A Session with KM Cholewa
Voice, in writing, is an intangible. It is neither installed nor crafted, but emerges from the elements of craft. It “happens.” The writer can mindfully punctuate and structure sentences and develop characters, but the writer doesn’t do “voice.” Nor is Voice the sum of parts.
Discussions about the elements of craft that are said to give rise to Voice most often include:
and point of view.
Some say these elements create Voice, even while saying the writer’s approach to these elements is driven by Voice. But how can craft be driven by a Voice that doesn’t exist until those elements of craft are effectively executed?
Tone: The Precursor to Voice
These three elements of craft – word choice, sentence structure, and point of view – give rise to Voice in only an embryonic form: Tone.
And a writer is free to stop right there.
Or, the writer can continue to work (or be working on different levels at once) and work with these three elements on a higher octave. When I refer to word choice, sentence structure, and point of view on a “higher octave” what I am referring to is another layer of craft that might be undertaken consciously or unconsciously that gives rise to Voice.
On this “higher octave”:
Word choice becomes Lexicon.
Sentence structure becomes Rhythm.
Point of View becomes Proximity.
Let’s look at each in turn.
Word choice, taken as a whole throughout the work, gives rise to what I call the story’s lexicon. This includes, of course, the idiosyncratic speech habits of characters but also the word choices in the narrative that, on one hand, might be considered something as simple as the writer’s vocabulary. However, for the purposes of defining what I’m calling “Lexicon,” I mean something more particular.
All writers know certain things (separate from the knowledge of their characters). A writer might be facile with the lexicon of cooking, baseball, or gardening. However, that writer can write a story that has nothing to do with cooking, baseball, or gardening. Nor might the characters be involved in these activities. Nonetheless, the lexicon of the discipline is available to the writer to use to communicate about things outside of the discipline.
For example, when I describe the literary Voice, I refer to it as being “emergent.” I could, just as descriptively, refer to it as “arising.” But I’ve spent seventeen years reading system theory, which talks about systems as “emergent” from the interactions of dynamics and components, yet something different than the sum of the system’s parts.
The language of the discipline is available to me to describe the same dynamic in a different discipline, writing, in this case. Using the specialized language in this way does not leave the reader in the dark in regard to the writer’s meaning but enlightens in two directions (hopefully), a tenet of systems theory and one of writing shedding light upon each other.
Having a good vocabulary or a big vocabulary may be useful to a writer. But I think, when it comes to creating the conditions for Voice to emerge, being in possession of lexicons and being able to use them artfully is more valuable because it provides a vocabulary of concepts and dynamics, not merely a vocabulary of words.
Taking “word choice” to the realm of Lexicon involves knowing things other than writing and the human condition. I’m not talking about being heavy-handed. Just simple things. I’m a reader of the sciences, and as a result I see the world in certain terms and describe it in them. For example, from my novel, Shaking Out the Dead:
It was a city in a valley, the mountains in the distance slouching, black silhouettes against the blue-black curve of space.
For me, when I look into the sky, the experience is not one of looking out, out into infinity, but into a bend, which is actually what space does. An interest of mine in the past was all things esoteric. Therefore, that lexicon is also integrated into the narrative.
He held the memory in his hands, hoping for a psychometry, a resurrection of feeling.
Or, in this example, both converge:
Geneva had heard the warnings. The theories that our thoughts move into the physical world twisting and shaping outcomes just like in the quantum physics experiments. Balance the bad thoughts with good ones, the gurus counseled, something to even out the bottom line.
This idea of Lexicon is not meant as the suggestion to deliver interdisciplinary lectures. It is about the subtle or artful use of conceptual analogies.
But, it’s not necessary. With a good story, a working vocabulary will do. But the distinction of a Voice is served by the artful use of a personal Lexicon, an internal cross-disciplinary processing of information that is unique to the writer.
Outside the valley, the sky loosened, clouds merely puddling where they once were sea. Geneva didn’t gun it like she used to. The speed limit was plenty so she let the speedometer creep just a few numbers above it, enough to stay in the flow. Not the flow of real traffic, the traveling cars and pick ups, but the flow that was there underneath it all, invisible and rushing between yellow lines. No point in resisting and moving more slowly to acknowledge rules and regulations of which flow took no notice. No point in pushing, either, trying to outrun it or beat it home. She knew the flow travels, always, at the optimal velocity. That’s why it’s called the flow. (Shaking Out the Dead)
Sentence structure, on the higher octave, becomes rhythm. Humans are hard-wired for rhythm. We clap in unison to the music. We tap our feet. A comedian’s timing gratifies us. “The ability to process timing from sound is already established when the child is born,” said music therapist Dr. Concetta Tomaino. It’s the first sense in the fetus and the last at death. It’s one of the most robust sensory inputs we can have.”
