Thursday, February 18, 2010

Writing tip no. 3,046: Sam Shepherd and voices and cowboy mouths

Voice. How to hear it, how to speak it, how to write it?

Some are lucky in that voice or voices seem to possess them in such an overwhelming (yet perhaps unforgiving) way. Think Rimbaud, Kerouac, Virginia Wolf, William Faulkner, Malcolm Lowry—all of the mad caps of literature.

But whether voice possessed them like a poltergeist or not, they had to honor the voice, listen to it, give it form. The voice didn’t just speak itself.

This is all to say that I don’t think writers should be too mystical about voice. I don’t think Rimbaud’s “derangement of the senses” is the path, just a path. One might seize upon voice through prayer, or, I don’t know, jogging, crocheting, sipping tea.

Voice is a commitment. To hear it you simply have to privilege listening to it over the din of the other noises in your life.

I’m thinking about voice because I just read the profile of Sam Shepherd in the Feb. 8 New Yorker. It’s always interesting when someone like Shepherd emerges out of nowhere, literally stepping off a bus in New York City in 1963, unread, unschooled, unconnected, and then he writes such a tangle of compelling stories, seemingly without the tortured ambition and wrangling with revisions that others muscle through.

He’s one of those blessed (or cursed) naturals. Because he listened.

“I had a sense that a voice existed that needed expression, that there was a voice that wasn’t being voiced,” he said.

Is there any better definition of the first powerful impulse to be a writer?

“There were so many voices that I didn’t know where to start. I felt kind of like a weird stenographer….There were definitely things there, and I was just putting them down. I was fascinated by how they structured themselves.”

Shepherd’s plays grow out of a certain beat tradition, the words, characters, and structures spawning from his trust in the more intuitive forces of creation.

“You find all the rhythms and the melody and the harmonies and take them as they come,” he says.

Such a raw trust in voice seems absent in most of the stuff I read these days (with the exception of Roberto Bolano). I suppose the easy answer is that we’re living in the age of MFA programs and social networking and email. Authors are well-read and schooled and connected. Our age of writing is very practiced, very intentioned. Stories tend to be neat, not messy. It takes a very brave writer to trust in the voice more than the structure, the sale, the marketing, etc.

I don’t know if that’s right or wrong.

The article includes so many of Shepherds voices as he chronicles “the whacked out corridors of broken-off America.”

People want a street angel. They want a saint with a cowboy mouth.”

Shepherd also provides a nice angle on characterization: “I preferred a character that was constantly unidentifiable.”

An author shouldn’t answer for a character’s behavior, in other words, or at least not entirely. These are the people we’re compelled by in real life—the ones that don’t fit into our expectations. The ones who trouble us.

It fits with a quote I remember reading from Shepherd over 20 years ago: “Always write within a contradiction.”

Voices colliding…

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