In Tokyo, vending machines use hypersonic sound to mimic schizophrenia and sell their products. As you walk past, "you'll suddenly hear inside your head the sound of the ice cubes dropping into the glass and the soda making that 'psst' can-opening noise … If anyone wanted to destabilise other people they could do it really easily by making them think they were hearing voices in their heads."1
Do writers hear voices in their heads? Whose are these voices? And what does it mean for a writer to have found his or her voice?
The idea of voice is all over books and websites about writing, and is common enough in literary criticism. But I'm not always sure what is meant by voice in these different places, and sometimes I'm not sure that the writer has thought very hard about what he or she means by it either.
Nevertheless, one kind of voice is reasonably clear: years ago, as an undergraduate, I heard a tape-recording of TS Eliot reading "The Waste Land". Reading the poem again now, silently, I can still hear in my head some of his dry, rather strange, even counter-intuitive, phrasing. So, voice is a physical voice: TS Eliot reading his own poem.
But voice is also the echo of Eliot's voice that I can hear in my head, the echo of his voice in my memory. That voice carries me back to the lecture theatre I was in when I heard the recording, reminds me that friends of mine borrowed the tape of Eliot reading, recorded over it by mistake, and then dreaded returning the now-ruined tape to our lecturer and explaining what had happened. Fortunately, the tape was a recording of a record, not a recording of a live, once-off reading. Another tape could be made - the voice that we'd heard was not lost.
Similarly, I hope the sound of Linton Kwesi Johnson reading "Tings and Times" at the Baxter earlier this year will stay with me, be available in my head when I read his work, despite the fact that his voice is more familiar than Eliot's, and more easily recoverable since he is still alive.
But there are other kinds of meaning, other connotations, for voice. In a 1974 lecture entitled "Feeling into Words", later published in his prose collection Preoccupations, Seamus Heaney writes:
Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them; and I believe that it may not even be a metaphor, for a poetic voice is probably very intimately connected with the poet's natural voice, the voice that he hears as the ideal speaker of the lines he is making up.2
In this brief passage, Heaney has in fact distinguished three kinds of voice: first, the poetic voice that is the essence or extension of the writer (the voice that has to be found); second, the voice-box voice of the writer (his or her physical voice); and third, the voice in the writer's head (the voice that the writer "hears as the ideal speaker" of his or her poem). Three kinds of voice, then, and with these voices Heaney interweaves the physical sense of hearing.
"I have always listened for poems," says Heaney in another chapter of the same book3. This listening is something that Milan Kundera, in his manifesto-like The Art of the Novel comments on as follows:
Now, not only is the novelist nobody's spokesman, but I would go so far as to say he is not even the spokesman for his own ideas. When Tolstoy sketched the first draft of Anna Karenina, Anna was a most unsympathetic woman, and her tragic end was entirely deserved and justified. The final version of the novel is very different, but I do not believe that Tolstoy had revised his moral ideas in the meantime; I would say, rather, that in the course of writing, he was listening to another voice than that of his personal moral conviction. He was listening to what I would call the wisdom of the novel. Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors.4
This model of the novel, where it can stretch to present a complexity, even a wisdom, that the author may not have anticipated, seems to me a reasonable model for poetry, since it suggests that what emerges in the writing may be more interesting than the thought that the writer began with. Some people would suggest that this is a result of a visit from the muse, or the zeitgeist, or the energy of something or other. It may be. More simply, though, one could suggest that the writer uses his or her writing to consider things - to think, to explore various options, to try out different possibilities. There are some who will be unhappy with the idea that "the writer uses the writing for some other purpose"; but I don't mean that the writer engages in writing for some ulterior pre-decided motive. Perhaps, then, it would be better to say that the writing process is also an opportunity for thinking, in the same way that conversation is an opportunity for finding out what one's own thoughts are, as well as a form of communication.
