In writing, who is the person who speaks? What is the connection between the author and their voice? The critic Al Alvarez says that ‘finding your own voice as a writer is in some ways like the tricky business of becoming an adult’. It is a way of ‘feeling free in your own skin’ and ‘it can come in any form provided it is alive and urgent enough to take hold of the reader and make him understand that what is being said really matters.’ It’s unsurprising then, that one of the analogies Alvarez uses to get to grips with this development of the voice is the psychotherapeutic setting. The therapist sits in an open, listening way with the patient, and both of them ‘must listen for the true-speaking self among all the inauthentic ones, to find it and then stick with it – without bluster or pretence or repetitiveness or excuses.’ I really liked this, the idea that the writing voice is like one’s best adult self, that it comes from the most authentic, intransigent part of oneself, although that doesn’t mean that the voice only says wise or sensible things.
It made me think of the sort of situation I try to cultivate with my troubled students – not, you understand, that this is something I can in any way simply create – but the kind of situation where we can do good, transformative work. It can only come about if both of us are feeling open and yet quite safe; there has to be a lot of trust in the room, and a great deal of listening, too. It isn’t easy to get to this state of mind, often one of us is too hasty to ask for help or to give it, or that awkward worm of compliance wriggles in, because teaching too often asserts the illusion that compliance is necessary. Sometimes one of us is too defended, or too emotionally vulnerable. But when all these difficulties have been overcome, then finally there is space for real creativity – we can both of us think differently yet be quite true to ourselves. The truth emerges, and we can welcome it without fear, no matter what needs to be said. ‘The authentic voice may not be the one you want to hear,’ Alvarez cautions. ‘Sometimes it goes against your daylight principles, though if you try to clean up your act you kill the life of what you have to say.’ How unfortunately true! I wonder whether the situation I try to create in my room is analogous to the one that needs to inhabit the mind of the writer. There must be openness, listening, acceptance, and patience towards oneself, and then the true voice can come forth.
For Alvarez, voice is quite different from style, and he quotes Sylvia Plath to show what he means. Plath was trained in the style of high art, and there is much in her poetry that is elegant and mellifluous, but her voice emerges, Alvarez suggests, at the points where she comes a great deal less ‘amenable’. I nodded in recognition here; it’s the unamenable bits of Plath I really like, the bits where she slashes through her beautiful images with something searing and discontented, or makes those repetitions that chill the skin. The effect is that of peeling back a mask, and the poetry holds you in fascinated horror, the sort of horror that makes you say ‘go on, do it again! That felt so real!’ You never know when that acid will erode the surface, and leave something both clean and shocking behind. Alvarez is rather ambivalent about the sort of style that can also be called ‘fine writing’ and I guiltily agree with him. Fine writing can be ‘an exquisite sensibility exposing itself for admiration’, and whilst I feel I ought to admire it more than I do, my taste takes me away from writing that announces itself as writing and always towards the straight talkers, or what Ford Maddox Ford described as ‘ a limpidity of expression that should make prose sound like someone talking in a rather low voice into the ear of the person he liked.’
That’s what I want to feel as a reader; I want to feel someone there, compelled to tell me a story because they are sure only I can truly understand it. There are four authors whose voices are perfect for me – Colette, Willa Cather, Kafka and Rilke. In each case you can feel the heart beating and the mind thinking behind the voice. The book by Alvarez I’m reading, The Writer’s Voice, is quite interesting and provocative, but it’s also rather jumbled; however, it does make me want to spend more time with those favourite authors and their pitch perfect voices.