On Authority and Voice
The question of authority is a big one for me. I think underneath it all, I still maintain a habit to seek out to write writing that will be approved, validated, rewarded somehow. And I would like to stop doing that. I am trying, actively, actually, to listen to what Herta Müller described as the “Inner moral obligation” to write – Damien Wilkins mentioned this from her essay collection (which I now have from the library – Cristina and Her Double). He mentioned this in our first reading workshop after Anahera Gildea spoke, and I really enjoyed her talking. I think her writing, and HER, as a speaker/writer/person, HAVE a sense of authority in the voice she uses. And I’ve never really given myself that authority – not sure how you get it, but I said to myself it has to come from a lot of experience and also “I am not be there yet.” Now, upon reflection, I think that’s a wrong way of looking at it, especially after listening to her and after reading what Joe Moran wrote about voice at the end of this book First you write a sentence:
“A written voice is not about putting your actual self (whoever that is) on the page. Sometimes I wish I were the person I sound like in these sentences, but I am not. If I seem sure in them, like someone who knows how to write a sentence, it is only because I do not much like writing clogged with qualifications and second thoughts. Forced to choose, I would rather sound clear than be right.”
When I reflect on my writing over the past few years, I have ‘clogged’ it with qualifications and second thoughts… and have avoided being direct, because I notice I am PETRIFIED of writing something considered incorrect, and by extension, me, the person writing, being wrong. I guess I thought that to have authority is to never be wrong, and I always felt like I was wrong, and so needed to qualify everything x10 in order to even say something. I’m being hyperbolic of course (see my qualification habit!). And I think I see a way out, and that is to give up trying to be right and write perfectly accurate sentences and instead, as Moran says, strive to be clear.
Müller would probably agree that from her inner conviction she would strive towards clarity rather than 100% accuracy/truth in what she says. Thinking about writing non-fiction, the issue of writing ‘truth’ is also a contested one, and I think I will sabotage myself if I strive to write prose that is 100% true to what I personally am sure of (given memory’s cloudiness, this is a funny prospect in itself) as opposed to clear prose that communicates truth through fictionalised set-pieces (as all writing about memory is… even if the reader take it as ‘real’). So, although my thoughts are convoluted here, their writing is helping me identify the direction I want to go into – I am making DECISIONS about the fundamentals of my project, before I write it. And one of them is that I’m striving for clarity of prose rather than ‘truth’ of experience.
I will make shit up to make the text cohere and chime with the resonances of the experience I want to leave there for the reader to embrace. I was thinking about what Anahera said – she didn’t want to write a “trauma narrative” and didn’t want her readers to read her work as such. She is trying through her PhD to decolonise the reader. I like that. I think that’s excellent. I wondered whether there IS a way to actually teach the reader the conventions through which you want them ideally to read your text in order for them to get a certain reading the writer intends, especially if it is one that challenges the norms of their reading experience. I was thinking about writing a letter/prologue/intro to my reader to inform them about how I intended to write the project… but then I wondered whether the impulse of doing this is actually from a sense of wanting validation, like I’m coddling the reader, trying to make them read it in a manner to get them to approve of it. A kind of translation, but of register, of intention. That thought makes me go yuck. Anahera’s stance is culturally-grounded (so is mine!), and I can understand, to some extent, where she is coming from. I think ‘form’ can be a useful decoloniser (or convention-resetter) but only if the reader is willing to be transformed. (I think about my second exercise piece, the Starcraft one, and how it wasn’t particularly accessible, and how important it is for writing itself to WORK to appear welcoming for the reader, EVEN if the form is actually aiming to enact a kind of pedagogy).
