Finding your voice – art vs. craft

“If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader.”
–John Steinbeck

A good friend sent me a mail:

“I’d like to see you write about how writing effects how you read, or watch movies, even listen to music. I find creating music effects how I do those things.”

Ask and ye shall receive!  Sometimes.

As I find myself trying to learn how to write, the most interesting concept is the notion of “voice” and “style”.  I’ve often wondered how I’m perceived in the eyes of other people I care about… do they see me completely differently than I see myself?  Similarly, I wonder what I would think of my own writing were I to stumble upon it, knowing nothing about the author.  Who do I sound like?  Are my characters believable?  Does my story feel “true”?

As I ask these questions about my own writing, I find myself looking at other writers and thinking about how the words got out of their head, onto the page, and ultimately, into the book I am reading.  What makes a style, a voice?  Is the author writing about something personally experienced, or is it completely imagined?  Specific questions I had after the last book I read — Why did Gary Shtenyngart mess up a great book with a terrible ending? And why the hell did he make this video?

Style is a subtle thing.  Sentence structure, choice of words, grammar, punctuation… and that’s just the small stuff.  I have a hard enough time deciding if I should write in first or third person.  One of the unexpected outcomes of all of this critical thinking about style has resulted in a newfound inkling-of-an-understanding of fashion.  I never thought much of fashion, but I kind of get it — people want to express themselves, and fashion is just another mode of expression… I prefer words to Ugg boots, but that’s just me.  I am not sure why this obvious took me 33 years to figure this out, but I definitely enjoy my attempts at guessing what each Berliner’s crazy fashion style is saying about the guy wearing the gold military boots and tights.

As I write, I find myself asking “Is that really what I am trying to express?”.  On bad days, it is more often “What the hell am I trying to say?”  A more philosophical phrasing of these questions is, “Is this story true?” where the word “truth” has a deeper meaning than “factually accurate.”  For me, the “truth” of a work depends on the artist’s ability to make the reader see the world through the eyes of the artist.  The best description of this comes from street artist SWOON:

“When I draw I am cutting a little window and trying to let something come through.  I want to translate to people who see my pieces, on the street or wherever, what I saw, in a particular moment.  A delivery guy furiously biking down the street, a girl sitting on a stoop, whatever it is.  I want people to feel how that moment stopped time for me, the air slowed, sweeter and heavier around my head, and I felt like I could see straight through to something essential about being a person, or being that person, sitting on that stoop. It’s just that I saw the most beautiful thing and I want to tell it to everyone and for them to see it too.  That part is important to me.”

–SWOON, from “Urban Illustration Berlin

For me, a lot of my self criticism involves questioning if the words on the page really open the window and “let something come through.” Some writers write their first draft as fast as they can, hoping to “outrun” their doubt and insecurity over what is appearing on the page.  — “Is this any good? Does it even make sense? Has it already been written by somebody else?”  The revision process is for molding the raw material captured during the outpouring of words during the initial act of creation.

I’ve been a big reader all of my life, and taken lots of literature classes, but I’ve never tried to write a novel.  As I get deeper into the writing process, I have become more aware of the styles of other artists, and how their style differs from yours. I think the most eye-opening thing is the overwhelming amount of choices you face as an author — First person or third person? 3 acts? Should we reveal this character’s history now or later?  A lot of the time I wonder how much of a book’s story is “made up” and how much comes from actual experience.

Of course, as a beginning writer it is natural to compare yourself to the writers you are reading, and measure your prose against theirs, even if much of the time the comparison is done on a subconscious level.  How else are you going to figure out if your stuff is any good? Sometimes you are so blown away by a work of art that it makes you want to never write another word. Stephen King describes the experience very well:

“Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones….One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose….Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling. A novel like The Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy — “I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand” — but such feelings can also serve as a spur, goading the writer to work harder and aim higher. Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing — of being flattened, in fact — is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”

–Stephen King, On Writing

For me, the biggest challenge at the moment is battling the impulse to revise every single sentence immediately after writing it.  “Overthinking,” you might say.  This is a great excuse to link to a scene that offers one of my favorite movie quotes of all time.