Kundera described The Art of the Novel as "a practitioner's confession"5 and, in various places in it, suggestions poke through of his own writing practice, a practice that seems designed to allow that "thinking through writing" to happen. In "Sixty-three Words", a "'dictionary' of certain key words that appear throughout my novels, and key words in my aesthetic of the novel", he writes:
IMAGINATION. "What did you mean by the story about Tamina on the children's island?" people ask me. That tale began as a dream that fascinated me; I dreamed it later in a half-waking state, and I broadened and deepened it as I wrote it. Its meaning? If you like: an oneiric image of an infantocratic future … However, the meaning did not precede the dream; the dream preceded the meaning. So the way to read the tale is to let the imagination carry one along. Not, above all, as a rebus to be decoded. By insisting on decoding him, the Kafkologists killed Kafka.6
Kundera is encouraging his readers to allow themselves to be carried along by his "tale" (rather than trying to unpick it), but to me this "dictionary entry" also suggests an interesting aspect of his own writing practice: first, he dreams a dream that fascinates him, a dream that comes unbidden, at random, from his sleeping mind; next, as most of us have probably done, he dreams it again, "in a half-waking state", semi-voluntarily; thirdly, he writes it, developing it as he does so, using his craft, his experience as a writer, to arrive at something that speaks with his voice.
Obviously I am not suggesting that Kundera's novels all come out of his dreams. But the picture of him pursuing an image, an idea, in different stages, at different levels of consciousness, reminds me strongly of my own, and other writers', practice of writing and of editing that writing - in its doubleness, in its combination of listening and speaking, of receiving and producing, the one feeding into the other.
Doubleness, and a certain ability to engage in two apparently conflicting processes (foregrounding now listening, now writing, without actually settling in the end for one or the other), are, for me, part of the editing process of a poem - and even part of the moment when the first intimation of a poem appears. After all, if you don't already have pen in hand, fingers on keyboard, or a dictaphone handy, although you're trying to be in the moment and hear your idea as it's born, give it a little space to breathe, a chance to make it onto the page, you're simultaneously searching for a way to do so practically, by finding a way of recording it.
And when that moment's passed, and the initial scribble, usually, has been made and then pushed into a drawer, then the editing process can begin. Some time has passed (a couple of days, weeks, months, even years sometimes), and you revisit the poem to see what can be made of it. Some lines clunk along, but here and there are perhaps a couple that seem good, that you may not even remember scribbling, that surprise you - not necessarily with their brilliance - but they appeal, they seem worth working on. They get you into the listening mode again, the mode where you tune in to the voice in your head, listen to it, and try to find a way of getting that voice down on paper.
I find it vaguely comforting when Seamus Heaney's essay "The Makings of a Music" identifies something similar in William Wordsworth's The Prelude is a poem, but a very long one; as it was published as a book, it is italicised.
My own voice cheered me, and, far more, the mind's
Heaney's commentary on this is worth quoting at some length:
Internal echo of the imperfect sound;
To both I listened, drawing from the both
A cheerful confidence in things to come.
Although Wordsworth is here describing the activity of composing aloud, of walking and talking, what the poetry reaches into is the activity of listening.
For me that "already" echoes back to Kundera's comment about "why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors"8 and the idea that a completed poem can be more than the first idea or image that the writer began with, can go further than the writer either planned or anticipated.
… (He) realizes that this spoken music is just a shadow of the unheard melody, "the mind's internal echo". He is drawn into himself even as he speaks himself out, and it is this mesmerized attention to the echoes and invitations within that constitutes his poetic confidence. We need only recall for contrast the way WH Auden addressed himself to the discussion of the act of writing, always tackling it in terms of metre, stanza forms, philology, always keeping in front of us the idea of the poem as "a verbal contraption", to see how intimately and exactly Wordsworth is touching into the makings of his music in those lines.
