Driving through the city in the rain, listening to Tom Waits’s Blue Valentine, I thought, that voice–no one sounds quite like him. Critic Daniel Durchholz described Tom’s singing as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” Perhaps. Yet I take delight in it, and so do millions of fans. How did he know that his unusual voice would appeal? Did he? Or did he just belt it out because of his love of singing?
Rain blurring my windshield, I was grateful that Tom Waits believed in his unique voice so that I could enjoy his company as I negotiated the slick city streets. And I thought about how of late I feel more relaxed about my own “voice,” the one in which I write. It’s a tricky business, finding, then being comfortable with our own voice. So often we stall out with the unskillful, unhelpful, undermining habit of comparison. Our uniqueness is our gift, particularly in the arts. But in moments of self-doubt that very originality is what we call into question.
I read my work aloud as I go along, listening for sour notes, the wrong rhythm, a minor key when the context calls for a major, an abrupt sound in what’s otherwise soothing. Louis Menand describes this so well: “What writers hear, when they are trying to write, is something more like singing than like speaking. Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time…. What you are trying to do when you write is to transpose the yakking into verbal music; and the voice inside, when you ﬁnd it, which can take hours or days or weeks, is not your speaking voice. It is your singing voice–except that it comes out as writing.” (“Introduction: Voices.” The Best American Essays 2004. Houghton Mifflin 2004)
Three incidents inspired this little essay: listening to Tom Waits, a conversation with my husband about Margaret Atwood (I’ll return to this), and reading a poem by Luci Tapahonso, the poet laureate of the Navajo nation, particularly this verse:
“When you were born and took your first breath, different colors
and different kinds of wind entered through your fingertips
and the whorl on top of your head. Within us, as we breathe,
are the light breezes that cool a summer afternoon,
within us the tumbling winds that precede rain,
within us sheets of hard-thundering rain,
within us dust-filled layers of wind that sweep in from the mountains,
within us gentle night flutters that lull us to sleep.
To see this, blow on your hand now.
Each sound we make evokes the power of these winds
and we are, at once, gentle and powerful.”
(from “Sháá Áko Dahjiníeh: Remember They Things They Told Us,” published in Saánii Dahataal: The Women are Singing, University of Arizona Press)
My voice arises from my life, all that I have lived, all that has touched me. Sometimes I notice borrowed rhythms in my work. In a graduate seminar in literary stylistics I worked with Anne Sexton’s book of poems based on fairy tales, Transformations, memorizing many of the poems. Their rhythms became a part of my own rhythm, and they arise now and then in my own writing, particularly in wry asides. The cadence of the repartee between the eponymous antiheroes in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead shows up at times when I’m writing dialog; I have seen the play, read the play, and watched the film so many times that, this, too, has become part of my own rhythm. I know authors who say they refrain from reading anything but research when they’re working on a novel so that they don’t absorb someone else’s voice. I applaud them, but I don’t follow suit. I love reading far too much to deny myself the pleasure. I’ll take the risk.
Which brings me to the conversation about Margaret Atwood. After rereading Atwood’s dystopian novel Oryx and Crake for the third time, my husband decided to move on through the two books that follow. As he was reading After the Flood he kept saying, “I can’t wait until you read this. I want to discuss it!” I love discussing books with him, so while he’s reading MaddAdam, I’ve finally begun Oryx and Crake. We can’t discuss much yet–I don’t want to know what’s coming. But we can talk about the sense we both share of Margaret Atwood’s enjoyment bubbling up from the pages. Not that these are cheerful books. But we both sense her absolute engagement in and deep enjoyment of her work. What a gift to her readers.
That’s part of a writer’s voice as well, and certainly nothing than can be taught. But oh, we know when we hear that sincerity, that authenticity, that delight, don’t we?