By the time the writing is “finished,” the original, raw prose has been heavily molded through revisions, changes, and whatever else the writer thought best expressed his story. At the moment I’m very interested in what happens between the initial formulation of the idea, and the time that the writing is presented to the public.  How much “perspiration” is necessary after the “inspiration”?  Another way to phrase it: “how much of writing is art, and how much is craft?”

There are many different forms of this argument — nature vs. nurture, genius vs. hard work, etc. In some ways I always kind of hated this type of argument, because inevitably when hard work is involved, people assume that the talent or genius isn’t there.  The argument usually assumes that there is a spectrum of “pure inspiration” (art) at one end and “pure hard work” (craft/science) at the other end.  Although this spectrum is ridiculous, it’s useful when considering how best to go about the process of writing and revising.

It’s easy to create similar spectrums in different artistic endeavors… so I thought one of the best ways to take a look at different species of artists was to look at extremes on each end of the spectrum in three different forms of art: Music, Film, and Writing.  I actually tried to do a “fashion” one as well but my knowledge of fashion is so bad that I gave up pretty quickly.

Music: Daniel Johnston (Inspiration) vs. Leonard Cohen (Perspiration)

Daniel Johnston — Most of Daniel’s work is extremely raw, with Daniel singing horribly off key and banging away on an organ. Daniel seems to make relatively little effort to make his music “sound good”.  Of course, most of his songs that survived are from a recording made on a cheap cassette recorder in the garage in Daniel’s teenage years, not a $1000 an hour recording studio… He frequently sings off key and there are plenty of “nails on the chalkboard” moments.  Here is one of my favorite songs, which includes plenty of off-key howling:

They sit in front of their TV
Saying, “Hey! This is fun!”
And they laugh at the artist
Saying, “He doesn’t know how to have fun.”
The best things in life are truly free
Singing birds and laughing bees
“You’ve got me wrong”, says he.
“The sun don’t shine in your TV”

Leonard Cohen– I was never a huge Leonard Cohen fan (I just can’t get into his voice), but the man’s lyrics are just amazing.  I recommend this documentary about Cohen to any fan of music — he has some great stuff to say about his writing and art in general in the film. It’s clear that this is a guy who has always worked extremely hard at his craft.

Here’s one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs as performed by Teddy Thompson:
Tonight will be fine

Sometimes I find I get to thinking of the past.
We swore to each other then that our love would surely last.
You kept right on loving, I went on a fast,
now I am too thin and your love is too vast.

But I know from your eyes
and I know from your smile
that tonight will be fine,
will be fine, will be fine, will be fine
for a while.

I choose the rooms that I live in with care,
the windows are small and the walls almost bare,
there’s only one bed and there’s only one prayer;

As in the Stephen King quote above, Leonard Cohen “flattened” me with this one. We’ve got everything here.  Good rhyme, meter, great metaphor (I love the narrator’s fast and becoming too thin), and plenty of repetition for effect. You have to believe that Cohen spent a long, long time crafting this song, with lots of revisions and careful choice of words.

Film: Rocky (Inspiration) vs. Inception (Perspiration)

Despite all the perspiration in the on screen version of Rocky, I think is a good example of a movie that came together quickly, without a whole lot of “process.” I don’t know how long Stallone spent writing the script, but the movie was made for less than $1 million and was shot in 28 days, so I am guessing that a lot less “polish” went into this script than Inception.  I can picture a hungry young Stallone churning the script out quickly without a whole lot of revisions:

Stallone was inspired to create the film by Rocky Marciano and the famous fight between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner. Wepner had been TKO’d in the 15th round by Ali, but nobody ever expected him to last as long as he did. Wepner recalls in a January 2000 interview, “Sly (Stallone) called me about two weeks after the Ali fight and told me he was gonna make the movie.”


I am a big fan of the Rocky series — plenty of melodrama and unintentional comedy (including the most homoerotic scene in any “guy” film) — but the characters are very well-written and I like the story.   Sure, there are plenty of scenes which make me think that the movie could have benefited from some revision, but who knows — if the script was perfect, we may not have gotten some of the inspired improvised scenes from Burgess Meredith and Stallone.

