties is what people call ‘voice’” (para. 10). The whole piece is not really on voice, but that’s an important paragraph in the context we are speaking of. But there’s a different definition of voice, too, which I think you might be suggesting – to find one’s voice is to find one’s self in a light where one doesn’t question one’s authenticity, even though others may disapprove. Here, voice is existential, which simply means that we must decide, every day, what we want to say. So, I agree, voice is “a great responsibility.”

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      • I appreciate your kind reply, Joe—and I indeed enjoyed reading Menand’s piece (much more than I enjoyed Eats, Shoots & Leaves!). Yes, I’m referring to “voice” on multiple levels; to some extent, not finding my voice in the mechanical sense has been an excuse for not finding it in the existential sense. My own song startles me, and so I fall silent. But at some point, silence becomes unbearable and doesn’t make sense anyway.

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        • I get all that – the multiple meanings of voice, and silence, and “voicings,” in the musical sense, too, where a different voice works in connection with three or four others, not that I can do it! But I know it when I hear it. But, as you say, maybe that’s mechanical. I don’t know. … Try John Cage, by the way, whose book “Silence” I think you might like to get to know.

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  6. Everyone definitely have their own stories to keep or to tell. True, we all have voice but not all stories are all worth to voice, some are just meant un-voice as it is… such an inspiring writing …:)

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  7. “Why? It is a sot of a swigswag, systomy dystomy, which everabody you ever anywhere at all doze. Why? Such me” What kind of language does this represent? It certainly is not English!!!

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        • Yes, I know. … Many think Joyce’s “Wake” a failure. But every word has a story. And it’s those stories he’s trying to tell. I enjoy reading through it. I think FW is “good” because it accomplishes his objectives, but I guess it’s those objectives some readers oppose. Roddy Doyle had some interesting comments about Joyce: but I think Roddy’s objective was to bring attention to other Irish writers, not simply to disparage Joyce; it’s clear he’s tired of all the attention Joyce gets to the exclusion of so many others.

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  8. Reblogged this on Kerry Dwyer and commented:
    This caught my attention in the Freshly Pressed file. It is very well written and appealed to me as I have already written a memoir. One line that caught my attention particularly is “everyone has a story but not every one has a voice.” Stories passed down through generations change voice. Those epic tales of heroes such as the Iliad change voice with each telling. Songs and poems tell stories that also change in the telling until they are written.
    A lovely thought provoking piece.

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    • Thanks for reading and comment, Kerry. I appreciate your idea of voices changing over time. Thinking of jazz, too, where the voice changes with each new rendering. Looked up your memoir, story of a trip, sounds like. Walking, driving, trails, roads. Will check it out.

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      • Jazz is my favourite music. You are right about the changes. My parents were part of the folk scene in the 1960’s and so there is a tradition of telling stories through song. It was how people used to remember the stories. I really enjoyed your post Joe. Very thought provoking.

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        • Yes, music and song as mnemonic devices. And McLuhan (speaking of the 60s) argued that we may have let slip part of our memory with the printing press – an ear for an eye, he said. Thanks again for reading.

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  9. No “Like” option?

    *presses imaginary “Like” button as another way of expressing my voice* 😀

    This was my favorite part: “Why is the amateur spirit more tolerated, if not enjoyed, in music, arts and crafts, gardening, cooking, and sports (golf, anyone?) than in writing?”

    Well said.

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  10. I am new to the WordPress blogging community and this is one of the first blogs I have come across. I really don’t know why I picked this one to read but there were a few lines that gave me shivers. Sometimes, I believe, we are drawn towards Wisdom’s voice. Thank your for sharing your notes with us!

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  11. it is so important that a voice is found by, if not everyone, then those who are able to project it once they have identified it. in journalism, writers use their own abilities to give a voice to those who are unable to use their own, outside of their own mind. in this way writers become a host for a whole character file of different voices, stories, lives, dreams, hopes and fears.

    one of the reasons i love blogs so much is that it gives a space, no matter that it is not a physical one, for people who have found their tone. each page is a layer of the individual.

    great post 🙂

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  12. Great interpretation of “voice”. ! As a visual artist , I hear other artists say they wish they could find their voice sometimes. I like to write but I’m not a pro. My life has been full of weird coincidences, and I have a bunch of stories. But I keep it to myself for fear of being judged harshly for my activities unapproved by society. My life stories are for myself to remember and try to learn from. I go over everything in my own mind again and again and ask myself what the hell happened and was that my fault ? I think my art reveals a lot about me. And I don’t like to explain anything. So that’s a good thing about drawing and painting. I think art should be accepted or rejected at face value.

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    • “I don’t like to explain anything.” I understand that. There’s some sense that literature requires explaining. I’m not sure where that sense comes from, schooling, I guess. But the experience of literature (experiencing the voice) should be our focus. Something else about memoir and writing too and who writes these days – the common reader/writer often kept a diary, a journal. Here’s a kind of one I like, though she seems to have stopped publishing at this point. I like the diary-like feel, the mosaic of writing and drawing, too, and the journal-like approach of adding cutouts, tickets, the bric-a-brac of daily life that we usually throw away, but that if kept over time becomes valuable either because of its rarity or sentimental reasons. She keeps a notebook, but notice how the notebook has been “blogged.” A wonderful hands-on craft artistically and capably transposed to the blog. Anyway, thought you might like to see it. Also, “…face value” – a very interesting phrase!