Our brains are wired to detect rhythm. We want it, and a writer should deliver and tap into that animal appetite and pleasure. There’s an auditory/motor correlation in human beings not found in any other animal, according to Professor of Neurology, Oliver Sacks. “The auditory/motor correlation is there even if the person doesn’t physically move.” The movement part of the brain is nonetheless stimulated. We feel it.
It’s not abstract. It’s neurological.
Rhythm in a story happens at several layers. It emerges from the crafting of one sentence, and then how one sentence leads into the next. It’s in the flow of the paragraph and driven by even minor choices, such as the choice between a period and semi-colon or expressing an action in one sentence or two.
Rhythm is everywhere, inherent in scenes, thought patterns, and places. Some might call it “pace” but pace is determined by rhythm.
Below are two passages from Shaking Out the Dead. Each utilizes rhythm to communicate and induce the “feel” of the environment in which the scenes occur.
A fluorescent light above the counter buzzed. Paris looked up and watched it sputter. None of the customers took particular notice. Not the two Goth girls, looking young and vulnerable, despite their black make-up and practiced vacant stares. The couple in the corner failed to notice, too. They focused on their newspaper and tried to resign themselves to each other’s failings. The meth-head at the counter picked at his doughnut, never looking up. It was business as usual, as Paris liked. Routine is dismissed by most as the daily grind. But Paris found it good and holy. Spring, summer, fall, winter. Over and over. The planet never wearied of it and wished for more.
The background bustle of the coffee shop moved to the pulse of the offbeat syncopation and upstroke strumming of Bob Marley and the Wailers giving rise to a collective groove. The hum of voices and the hum of thought laid down tracks. Re-hashings of the night before. Pointless conversations serving no purpose but to hear the sound of another’s voice meeting with one’s own, spinning what nonsense one could from found threads of thought. Rachael and Geneva sat in their booth making their contribution. Rachael dawdled over a list of professions while Geneva reworked the words on her yellow pad.
There is rhythm in page breaks and between the last word in one chapter and the beginning of the next. All contribute to the overall arc, all rhythms within rhythms. When writing Shaking Out the Dead, I would lie in bed at night, the entire novel, section of the novel, or chapter – whatever level my focus was at the time – going through my mind, feeling the overriding flow.
A writer’s brain is like the reader’s brain in its propensity for rhythm. As oft recommended, read your work aloud. When reading my novel aloud to myself, I always took notice of when it was I wanted to stop reading aloud, or would start mumbling. I took it as a signal that something was flagging. I didn’t feel like listening to it, even if I was willing to keep flogging through the words. What it revealed was a stumble in, or the loss of, rhythm.
This is the best reason to participate in open mic type events. It trains the writer’s ear in a high stakes environment – a live audience. The best places for readings are bars and coffee houses where some patrons may not have come for the reading event. They have the option not to pay attention. You find out if you can earn it.
Exercise 1 Read the following sentences. Answer each question before moving on to the next.
The towel hung on the stove. She lifted it and wiped her hands as she stared out the back door.
She lifted the towel from where it hung on the stove handle. She held it, wiping her hands, as she stared out the back door.
What is the rhythm communicating in each? Is what it communicates different in each?
What does this moment mean about the character if she just finished washing the dishes? Do you get a different answer in each?
What does this moment mean about the character if she just finished stabbing somebody to death? Do you get a different answer in each?
Finally, and I think most importantly when it comes to cultivation of voice, is point of view as Proximity.
When writing Shaking Out the Dead, at first the story was unfolding in my mind as seeing the characters on stage, each in turn, standing in a spotlight wanting to explain themselves. So each chapter was written in first person with the character’s name at the top of the chapter.
Unsurprisingly, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner served as a permission and a model at the time, written as it is from fifteen points of view, utilizing first person, and often providing conflicting accounts of an event. I was more than a hundred pages into my novel when I showed the manuscript it to a local writer I respected who said, “You’ve got to put it in third person.”
Inwardly, I rebelled against the input. But out of respect for the time my writer-friend put into it, I felt I had to at least give it a chance. My internal dialogue while rewriting in third was “he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This diminishes the intimacy between the reader and characters. This is a waste of time. I should be writing forward, not indulging in a misguided experiment.”
The work of changing first person to third is a lot more than changing “I’s” to “she’s” and “he’s.” The entire level of perception in the story is altered. I resented the additional layer of work. I split up my writing at the time, spending a few hours rewriting from the beginning, changing the story from first to third person. I spent the rest of the time continuing to write forward in first. But within a few days, I found myself writing in third person, sometimes, as I wrote forward, too.
As a result, I ended up writing forward in third with a hundred pages behind me in first, but some of that hundred also in third. It was a mess.
But, I was rewarded one day writing at my kitchen counter, forward in third, when the story seemed to literally “pop.” It lived in a snow globe and I was God.
