Thursday, June 08, 2017

Don Henley and Voice

Tuesday night, I drove two hours across Massachusetts on Route 2 and into Boston to see Don Henley play at an outdoor venue on the waterfront in 40-degrees and rain. He played all the songs I remember from the 80s, and (along with 5,000 other gray-haired aficionados) I stood and sang along with him. At one point, I turned to my friend Greg Leeds and said, “The guy’s voice never changes.”

Which got me thinking: the songs (the lyrics about memories and about loves lost; the blend of guitars and horns; and the long, sweeping choruses) sound the same. And so too does Don Henley –– that whiskey voice we all recognize instantly.

Voice, we talk about when discussing authors, is a writer’s DNA. I can take a paragraph from Annie Dillard, set it next to one from Alice Walker, and a reader will immediately be able to name the author of each paragraph.

So what is voice?

Technically, it’s the nuances of diction and syntax that roll into a sound/personality/persona on the page. I read somewhere that a writer finds his or her voice when they’ve written a stack of pages that exceeds their own height. I’ve also read that you know you’ve found your voice when you know it. I had that experience: seated in the damp basement of our first home early one morning, writing my third novel, I sat back and re-read the sentence I’d just written, realizing it sounded precisely as I’d hoped. To a guy who loves writing because you always feel like the dog chasing its own tail, this was a startling moment: I had produced one sentence that offered the absolute clarity I hoped for. (Hopefully, there have been a few more and others along the way.)

It was Hemingway, who, after all, also wrote, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Does truth equate to voice? Maybe not entirely. Consider James Crumley’s opening line to The Last Good Kiss (1978): “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” We can examine the line for its rolling syntax, subordinate and main clauses, look at the clever adjectives, and as Billy Collins would say, “beat it with a hose.” But what’s the use? We know everything we need to know about the speaker, C.W. Sughrue, an alcoholic former military man now a private investigator. And we know a thing or two about his creator: Crumley’s voice –– cynical, observant, and lyrical –– appears in his opening line. You meet the writer, the speaker, and want to spend more time with both of them.

Which brings me back to Don Henley and Voice. We can all try new sounds. I’ve written from the perspective of men, women, children; tough guys and mothers; people who hold my political convictions, and those who do not. Yet in the end, I’m certain there are aspects of my syntax that does not vary. I wish I was as fluid as Crumley but admittedly am not. For, as Hemingway said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master,” which keeps us all writing –– and searching for our own voices.

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