Anahera’s Bone Shame essay is lyrical, and she said she liked the layering effect of that form because it reminded her of the layering of whakapapa. I found it enjoyable to read and also educational because it felt more holistic, like there was an authoritative voice that taught the reader te ao Māori concepts, and then there were very personal/painful bits, and a poem, and the variance fit into the programming of the writing form – that is, the variance in genre/style was a function of the language, like the sectioning and spaces – because reading between the paragraphs, the writing changes topic but not voice, thereby creating a cumulative reading experience. And I don’t think the reader needs to ‘keep in mind’ exactly what was said in the previous 6 sections to read the 7th… instead I think this essay form gets you to take the gist/memorable parts of each section and gather them and make your own constellation of understanding by the end. Because the form doesn’t have a traditional linearity then I don’t think the RESPONSE or UNDERSTANDING of that piece ought to also have a linear form. I think that spaciousness then makes way for meaning that isn’t always academic, but may be sensory… like it offers you an experience, this writing form. And I think that’s what I want to offer to my reader, RATHER than a specific academic understanding…
BUT. Why not both? If articulate knowledge comes out of the writing, then I will own it. Inner moral obligation! The lyric essay performs translation acts across cultures and is interested in correlations. Thoughts leak out of their frames, across contexts, and for my own cross-context project (speaking from my cross-context position in New Zealand as a Romanian, among other identities), the form makes sense. So I should learn to pay attention to space.
I was thinking also of writing TOWARDS the unspeakable intersection between my post-communist Romanian childhood, my immigration in NZ, and my positioning as an adult straddling these two worlds. Speaking from that foundation of silence, in the centre of that Venn diagram, I want to write. What shall I say? We shall see. Maybe the lyric essays will amass/weave together silences and those silences will correlate/discuss/find language in the space between one another. Ha. I should pile all my unresolved tatters in one project and see what quilt the eye/I can make.
As for the reading extract Damien Wilkins gave to us – the Müller piece – it challenged quite a few people, apparently, since her prose is quite meaty and many-metaphored. I really enjoyed reading it, because I felt she spoke truthfully… and I guess the fact that she’s Romanian (though writing in German, then translated into English) must contribute some bias towards my enjoyment. Solidarity, perhaps.
Wilkins said he likes how in her writing, everything must be described in terms not-themselves (hence the many metaphor-ness, which I subscribe to, too, perhaps for different reasons, but there you go). I think Müller, because of her own running away/past traumas, hid real worlds in invented ones. I probably did some of that too, though I’m not perceptive enough about my own psychology (yet?) to tell whether I use things like Starcraft and so many other fantasy games and shows etc. to preserve the ‘real’ inside. That’s an interesting thought. She wrote that “Lived experience doesn’t give a damn about writing, is incompatible with words.” I think I concur. And I take it as permission to do what I wrote about – to invent and invent and invent. (I still want to call it non-fiction, but maybe I can stray away from the ‘non’-ness of that term by referring to my work as cross-genre lyric essays.
Wilkins also said that a joy in her writing for him comes from the “patterns and rhythmic returns” – how writing carries itself the seeds of its own growth. He suggested writing drafts fast. That’s something I’ve yet to learn how to do. I can freewrite fast (like this writing is coming out pretty fast) but so far my exercises haven’t been free-written ones. He also said “Tone belongs to the writer” and that he is a proponent of granting character interiority. I think the voice I will have will inevitably have interiority (I think this last citation was more referring to fiction).
Phew. Ok. So I’ve written a lot today. Let’s stop soon. Something to close from Joe Moran:
“You acquire a written voice not when you learn to sound like yourself, but when you perfect the knack of slotting words together so that they sound like a convincing impression of a whole, consistent person. A written voice is a composite of your skill at selecting and arranging words and your genuine care for and commitment to what they are saying. That voice is not you, but it may be a buried, better-said version of you. It was lost amid your dishevelled thoughts and wordless anxieties, until you pulled it out of yourself, as a flowing line of sentences. Sounding like yourself, or at least the avatar of yourself that you have made out of words, is the only way to make others interested in what you have to say. Your voice gives whatever it is you want to say a home. When your writing has a voice, you are no longer cornering or badgering the reader with a jerry-built argument. Instead the argument arises out of the act of noticing something about the world from one tiny spot on it – the one occupied by the writer – and sharing it with the reader. This, it says, is what life looks like from here.”
I don’t see myself as a convincing impression of a whole, consistent person, but I can damn well quilt my writer self into one, starting with putting my chin up more and owning whatever I want to say. And paying attention to those things that seem to want to be said from the inner silence. Ok. Too metaphysical now, I need a break. Sayonara.
March 2019… three weeks into the MA
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cris Cucerzan is a teacher and writer born in Romania. He currently lives in Wellington, and recently completed his MA at the IIML.