Nothing So Familiar

Technique in art . . . has about the same value as technique in lovemaking. That is to say, heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill, but what you want is passionate virtuosity.    —John Barth

The first time I was in graduate school I dreaded one classmate’s “seminar day.” Though he interpreted literature sensitively, imaginatively, and profoundly, the way he talked followed the peculiar pattern of a mantra. When he spoke, um, he would pause, um, no matter what, um, to insert the um, in the right place… um. For me, those “ums” became tarred lines on an Ohio highway after driving all night. Five minutes and I veered onto the shoulder of a coma.

This anecdote doesn’t make me proud—my classmate had something to say, he spoke as he did, and I couldn’t hear past his ums. I’d be more tolerant now because I suspect students sometimes hear me the same way. We are together nearly every day, and they must recognize, consciously or subconsciously, my rhythms and verbal ticks. Some may have worked out imitations or discussed my mantras with classmates. A few, even in October, may already pine for liberation.

The human voice possesses music quite separate from content. Robert Frost talked about “The sound of sense,” the meaning audible through a door even when you have no true idea of the conversation inside. A fingerprint of diction and syntax betrays us, communicating, “This is how this brain assembles language. Here are the pieces it makes of thinking.”

Some scholars easily identify writers’ prose and can know Henry James or Charlotte Bronte at a thousand paces. I recognize Shakespeare, Hemingway, maybe Jane Austen, but the prose I know best is my own. What I hear is what I do, what I am. My phrasing follows patterns once hidden and now apparent. And I worry that, the more I refine my style, the more my prose reaches an impossible, inaudible pitch.

As I write I sometimes feel the way I do in class when I read poems aloud and try to take them on anew. I fight what they want of me but inevitably fall back into their meter and rhyme. My voice soon follows the tide of their parallelism, settles on end words and surfs whatever wants to rise and fall. Where lies escape?

In Henry V, a boy accompanies the morally questionable Pistol to the wars in France and wonders at Pistol’s gall, concluding, “I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart: but the saying is true: ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.’” I hope he’s joking because I hate to think my own voice is so empty, not the sum of character or experience but the practice of echoes,  words restrained within tight sentences. I don’t want to believe style is the only greatness.

Perhaps the heartfelt overflows the vessel of its expression, and all a person needs is sincerity and desire. Maybe I’d be happier with a barbaric yawp, an inarticulate cry in the wilderness. I might say more without practice or study or pattern. I should be an amnesiac.

If my mantric-um graduate school classmate is still speaking as he did, he may not have traveled far in teaching. His words quickly became just words, and no content seemed to make his voice compelling. That I’ve made it all this way might mean I’m easier to hear, but when I hear myself speak or write, his specter rears. Every time I open my mouth, I hope for something new, a sound that will take its own form and step like a foal onto fresh ground.

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10 Comments

Filed under Ambition, Art, Doubt, Education, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Shakespeare, Thoughts, Voice, Worry, Writing

10 responses to “Nothing So Familiar

  1. Each of us has his own inbred style of thought, speech and writing. As a blogger, I assumed the cloak of a curmudgeon because it fit me rather easily and made me somewhat distinct from other bloggers. I want to bitch easily without too much vulgarity so that I can grouse and gripe with amusement and without (too much) offense. At the same time, I want to expand and improve my style of writing as I continue with my posts

    This raises a question that came from reading your post. To what extent do we lose our style when we attempt to expand and improve it? Are we really changing the way we write, for example, as much as we might be refining the way we write? Do you see in yourself and your students an improvement in the way they naturally write or do you see a transformation to a new way a writing?

    • dmarshall58

      Very interesting questions–I suspect we do absorb some of the style of the authors we read, especially the ones we read habitually. I particularly remember how I was writing when I was studying Faulkner. Suddenly I was much more florid and prone to those circles of expression that make his work beautiful and made my work loopy. After I put authors aside, however, I tend to settle back into something closer to myself. Does some of it stick? Probably, but I wonder more about the roles we fill as writers. Your role as curmudgeon is a good example of the way we don’t always write entirely as ourselves but as slices of ourselves. At times, there’s something akin to acting in writing, and, try as you might to be honest, you still slip into how you’d like to be perceived.

      Anyway, it’s complicated, and thanks for raising such interesting and thoughtful ideas. –D

  2. I enjoyed this post a lot. Thank you. A writer’s voice must have a some manner of audacity to it, but, in this world of follow me, follow me, there are hazards in the virtuosic uproar. It seems, the only way to bypass the appearance of either ignorance or arrogance is for the voice to speak only for itself. One voice per mouth. The voice that invite others to stand on fresh legs, beseeches them to wobble over to the edge of the corral needn’t gag its authority with false humility – those legitimizing errs and ums.