My writer-friend was right. It had to be third person. Yet, it was still true that I felt a loss of intimacy between the characters and the reader, perhaps between the characters and me.
Third person narratives allow for a wide range when it comes to Proximity, meaning the writer’s proximity to the characters and story; the reader’s proximity to the characters and the story; and the writer’s proximity to the reader.
Proximity is experienced as sensory and psychological among writer and reader and characters. Is the story being told from way up in the sky, or behind somebody’s eyes? Did the reader “see” it? “Feel” it? Or was the reader the bead of sweat that broke the character’s skin? Without saying the words, is the writer addressing the reader from the next barstool over: “Hey, I won’t waste your time, but you gotta hear this.” Or is the reader being seduced, not sure where s/he’s going, but willing to take the ride as long as the writer can keep those bread crumbs coming?
For me, Proximity was the key in the cultivation of Voice, though I didn’t necessarily know that as I worked with the tension and dissatisfaction I was feeling with the manuscript in third person, even after knowing it was the right perspective from which to tell the story.
I wanted the intimacy of first person in third person. I wanted the reader in characters’ skins and I wanted to whisper in the reader’s ear. No, I wanted to be the whisper itself. How to find that place, that proximity that held these three points – writer, reader, characters – in the desired constellation?
The answer to that question is dreadful. You write. You write until you arrive. You utilize the tools. Word choice, sentence structure, point of view. Lexicon, Rhythm, and Proximity. When you nail it in a sentence or a paragraph, you acknowledge it as the bar for everything else around it, and work some more, turning your peak into your floor. I found it easiest to reach with the character Paris in Shaking Out the Dead. Once finding the proximity with him, it served as a benchmark in working with the others. Once I knew the feel of the proximity I desired, I could better tease it out with the others.
Here’s Paris following a kiss:
Her truth swam past him as he stood there in his own. His truth was different from the one she had spoken. His truth was yes, but his mind couldn’t shuffle the feeling into anything solid or articulate. He only knew the summer cool air and the intimate space of the swing. He followed the kiss and not her words, not his own thoughts. His lips and skin had not served as a barrier. The kiss was sinking into his waters, floating heavily down into the quietest and darkest place, lodging itself in his sands.
I’m very aware of Proximity as a reader. I have a least favorite proximity: a distance from the character not far away enough to be insightful or wise, yet not close enough to be personal and intimate. At this proximity, I feel told about feelings and maybe even relate to them. But I don’t feel the character feeling the feeling.
Exercise 2 Write a scene (or even a paragraph) from the sky, and then write it from the skin of the scene. Make both good.
Tone is the “feeling” building block. Scary, terse, comic, lovely. Tone, like the personality of a character, drives word choices and sentence structure. After banging out some first draft material, tone is often cultivated in the editing phases, being more finely tuned in the process. Without characters, plot, and tone, the piece doesn’t have the basics that draw in a reader.
But mad and maniacal writers can take it further in the hope of birthing a Voice that separates itself from the writer and belongs to the story.
Voice is the storyteller, whether acting as a transparent lens or an opinionated neighbor. The reader is more intimate with the voice than any of the characters, even if not aware of it consciously. A story may be perfect. But it still must be told, an act separate from the story. Voice is the bridge between two minds, the reader’s and the writer’s. The reader pays attention to the story, but listens to the voice.
So, as with voices in the spoken world, to be listened to, one’s voice must be tolerable. If the content is engaging enough, tolerable can be enough.
Or, one can create a separate spirit. I call that spirit “emergent” because it is the product of the dynamics among of the elements of craft. A writer may intend a certain voice, but it’s a nonlinear process where parts don’t add up to the sum that is Voice. Voice rises, like a spirit from a cauldron, when the recipe is right, the planets aligned, and there’s commitment in the worker of magic. Black marks on pages and screens create sensations and entities, characters, with whom human psyches form relationships. The Voice provides introductions.
Voice emerges, and when it does, you always feel embarrassed that you had thought it was already there.
She felt turned inside out, cool air reaching long closed up places. The iron-gray sky above was splitting open to reveal ragged, blue portals and the trees seemed to sigh as though washed clean. They had taken a beating from the hail, but it was somehow all good, the ordeal having left them ravaged and refreshed. (Shaking Out the Dead)
 “Pioneers.” Playlist for Life Connecting Music People and Memories. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2014. http://www.playlistforlife.org.uk/research/pioneers/.
About the Author…
“K.M. Cholewa is a muscular writer,” says Leah Joki, author of Juilliard to Jail. “Cholewa’s writing is hard to put down. Praise for a strong voice in literature!” K.M. Cholewa’s characters are vividly and beautifully drawn, sweeping readers into their world and drawing readers into the matrices of their lives. Shaking Out the Dead, Cholewa’s first novel is compassionate, aching, and deeply human. http://www.kmcholewa.com