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  13. Excellent post. My husband and I have had this conversation multiple times, having sensed the subtle (or not so subtle) differences in public acceptance and status between published writers and bloggers. It is an interesting topic of discussion. Good dinner table talk too! Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

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  14. For someone still learning the ins and outs of writing, your blog is particularly helpful and encouraging. Thank you so much for your work and please, do continue!

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  15. You wrote, “Because as authors of our own narratives, our own stories, we still create characters, even if we call those characters ourselves, as in the memoir. This is why I said above that the memoir is perhaps the most flagrant of fictions.” This is officially on a post it note on my office desk. 🙂 Let the flagrant live on! Love your article, very well done!

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  16. Great post, congratulations on FP.

    I write because I want to. I have no illusions, and speak my mind. I’ve blogged for just under a year and have met some remarkable people. A good day is one where my words strike a chord and open dialogue, or I read something that hits me where it counts. I’m closing in on 300 posts; an handful are really good – without exception all of them are honest.

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  17. Interesting stuff. It reflects my own experience as an (amateur) writer and the struggle I go through with each story. Thing is – I have tons of great story ideas. I have no trouble making up the plot. But even when I have every detail figured out – each twist and turn of the plot, each quirk of character, when I eventually sit down to write, I simply can’t find the right voice, as you describe it. Although voice is perhaps too um, romantic, a term. I would call this: frameworking. You have ideas but you have to structure them, organize the events/characters/words in a system that makes sense and serves to push forward whatever agenda you might have as a writer. You can write in a thousand different ways about one event. You can make a death tragic or funny, depending on how you manipulate the perspective, the voice of the narrative etc. In this sense, the writer is a God. But all too often, a shortsighted God….

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  18. Reblogged this on bubblemomentpages and commented:
    A captivating and thought provoking post. I posted it so I can read it again.
    My voice is my own. Sometimes I yell, but no one can hear me. Sometimes I censor the voice I just met. Sometimes I even keep my voice for myself. Writing is a beautiful art of being. “The mind is a beautiful thing to waste”, or hide.

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  19. As a wife of a professional writer, I sometimes find myself intimidated with how my own blog posts would read against his finished works. After reading your post, I am reminded that whether or not I am an amateurish writer, honing in on which of my stories to tell is a craft that I plan to cultivate… with purpose, with restraint, with my own voice. From what I have read from the feedback you have been receiving thus far, people are similarly affected by your writing, so thanks for this post.

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    • Yes, I think the blog is ideal for testing that voice, at least in one way, because if we are sensitive to that “purpose, with restraint,” knowing there’s a potential audience, even if it’s not realized yet, our style, tone, voice, will change (as you say, “cultivate). Or another way of putting this is that I just might have writer’s block when I sit down to my next post! Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  20. Thank you for this post. I found it most thought-provoking. I feel somewhat intimidated by your style, mastery of language and “professional” voice. Even though I am a published writer in a small way, I wonder how amateurish my work appears to others as my voice coughs and stutters from time to time. Your post inspires me to raise the bar. Thank you.

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  21. I started a blog too after deciding that writing a novel was harder than expected. I have 30 pages of a word document that don’t even relate! still trying to figure out what to do with it all! x

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  22. Memory lane ….. my father’s best writing advice came to me when I was but 12, after handing him my first prideful piece he responded, “A good writer leads his reader to the mountain top. A great writer allows the reader the view for themselves.” (I’ve written several pieces on this advice alone!) Sending your article to my father, we’ll both need to remember today, with infinite telling. 🙂 Thank you!

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  23. Thank you for your perspective. I really enjoyed reading this. It pointed out quite a bit that I needed to hear. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed 🙂

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  24. I am a newbie to the blogging world and was excited to read your article and the comments provided. I have just finisihed my own novel memoir and it has taken me 18 years to complete it. From my perspective a reader denotes a different ideology towards the characters portayed. I know when I read a memoir, I conjure up a complete profile of characters in my head that may be completely different to what you or someone else may conjure up. In essence, words, people and places have different meanings to different people. Thanks for opening up a broader concept of interpretation.

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  25. love the way you write your thought. every human has the right to express their opinion, their voice. but some decide not to do that, because of many things like you said ..

    “Maybe everyone has a story, but not everyone has a voice, but through certain kinds of experience one might discover one’s voice”

    nice point! nice posting! 🙂

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  26. “We might all have stories, but we are all helpless, writers and non-writers alike, to voice those stories. This is why we keep writing, why there is no end to storytelling..” Loved this point 🙂

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  27. … “Just remember, shit runs downhill,” my Dad said … Manure for the imagination. You hit a node. How could I’ve missed this post? ☼ And freshly pressed, too, with rich dialogues.

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    • Hey, Ashen, well thanks for checking the post out. Seems to have struck a chord with folks. You never know. Now I’ve been off on this poetry kick. But I got a stack of books I want to dig into. Trip to the used book store this week netted some good stuff. But anyway I already had a stack going! Another of my dad’s favorite sayings: “Great Leroy!” Gildersleeve? I never actually asked him who Leroy was in “Great Leroy!” But if Dad saw this stack of books, I’m sure he’d be inclined to belt out a “Great Leroy!” As for being “Freshly Pressed” on WordPress, Great Leroy!

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