    • dmarshall58

      I agree that a writer’s voice needs a kind of audacity, chiefly the sort you suggest, the sort that says, “I will take my own way, thank you.” Audacity comes in infinite forms, including, I think, doubt. Aren’t figures who parade their neuroses or express their discomfort with themselves speaking sincerely and audaciously too? If no humility is ever real then every expression of self-doubt could be posturing—some humility undoubtedly IS posturing—but I like to think self-doubt can be real and not necessarily antithetical to audacity… because I sure have a lot of self-doubt. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. –D

      • patricemj

        Wow, I certainly didn’t mean to equate audacity with the absence of doubt 😉 I’m sorry if flubbed my point. I think speaking out in the face of doubt is a very bold thing to do. It’s exciting beyond belief when someone who truly questions their place and their position decides to press through despite their uncertainty. To me, this is the most beautiful sort of voice. Failure and defeat forever encroaching only sweeten the words. Very personally speaking, I believe that without the power of velocity, a few well-timed fits utterly devoid of hesitation, I wouldn’t stand a chance at circumventing my own mammoth self-doubt. In my life the cool and measured voice has not delivered on its promise to assist me in out-running that black demon. It seems, for me, there really is no winning. Even if I do temporarily out-skirt the darkness, I will punish myself for having demonstrated so little restraint – yet some part of me knows that had I hobbled my intentions with respectable qualifications my spirit wouldn’t have survived. I guess what they say is true, desperate times call for desperate measures. Whether I want it to or now, my voice reveals my history.

      • dmarshall58

        I’m afraid I was the one that flubbed. I’m oversensitive. In graduate school, people were always telling me that I wasn’t decisive enough, emphatic enough, angry enough. I do reach those states during the fits devoid of hesitation you mention, but they are rare. And I know what it is to wonder if you’ve hobbled your own ambition too. I have trouble distinguishing between the self-restraint born of a need for respectability and the self-restraint born of honest doubt. I’d like to be more emphatic. I’d like to express desperation more fully. Thanks so much for your comment… and your beautiful writing. –D

      • patricemj

        I hated graduate school. I really did. My voice was all wrong there too ;). And after graduate school it continued to be wrong in the professional circles. You want to be more emphatic. Well.
        I would kill to be naturally level-headed (metaphorically speaking) 😉
        Grass is always greener, huh?

      • dmarshall58

        Thoreau would say no one is truly level-headed, quiet desperation and all that. I may appear more level-headed and calm than I am. Something quite different is just below the surface trying to make its way up. Mostly of what appears is my doubt, but the stuff below that stays mostly where it is. Maybe it’s a matter of learning, and someday it will find expression. We’ll see. Thanks so much for visiting and commenting. –D

      • Sometimes I think appearance is destiny. Let me see if I can explain this statement. OK. So, what is most often perceived by others, that which is on our surface, will become the version or view of who we are that will most often be reflected back to us. So, if our public persona rests most naturally in a state of reserve, even if we are quietly desperate beneath, people will come to think and expect us to be thoughtful, laconic, maybe even retiring. If we have the sort of personality that responds to others around us, I think many of us are responsive to some degree, we begin to respond as the person others quickly perceive. If we seek to disabuse people, or enlighten them about the fullness of who we are, by showing them we are more than we appear, we have introduced into our interactions an element of uncertainty. That we are not fully congruent, or not exactly as we first appear, can be a little disquieting for others. (This is all just coming off the top of my head, so throw any or all of it out). Part of being social creatures, maybe, is fullfilling the promise of what we become to those around us. We do this for them, but we also do it for ourselves as we want to be recognized. If we veer from what others think we are, on some level they will question the integrity of our person. So in a sense, we become more and more of this first impression, not because we are boring but because we don’t wish to seem disingenuous. Maybe? I’m so curious how we get hardened into being who we are.

        Me, being a little more of a loose cannon, I naturally encourage more fear in others at the onset (not conscious fear, but more like, hmmmm, I’m not sure if I want to be her colleague, she’s crazy). I’m not really a loose cannon, but I think because I am less measured in general, more of me comes out to the surface all at once and creates a more wind-blown surface impression. I will naturally attract people who don’t need to know or think they know a person immediately, they will be the only people who will have patience with being deprived of a consistent or placid looking exterior. In the professional realm (I’m a therapist – who is trying to get back to her writing roots) I’m surrounded by people who value calm, cool exteriors. It’s just been a disaster for me in so many ways to go into here. Anyway.

        Also, the first impression others have of us, will forever be the version of us they will return to for comparison when new information comes in. In a way, I think most people want to believe the first impression is the whole person (isn’t that what branding is about). Intellectually we know that there’s more to people than meets the eye, but in our guts we make ourselves feel safe by imagining we have apprehended the whole of them. It’s sorta primitive, meaning from the primitive part of our brains. Early social interactions are almost always moderated by this part of us, that’s why early interactions are the most reductive and also the most lasting. And that brings me back to Appearance is Destiny. We should realize the power of these early moments in our relationships. Most people will not take the time to come to know our contradictions. Even if the contradictions are visible, most people will screen them out because they yearn to believe in the coherence of their perceptions. Wow. I am so happy to be writing about this. It’s something I’ve really needed to understand for myself. Thank you for inspiring me to delve into this topic.

      • dmarshall58

        I think I understand now too, and it fits my situation. It’s that feedback loop’s fault, but at some point I must have wanted to be the calm person I present. Maybe that’s how I ought to see it–somewhere deep in this situation is a measure of self-determination. Thanks for this lavish and lucid explanation. –D

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