Voice

In objective (impersonal) writing, the writer/narrator writes about thoughts shared by many people, ideas available in the literature, the newspapers, and in the general public opinion. The impersonal narrator never gets "personal" by voicing his or her emotions or deeply held thoughts about the topic at hand. Journalists have been told to write in this impersonal voice to maintain an "objective" tone—the reader should not know how the journalist feels about the subject, only what others say about it.

Writing done in a subjective (personal) voice does allow the writer to openly inject his or her feelings on the subject to let the reader know whose mind the ideas are filtering through. The New Journalists of the 1960s thought this was the honest way to report the world to the public. They got into trouble sometimes by injecting themselves so much into the story that they became the center of it. They wrote so personally that the attention was focused on them and their (sometimes) histrionics. Tom Wolfe, often called the father of the New Journalism, was so happy to get out from under the fetters of traditionally impersonal journalistic writing that he wrote wildly (wonderfully, but wildly in the eyes of traditional journalists). He tried out his wings, and he flew in great style to great heights. Neither of these voices is the voice I'm taking up here.

Lewis H. Lapham, editor of Harper's magazine, and a creative nonfiction writer of consummate skill, in 1983 wrote a piece called "On Reading" in his column, "Notebook." His opening paragraph said as well as can be said just what "voice" means:

On first opening a book I listen for the sound of the human voice. By this device I am absolved from reading much of what is published in a given year. Most writers make use of institutional codes (academic, literary, political, bureaucratic, technical), in which they send messages already deteriorating into the halflife of yesterday's news. Their transmissions remain largely unintelligible, and unless I must decipher them for professional reasons, I am content to let them pass by. I listen, instead, for a voice in which I can hear the music of the human improvisation as performed through 5,000 years on the stage of recorded time.

.As a student, and later as an editor and occasional writer of reviews, I used to feel obliged to finish every book I began to read. This I no longer do. If within the first few pages I cannot hear the author's voice...I abandon him at the first convenient opportunity.

All creative nonfiction writers do not write in the personal voice, but the ones this book celebrates do write in a voice of their own that we can hear. One group of creative nonfiction writers believes that writers should subordinate themselves, telling the story in its own terms, not theirs. As writers, they intend to portray reality just as it is and not interpret it for the reader. This is not altogether possible, of course, but they try. Creative nonfiction writers in the other group do insert themselves and approach reporting the world as an art. They make it clear that things are being filtered (and very likely distorted) through their unique intelligence, and they try to write it in language that approaches literature. Writing of this kind calls attention to itself, and the reader enjoys it partly for the information and partly for the intellectual joy of hearing it filtered through a respected intelligence. The former group believes, like the minimalists in fiction, that writing should be transparent, not calling attention to itself by its fanciness, its beauty.

But these two groups—those that believe in presence of the writer's voice in a story and those who believe the voice has no place—share some qualities. These two groups belong under the same umbrella in creative nonfiction because they do write with the voice of a human being, not in an institutional nonvoice, or what Wolfe calls the "beige" voice. Neither group writes in beige. Their writing is vivid, writing that brings the subject alive. Traditional journalism and nonfiction writing in general avoid this. When we read a piece that lives, that has a human sound to it, we know we're reading creative nonfiction—writing with voice. By voice, I do not mean authorial intrusion, but rather the writer's unique style. While one group of creative nonfiction writers may believe that the writer should never make his or her presence known, both groups welcome the writer's voice.

I'll end this discussion of voice with words and ideas from Mark Kramer, as reported in Norman Sims' book The Literary Journalists. The introduction of personal voice, according to Kramer, allows the writer to play one world off another, to toy with irony. "The writer can posture, say things not meant, imply things not said. When I find the right voice for a piece, it admits play, and that's a relief, an antidote to being pushed around by your own words. Voice that admits of 'Self can be a great gift to readers. It allows warmth, concern, compassion, flattery, shared imperfections—all the real stuff that, when it's missing, makes writing brittle and larger than life."

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