Like Joan of Arc, a person who writes will hear voices. One of mine is the voice of reason, an old man’s voice, cracked and killjoy. A woman’s voice, clear as a bell and bossy, drops broad hints and timely reminders. A plummy baritone with stilted inflection narrates the most banal events like breaking news or a documentary film. A Southern lady of a certain age gossips in a singsong tone and gasps: “Did you ever!” An earnest young man states political views as self-evident truths. A lovely young woman accuses me of laziness, ingratitude, and vanity. And I still hear the treble of a little boy who wants to believe in preposterous nonsense.
Psychologists say that the voices of authority inside my head are those of people I knew in childhood: parents, teachers, and miscellaneous grown-ups. I internalized them long ago. Old bones, gray hair, and sallow skin do not deter these disembodied voices. They are taskmasters I can neither escape nor satisfy. Like an Israelite in Egypt, I labor under a cruel regime and long for the land of milk and honey.
Then what about the young voices? Boys in their strength still challenge me to fight. Girls pierce my defenses with arrows born of intuition, their shrewd guess as to what will hurt the most. The armor I bought at such great expense, and which took so long to put on and adjust, this shell of maturity is useless against doubt.
The young writer is urged to find a voice, as though it were a shell on a sandy beach, or a fruit that hangs from the branch of a tree. Is this good advice? Good writing comes from practice, daily repetition, and trial and error. The act of writing is more like singing or playing a musical instrument than anything else. You are born with a voice. How you use it is a matter of style. William Somerset Maugham cultivated a plain, conversational prose in his short stories and novels. He wrote in a letter at the end of his life:
Edmund Wilson reproaches me because I haven’t what he calls a personal style so that when you read a page you know at once who the author is. That surely means that he has acquired a mannerism. But that is just what I have tried to avoid.
The somewhat older writer, one who is serving the seven-year apprenticeship required of all creative artists, hears the voice of a spectral critic, a nay-sayer who peers over his shoulder, a frenemy who sits beside her. This well-informed voice pretends to help but only hinders. Each line as it flows forth is muddy, stale, and wrong. No one will want to read it. The writer had better get wise and give up.
The voice of the reader encourages, sympathizes, and asks for more. The reader respects the writer’s point of view, holds his breath, and exercises tact. The reader waits for the writer to finish, no matter how long-winded she is, before he allows an opinion to form. Even then, a comment is limited to sincere praise or a nearly imperceptible frown. The reader will never underline a word, highlight a passage, or write notes in the margin. Such marks disgust me when I find them done by others, in a book bought used or borrowed from the public library, and they must offend the writer. The reader is above all discreet.
When I read, the writer holds forth, and I listen. Like an interviewer, a therapist, a priest, or merely a sympathetic ear, I draw the writer out. I whole-heartedly agree. I express surprise. I politely note a circumstance, repeat a name, and verify a sequence of events. From my own experience, I furnish examples to buttress the argument. I pick at a thread of reasoning, point to a stray dab of the brush, and wipe a smudge on a character’s face.
When I write, I converse with the reader. We are on good terms, you and I, best friends for the moment, intimate in a way we cannot be in the world of coffee shops and get-togethers. If we met, it might be awkward, like former classmates or distant relatives who correspond for years and arrange a rendezvous, only to find to their mutual distress that the other is not at all as we imagined, has aged poorly or remembers things wrong.
The page is a veil that allows me to say what I cannot face to face. I am modest and shy, a monk in a cowl, or a Muslim woman who wears a burqa. Am I devout? I subscribe to no dogma and answer to no imam. Every text is divinely inspired, so far as I am concerned. All the gods are present, and the spark dwells in each of us.
Deprived as we are of social cues—gestures, tempo, facial expressions, things that carry as much meaning as the words being spoken, or quite another message, or even a contradiction—how does the writer communicate? An actor onstage uses his whole body to underline a speech. Or by tone of voice he implies that nothing he says should be taken at face value. The underlying import may be more important than the words said aloud. The writer is invisible, inaudible, untouchable. How do I reach you from under the veil?