fourth night of notes: steven schwartz’ “finding a voice in america”

Tonight I am taking a look at the fourth essay of Bringing the Devil to His Knees–the Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. And apart from the essay I am seeing just how slow my reading process can be at times–almost as slow as my writing process. I have such a stack of books on my desk and I received another one the other day I won’t be able to look at for a while. And I still have Diaz’ Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to read over and create some study questions for next week.

Anyway what I am thinking about right now is how this is the second writer in this book to recount anecdotes from fiction workshop. Schwartz talks like so many writers I know. In workshop the language we use to classify or investigate problems becomes so fuzzy–rhetorical wrangling where we search for ways to explain our concerns and criticisms in a classroom/informal atmosphere is so funny to me. Silly. But you have to be silly to tell stories and sit in a workshop and wrangle. But Schwartz introduces ideas and concepts that came from his experience as a student writer in workshop—concepts seemingly so abstract such as ‘focus’ or ‘voice’—and it is always interesting for me to read how the workshop format confounds and yet also leads writers to think powerfully about their writing and writing in general. And again I am heartened to see the questioning of voice which is Schwartz’ focus here stemming from workshop concerns and questions. I like the idea of a student reading and perhaps relating to the author’s method and perhaps apply that to their own thought process. Especially since a major concern in many workshops I run turns out to be how do we relate what is said in workshop to powerful revision. So again I like the anecdotes showing a writer doing exactly that—relating and struggling with concerns from workshop into the formation of a precise thought to enhance aesthetic—the randomness of comments turned into self-instruction. This is something I struggle with myself after years of workshops.

Also I am struck with the sentences I was focused on years back. I seemed particularly taken with the line: “In fact, voice had less to do with style than with content.” And also a paragraph later I was taken with the sentence: “Voice to do as much with sensibility as with sound.” And again I am taken with how Schwartz struggles with these abstracts given to him as pronouncement from workshop leaders. I like the idea he struggles with how voice and the advice from workshop can help a writer work a better story. He goes on to quote Margaret Atwood and Flannery O’Connor and thoughts on their ideas concerning voice and how it transcends—how a ‘single voice’ in literature can come from listening to Americans speaking on porches and backyards. How writers mimic and observe as much as they create. I can again see another line that struck me: “The author’s single voice hides in many smaller ones, cleverly so and repeatedly…”

I also liked the contrast Schwartz gives. Listing writers such as Tom Stoppard who rarely think of voice but rather choosing to enforce “distinctions of character.” Writers who choose to express ideas and perhaps worry less about how something is said or who says it. But Schwartz notes that writers experiment with voice and words and language and this is essential in revision—not having voice but finding voice within the work. Whatever sounds good fits. Truth should conform to music perhaps Richard Hugo would say. Schwartz concludes in one section that voice “creates and perpetuates itself.”

Schwartz then goes on to reflect on writers—American writers and their distinct and successful works. He writes that a writer’s voice is their work. So he lists Salinger, Faulkner and Hemingway. He ends with a passage from Ray Carver’s “Cathedral” and how the intent of Carver’s voice comes through. And quickly I want to say I’ve been thinking about Hemingway’s hardboiled language in contrast to Salinger’s sensitive and maybe even overly sensitive voice that comes from characters and narrators. How each of these authors represent so much of what it means to be American—the idea of Marlon Brando or James Dean contrasted with Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen. I think in these terms as I draft and as I revise because my Tio was tough and yet so fragile in condition and action and I want so much to portray this—men tough to friends and coworkers and yet so fragile with family and loved ones. I also am thinking how friends of mine mimic movie dialogue and funny phrasing from conversations observed/ taken from around us.

Anyway, I am tiring and losing strength in my eyes and focus in these notes but this essay seems like a great place to begin with my students in terms of introducing sensibility…a place to introduce stories from Salinger, Hemingway and Carver so as to springboard ideas from Schwartz. Oh and I did re-work “Juanita’s Boy” yet again—tweaking language and plot points—and so perhaps reading and classifying ideas from this book perhaps might be working for my revision.

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john paul jaramillo

John Paul Jaramillo’s debut story collection The House of Order was named a 2013 Int’l Latino Book Award Finalist, and his most recent work Little Mocos is now available from Twelve Winters Press. In 2013 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature listed Jaramillo as one of its Top 10 New Latino Authors to Watch and Read. He is currently a professor of composition and literature at Lincoln Land College-Springfield, Illinois.

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