By Carol Major
A few years back my sister attended a panel discussion in which Margaret Atwood was a member. In answering a writer’s question she replied that one of the fundamental starting points for any story (and this can apply to poetry and essays as well) is to be clear on who is telling this story to whom about what. This is a solid piece of advice and to which I would like to add ‘and why’. What is the compulsion to tell that story to that particular audience and at that particular time?
I come from a family of people who tell stories. We often told the same one over and over again. Enduring tales were events that might have prevented my parents meeting.
My father was a gunner in the merchant marines and there is a story of him getting drunk and missing a boat that was sunk by the Germans. Such stories were meant to describe the randomness of fate and fragility of good timing. They would always end with my father saying, “And if that hadn’t happened I wouldn’t have met your mother and none of you would be sitting around the kitchen table enjoying red jelly topped with tinned fruit”. I would feel giddy, a sort of fizzy feeling of wonderment that in the end we had all won somehow. It was a ‘feelgood’ story with unlikely heroes.
But within this tale was another narrative that my father did not tell at the family dinner table. It was related to a single listener in a hushed voice because the story bewildered him. The tale about being a drunken sailor would always get lots of laughs in a crowd but the other side of that event—missing the boat and surviving—contained something far more complicated. My father could not come to grips with why he’d been saved from a watery grave in this way when so many fine men had died. Did God reward bad behaviour? Or was it that in end my father had been sent to hell—the crippling guilt that he had been spared? The events were the same but different reasons for relating them changed the form of the story entirely.
I think the compulsion to tell a story at a particular time and for a particular reason is an essential ingredient of ‘voice’.
Distance from the event also affects tone. How might my father tell that story right after it happened as opposed to how he might tell it as a man in his eighties?
This compulsion to tell is most obvious in a first person narration or in third person limited, where voice is coloured by the character’s attitude. But what about omniscient narration? This question was posed to me recently by Patrick Cullen. I put down Atwood’s Cat’s Eye which I love and was reading again, and turned to The Vagrants by Yiyun Li. Yet even in this voice I sensed the compulsion which had translated into restraint—a narrator aware that personal emotion would muddle what must only be shown.
So, over to you.
What compels you to tell a particular story at a particular time, and do you think it affects voice? Can we identify the urgency to tell the story in books that we love and are there books that we love where that urgency doesn’t seem to be there but which work regardless? Don’t feel the need to answer those questions specifically. Just jump in with any parallel ideas – and let’s begin the conversation.