What we are presented with is a version of composition as listening, as a wise passiveness, a surrender to energies that spring within the centre of the mind, not composition as an active pursuit by the mind's circumference of something already [my italics] at the centre. The more attentively Wordsworth listens in, the more cheerfully and abundantly he speaks out.7
Some years ago Margaret Atwood reluctantly contributed a piece to a book called The Writer on Her Work. The piece that she eventually wrote, and which was published in the book, begins: "I've begun this piece nine times. I've junked each beginning."9 Struggling to answer the rather formulaic, if canonical, question, "Why do you write?", she says:
I hate writing about my writing because I have nothing to say about it. I have nothing to say about it because I can't remember what goes on when I'm doing it. That time is like small pieces cut out of my brain. It's not time I myself have lived. I can remember the details of the rooms and places where I've written, the circumstances, the other things I did before and after, but not the process itself. Writing about writing requires self-consciousness; writing itself requires the abdication of it.10
This is all quite Romantic: Atwood's "abdication" of "self-consciousness" while writing, Kundera's "dream", Heaney's comments on Wordsworth's "wise passiveness" and his "surrender to energies". They suggest a familiar figure of the artist as a dreamy type courting a muse, in a seductive, possibly drug-induced, furze. But that, I think, is a knee-jerk reaction. There is a strength of will involved here too: this doubleness, this "listening" while writing, doesn't come like a bolt from the blue, but is an intention of the writer, a way for the writer to pursue the writing process in a way that will generate something new, something that will voice the writer in a way that is satisfying and real.
This is not to say that this same practice would be meaningful or appropriate for all writers, or even for some writers all of the time. But, to me, the similar practices described by Kundera, Heaney, Wordsworth and Atwood, and others, no doubt, do make sense. They resonate for me because they sound familiar; they give me a sense of companionship.
Further on in her piece for The Writer on Her Work, Atwood describes this sense of companionship rather neatly. She says:
You learn to write by reading and writing, writing and reading. As a craft, it's acquired through the apprentice system, but you choose your own teachers. Sometimes they're alive, sometimes dead.
Something in me blenches slightly at "the community of storytellers that stretches back through time" - it conjures up pictures of The Clan of the Cave Bear and Daryl Hannah as Ayla - but most of the rest makes sense. Writers, especially writers who are not formally studying writing, do gather their own teachers around them, whether in the form of friends, mentors and other assorted practising writers, or in the form of books.
As a vocation, it involves the laying on of hands. You receive your vocation and in your turn you must pass it on. Perhaps you will do this only through your work, perhaps in other ways. Either way, you're part of a community, the community of writers, the community of storytellers that stretches back through time to the beginning of human society.11
In a semester course on American Short Fiction that I took with Professor JM Coetzee, we read Poe and Hawthorne and Carver, and other writers whose names I have now forgotten. What I remember is what I perceived at the time as Coetzee's insistent focus on how these writers saw themselves as writers, how they saw the act of writing.
At first I found it hard to believe that these writers had ever intended to write such a great deal about writing - I wondered why they didn't find other more interesting things to write about. When I'd got over that hurdle - having realised, of course, that from a post-modern perspective it didn't matter what the writer had intended to do, only what the reader found in the writing itself - I faced another one: I couldn't imagine why Coetzee was so interested in what these writers thought about being writers.
Now I wonder whether he led the course in this way simply because
it was an expected part of our training (certainly, other lecturers
also referred to images of the artist or portrayals of the writer).
Alternatively, perhaps the focus was only in my perception, and
we discussed a range of other things with equal attention. Or, finally,
perhaps it was because Coetzee was comparing these writers' ideas
with his own.
I know it is for this last reason that I now find myself reading with attention writers' comments on their writing: how it seems to them, how they understand it, and practise it. This reading with attention is part of my struggle to hold onto a sense of myself as a writer, and to develop and consolidate a writing practice that works.
The voices in my head that I try to make space to hear are fortunately not those of phantom vending machines: they are the voices of other writers, and they are the voices of characters I may one day write about. In amongst them is my own writer's voice, talking with the crowd.
1 New Scientist, 24 April 2004, p 48.
2 Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations, Faber, 1980, p 43.
3 Ibid, p 34.
4 Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, Faber, 1988, p 158.
5 Ibid, author's foreword.
6 Ibid, p 132.
7 Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations, Faber, 1980, p 63.
8 Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, Faber, 1988, p 158.
9 Margaret Atwood in The Writer on Her Work, ed Janet Sternburg, Virago, 1992, p 79.
10 Ibid, p 80.
11 Ibid, p 81.