Christopher Nolan is the Great White Hope of Hollywood.  Surrounded by commercial blockbusters that rely on shootouts, car chases, and 8 figure actors(e.g. “The Town”), Nolan brings extremely complex ideas and themes to life, and somehow turn them into box office smash hits that audiences love.  The moral implications of the “Dark Knight” — we need heroes that lie to us — are deep, complex, and disturbing, yet the film made $590 million (#28 all time), and that’s just in the US and Canada box office.

Like all Nolan’s films, Inception is a great example of an extremely well-designed, well thought out script that obviously required a huge amount of planning and revision.  An interview with Nolan illustrates how much thought went into the film… I have seen it 4 times now, and my appreciation of the intricacy of the story grows each time, as well as my ability to handle the mental gymnastics in going in and out of the many levels of dreaming (this graphic helps).  Judging from Nolan’s comments, the story for this film was years in the making:

“I wanted to deal with the world of dreams, and I realized that I really had to offer the audience a more emotional narrative, something that represents the emotional world of somebody’s mind. So both the hero’s story and the heist itself had to be based on emotional concepts. That took years to figure out.”

Writing: Charles Bukowski (Inspiration) vs. Cormac McCarthy (Perspiration)

Bukowski gives us some insight as to how he wrote his first novel:

“I’m not sure when I first saw Lydia Vance. It was about 6 years ago and I had just quit a twelve year job as a postal clerk and was trying to be a writer. I was terrified and drank more than ever. I was attempting my first novel. I drank a pint of whiske and two six packs of beer each night while writing. I smoked cheap cigars and typed and drank and listened to classical music on the radio until dawn. I set a goal of ten pages a night but I never knew until the next day how many pages I had written. I’d get up in the morning, vomit, then walk to the front room and look on the couch to see how many pages were there. I always exceeded my ten. Sometimes there were 17, 18, 23, 25 pages. Of course, the work of each night had to be cleaned up or thrown away. It took me twenty-one nights to write my first novel.”
Charles Bukowski, Women

21 nights… I guess I’m a little behind schedule… I’m not sure if he’s including revision, but from reading his stuff, you can tell that the guy doesn’t do a whole lot of planning or design before writing a novel.

And I can’t resist including one of my favorite Bukowski quotes:

“It was true that I didn’t have much ambition, but there ought to be a place for people without ambition, I mean a better place than the one usually reserved. How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?”
—Charles Bukowski, Factotum, 1975

I have mixed feelings about Bukowski’s work — it can be brutal to read, but he is one of the few writers that when you read him you know that he’s not afraid to stand on stage naked and give you his entire soul, including the good, the bad, and the ugly parts.  But most importantly, you get the feeling that his words are “true,” and time spent revising might take something away from that feeling.

Cormac McCarthy

Like Bukowski, McCarthy’s writing is often beautiful and depressing.  It’s difficult to tell how much McCarthy revises his stuff, but judging from the quality of the prose and his immense vocabulary, it seems like he’s another artist who works very hard at his craft.  Here’s one of my favorite McCarthy quotes:

“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”
—Cormac McCarthy, The Road


Back to the question which inspired the above rambling:

“I’d like to see you write about how writing effects how you read, or watch movies, even listen to music. I find creating music effects how I do those things.”

To summarize, the change that writing has brought to my thinking about books, movies, and music is like learning a lot of magic tricks and then going to watch a magician.  Until you learn the tricks, you don’t really think about how the magician is creating the illusion.

It seems to me that a big part of the magic of writing comes from “telling the truth”.  Stephen King wrote: “Good writing… teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling”.  I think “telling the truth” boils down to finding your unique voice, using that voice to let the readers see a story from your eyes.  The more the writing expresses your unique view of the world, the better it is.

Or maybe Sean Connery says it better in Finding Forrester:
“Why is it the words we write for ourselves so much better than the words we write for others?”

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply