Photo by Ellen Blum Barish
It’s one thing to talk about voice in fiction. That novel or short story is either written from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator or a character who sees the world through a particular lens. Characters created by the writer.
But it’s another thing to talk about voice in personal narrative. Those stories are written from our lives! Even if we aren’t divulging entire truths, we can’t help it: our writing voices are going to be a result of who we are.
I’ve been thinking a lot about voice because I’m in week six of my eight-week online personal essay and memoir workshop and voice is our focus. We’ve looked at pacing, detail, scene, dialogue and language, elements as fundamental in fiction as they are for personal narrative. But in personal narrative, voice is challenging to identify because it’s just so dang … personal.
You know a favorite writer’s voice when you read it just like you can identify a dear friend’s voice on the other end of the line or a beloved actor’s voice on television if you are in the next room. But talking about voice in personal writing is really hard. So hard that I went for a walk to think on it.
That’s when I saw the tulips.
Ah, I thought. Voice in personal writing is like a pasture of tulips in a garden. Each one from the same species but ever so slightly different, not just in their color but in the position of their petals, how the flower sits on the stem or in the curve of the stalk. You have to get up close to see the differences.
Also true for personal narrative. The feel and sound of a writer’s voice is in the rhythm of her sentences. (Pacing.) The subjects and objects highlighted. (Detail.) Location and the weather surrounding it. (Scene) The conversation shared. (Dialogue.) And word choices used. (Language).
David Sedaris came to mind. He’s a great example of an essayist and storyteller – both in his writing and his vocal chords – with a distinctive voice. If you have never heard him speak, you should! Listen to him tell his story about working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s in “Santaland Diaries” here.
One could say that Sedaris is funny and this would be true. But it wouldn’t help us understand what makes his work different from say George Carlin or Louis C.K.
One could say that Sedaris is rife with one-liners or that his timing is good or that he is a keen observer. But these would also be true of a number of comedians and humorists.
What is it that makes his voice, his own?
I decided to inspect one of my favorite Sedaris essays, “This Old House” at close range to see what I could take away. Here’s what I found:
He uses proactive verbs. Here are just a few from his essay: decorating, destroy, eye, nostalgic, jump, glow, light, lay, dressed, scouted. Strong verbs, all.
He employs compact turns of phrase: Both of us looked like figures from a scratchy newsreel… the groaning front porch … the occasional missing shingle… that the house, set as it was, on the lip of a student parking lot, had dropped from the sky like Dorothy’s in “The Wizard of Oz.”
He writes active sentences. Consider the difference between: My mother would notice if a guest eyed the buffet for longer than a second and jump in to prompt a compliment and what he wrote: Should a guest eye the buffet for longer than a second, my mother would notice and jump in to prompt a compliment.
He bravely commits to an opinion: “You like it?” she’d ask. “It’s Scandinavian!” This, we learned, was the name of a region—a cold and forsaken place where people stayed indoors and plotted the death of knobs.
He chooses well-selected dialogue snippets to provide us with insight into his relationships with family members: The way I saw it, the problem wasn’t my outfit but my context. Sure I looked out of place beside a Scandinavian buffet, but put me in the proper environment and I’d undoubtedly fit right in. “The environment you’re looking for is called a psychiatric hospital,” my father said. “Now give me the damn hat before I burn it off.”
Activity, compactness, bravery, insight. These are words that describe Sedaris’ writing.
I sent the Sedaris essay to my students and challenged them to find words to describe their own work. I’m thinking it’s not only a writing prompt but an exercise in discovering what they want to say. Finding one’s voice can also be an exercise in identifying one’s mission.
Here’s his essay in its entirely. Enjoy the sound of his voice. What describes yours?
This Old House
When it came to decorating her home, my mother was nothing if not practical. She learned early on that children will destroy whatever you put in front of them, so for most of my youth our furniture was chosen for its durability rather than for its beauty. The one exception was the dining-room set, which my parents bought shortly after they were married. Should a guest eye the buffet for longer than a second, my mother would notice and jump in to prompt a compliment. “You like it?” she’d ask. “It’s Scandinavian!” This, we learned, was the name of a region—a cold and forsaken place where people stayed indoors and plotted the death of knobs.
The buffet, like the table, was an exercise in elegant simplicity. The set was made of teak, and had been finished with tung oil. This brought out the character of the wood, allowing it, at certain times of day, to practically glow. Nothing was more beautiful than our dining room, especially after my father covered the walls with cork. It wasn’t the kind you use on bulletin boards but something coarse and dark, the color of damp pine mulch. Light the candles beneath the chafing dish, lay the table with the charcoal-textured dinnerware we hardly ever used, and you had yourself a real picture.
This dining room, I liked to think, was what my family was all about. Throughout my childhood, it brought me great pleasure, but then I turned sixteen and decided that I didn’t like it anymore. What happened was a television show, a weekly drama about a close-knit family in Depression-era Virginia. The family didn’t have a blender or a country-club membership, but they did have one another—that and a really great house, an old one, built in the twenties or something. All their bedrooms had slanted clapboard walls and oil lamps that bathed everything in fragile golden light. I wouldn’t have used the word “romantic,” but that’s how I thought of it.
“You think those prewar years were cozy?” my father once asked. “Try getting up at 5 A.M. to sell newspapers on the snow-covered streets. That’s what I did and it stunk to high heaven.”
“Well,” I told him, “I’m just sorry that you weren’t able to appreciate it.”
Like anyone nostalgic for a time he didn’t live through, I chose to weed out the little inconveniences: polio, say, or the thought of eating stewed squirrel. The world was simply grander back then, somehow more civilized, and nicer to look at. Wasn’t it crushing to live in a house no older than our cat?
“No,” my father said. “Not at all.”
My mother felt the same: “Boxed in by neighbors, having to walk through my parents’ bedroom in order to reach the kitchen. If you think that was fun, you never saw your grandfather with his teeth out.”
They were more than willing to leave their pasts behind them, and reacted strongly when my sister Gretchen and I began dragging it home. “ The Andrews Sisters?” my father groaned. “What the hell do you want to listen to them for?”
When I started buying clothes from Goodwill, he really went off, and for good reason, probably. The suspenders and knickers were bad enough, but when I added a top hat he planted himself in the doorway and physically prevented me from leaving the house. “It doesn’t make sense,” I remember him saying. “That hat with those pants, worn with the damn platform shoes . . .” His speech temporarily left him, and he found himself waving his hands, no doubt wishing that they held magic wands. “You’re just . . . a mess is what you are.”
The way I saw it, the problem wasn’t my outfit but my context. Sure I looked out of place beside a Scandinavian buffet, but put me in the proper environment and I’d undoubtedly fit right in.
“The environment you’re looking for is called a psychiatric hospital,” my father said. “Now give me the damn hat before I burn it off.”
I longed for a home where history was respected—and, four years later, I finally found one. This was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I’d gone there to visit an old friend from high school—and because I was between jobs, and had no real obligations, I decided to stay for a while and maybe look for some dishwashing work. The restaurant that hired me was a local institution, all dark wood and windowpanes the size of playing cards. The food was O.K., but what the place was really known for was the classical music that the man in charge, someone named Byron, pumped into the dining room. Anyone else might have thrown in a compilation tape, but he took his responsibilities very seriously, and planned each meal as if it were an evening at Tanglewood. I hoped that dishwashing might lead to a job in the dining room, busing tables, and, eventually, waiting on them, but I kept these aspirations to myself. Dressed as I was, in jodhpurs and a smoking jacket, I should have been grateful that I was hired at all.
After getting my first paycheck, I scouted out a place to live. My two requirements were that it be cheap and close to where I worked, and on both counts I succeeded. I couldn’t have dreamed that it would also be old and untouched, an actual boarding house. The owner was adjusting her “Room for Rent” sign as I passed, and our eyes locked in an expression that said, “Hark, stranger, you are one of me!” Both of us looked like figures from a scratchy newsreel: me the unemployed factory worker in tortoiseshell safety glasses and a tweed overcoat two sizes too large, and her, the feisty widow lady, taking in boarders in order to make ends meet. “Excuse me,” I called, “but is that hat from the forties?”
The woman put her hands to her head and adjusted what looked like a fistful of cherries spilling from a velveteen saucer. “Why, yes it is,” she said. “How canny of you to notice.” I’ll say that her name was Rosemary Dowd, and, as she introduced herself, I tried to guess her age. What foxed me was her makeup, which was on the heavy side, and involved a great deal of peach-colored powder. From a distance, her hair looked white, but now I could see that it was streaked with yellow, almost randomly, like snow that had been peed on. If she seemed somewhat mannish, it was the fault of her clothing rather than her features. Both her jacket and her blouse were kitted out with shoulder pads, and when they were worn together she could barely fit through the door. This might be a problem for others, but Rosemary didn’t get out much. And why would she want to?
I hadn’t even crossed the threshold when I agreed to take the room. What sold me was the look of the place. Some might have found it shabby—“a dump,” my father would eventually call it—but, unless you ate them, a few thousand paint chips never hurt anyone. The same could be said for the groaning front porch and the occasional missing shingle. It was easy to imagine that the house, set as it was, on the lip of a student parking lot, had dropped from the sky, like Dorothy’s in “The Wizard of Oz,” but with a second story. Then there was the inside, which was even better. The front door opened into a living room, or, as Rosemary called it, “the parlor.” The word was old-fashioned, but fitting. Velvet curtains framed the windows. The walls were papered in a faint, floral pattern, and doilies were everywhere, laid flat on tabletops and sagging like cobwebs from the backs of overstuffed chairs. My eyes moved from one thing to another, and, like my mother with her dining-room set, Rosemary took note of where they landed. “I see you like my davenport,” she said, and, “You don’t find lamps like that anymore. It’s a genuine Stephanie.”
It came as no surprise that she bought and sold antiques, or “dabbled” in them, as she said. Every available surface was crowded with objects: green-glass candy dishes, framed photographs of movie stars, cigarette boxes with monogrammed lids. An umbrella leaned against an open steamer trunk, and, when I observed that its handle was Bakelite, my new landlady unpinned her saucer of cherries and predicted that the two of us were going to get along famously.
And for many months we did. Rosemary lived on the ground floor, in a set of closed-off rooms she referred to as her chambers. The door that led to them opened onto the parlor, and when I stood outside I could sometimes hear her television. This seemed to me a kind of betrayal, like putting a pool table inside the Great Pyramid, but she assured me that the set was an old one—“My ‘Model Tee Vee,’ ” she called it.
My room was upstairs, and in letters home I described it as “hunky-dory.” How else to capture my peeling, buckled wallpaper, and the way that it brought everything together. The bed, the desk, the brass-plated floor lamp: it was all there waiting for me, and though certain pieces had seen better days—the guest chair, for instance, was missing its seat—at least everything was uniformly old. From my window I could see the parking lot and, beyond that, the busy road leading to the restaurant. It pleased Rosemary that I worked in such a venerable place. “It suits you,” she said. “And don’t feel bad about washing dishes. I think even Gable did it for a while.”
I felt so clever, catching all her references. The other boarder didn’t even know who Charlie Chan was, and the guy was half Korean! I’d see him in the hall from time to time—a chemistry major, I think he was. There was a third room as well, but owing to some water damage Rosemary was having a hard time renting it. “Not that I care so much,” she told me. “In my business, it’s more about quality than quantity.”
I moved in at the beginning of January, and throughout that winter my life felt like a beautiful dream. I’d come home at the end of the day and Rosemary would be sitting in the parlor, both of us fully costumed. “Aha!” she’d say. “Just the young man I was looking for.” Then she’d pull out some new treasure she’d bought at an estate sale and explain what made it so valuable: “On most of the later Fire King loaf pans, the trademark helmet is etched rather than embossed.”
The idea was that we were different, not like the rest of America, with its Fuzzbusters and shopping malls and rotating showerheads. “If it’s not new and shiny, they don’t want anything to do with it,” Rosemary would complain. “Give them the Liberty Bell and they’d bitch about the crack. That’s how folks are nowadays. I’ve seen it.”
There was a radio station in Raleigh that broadcast old programs, and sometimes at night, when the reception was good, we’d sit on the davenport and listen to Jack Benny or “Fibber McGee and Molly.” Rosemary might mend a worn Wac uniform with her old-timey sewing kit, while I’d stare into the fireplace and wish that it still worked. Maybe we’d leaf through some old Look magazines. Maybe the wind would rattle the windows and we’d draw a quilt over our laps and savor the heady scent of mothballs.
I hoped that our lives would continue this way forever, but inevitably the past came knocking. Not the good kind that was collectible but the bad kind that had arthritis. One afternoon in early April, I returned home from work to find a lost-looking white-haired woman sitting in the parlor. Her fingers were stiff and gnarled, so rather than shake hands I offered a little salute. “Sister Sykes” was how she introduced herself. I thought that was maybe what they called her in church, but then Rosemary walked out of her chambers and told me through gritted teeth that this was a professional name.
“Mother here was a psychic,” she explained. “Had herself a tarot deck and a crystal ball and told people whatever stupid malarkey they wanted to hear.”
“That I did,” Sister Sykes said, chuckling.
You’d think that someone who occasionally wore a turban herself would like having a psychic as a mom, but Rosemary was over it. “If she’d forecast thirty years ago that I’d wind up having to take care of her, I would have put my head in the oven and killed myself,” she told me.
When June rolled around, the chemistry student graduated, and his room was rented to a young man I’ll call Chaz, who worked on a road-construction crew. “You know those guys that hold the flags?” he said. “Well, that’s me. That’s what I do.”
His face, like his name, was chiselled and memorable, and, after deciding that he was too handsome, I began to examine him for flaws. The split lower lip only added to his appeal, so I moved on to his hair, which had clearly been blow-dried, and to the strand of turquoise pebbles visible through his unbuttoned shirt.
“What are you looking at?” he asked, and before I had a chance to blush he started telling me about his ex-girlfriend. They’d lived together for six months, in a little apartment behind Fowler’s grocery store, but then she cheated on him with someone named Robby, an asshole who went to U.N.C. and majored in fucking up other people’s lives. “You’re not one of those college snobs, are you?” he asked.
I probably should have said “No,” rather than “Not presently.”
“What did you study?” he asked. “Bank robbing?”
“Your clothes,” he said. “You and that lady downstairs look like those people from ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ not the stars but the other ones. The ones who fuck everything up.”
“Yes, well, we’re individuals.”
“Individual freaks,” he said, and then he laughed, suggesting that there were no hard feelings. “Anyway, I don’t have time to stand around and jaw. A friend and me are hitting the bars.”
He’d do this every time: start a conversation and end it abruptly, as if it had been me who was running his mouth. Before Chaz moved in, the upstairs was fairly quiet. Now I heard the sound of his radio through the wall, a rock station that made it all the harder to pretend I was living in gentler times. When he was bored, he’d knock on my door and demand that I give him a cigarette. Then he’d stand there and smoke it, complaining that my room was too clean, my sketches were too sketchy, my old-fashioned bathrobe was too old-fashioned. “Well, enough of this,” he’d say. “I have my own life to lead.” Three or four times a night this would happen.
As Chaz changed life on the second floor, Sister Sykes changed it on the first. I went to check my mail one morning and found Rosemary dressed just like anyone else her age: no hat or costume jewelry, just a pair of slacks and a ho-hum blouse with unpadded shoulders. She wasn’t wearing makeup, either, and had neglected to curl her hair. “What can I tell you?” she said. “That kind of dazzle takes time, and I just don’t seem to have any lately.” The parlor, which had always been just so, had gone downhill as well. Now there were cans of iced-tea mix sitting on the Victrola, and boxed pots and pans parked in the corner where the credenza used to be. There was no more listening to Jack Benny, because that was Sister Sykes’s bath time. “The queen bee,” Rosemary called her.
Later that summer, just after the Fourth of July, I came downstairs and found a pair of scuffed white suitcases beside the front door. I hoped that someone was on his way out—Chaz, specifically—but it appeared that the luggage was coming rather than going. “Meet my daughter,” Rosemary said, this with the same grudging tone she’d used to introduce her mother. The young woman—I’ll call her Ava—took a rope of hair from the side of her head and stuck it in her mouth. She was a skinny thing, and very pale, dressed in jeans and a Western-style shirt. “In her own little world,” Sister Sykes said.
Rosemary told me later that her daughter had just been released from a mental institution, and though I tried to act surprised, I don’t think I was very convincing. It was like she was on acid almost, the way she’d sit and examine something long after it had lost its mystery: an ashtray, a dried-up moth, Chaz’s blow-dryer in the upstairs bathroom—everything got equal attention, including my room. There were no lockable doors on the second floor. The keys had been lost years earlier, so Ava just wandered in whenever she felt like it. I’d come home after a full day of work—my clothes smelling of wet garbage, my shoes squishy with dishwater—and find her sitting on my bed, or standing like a zombie behind my door.
“You scared me,” I’d say, and she’d stare into my face until I turned away.
The situation at Rosemary’s sank to a new low when Chaz lost his job. “I was overqualified,” he told me, but, as the days passed, his story became more elaborate, and he felt an ever-increasing urge to share it with me. He started knocking more often, not caring that it was 6 A.M. or well after midnight. “And another thing . . .” he’d say, stringing ten separate conversations into one. He got into a fight that left him with a black eye. He threw his radio out the window and then scattered the broken pieces throughout the parking lot.
Late one evening, he came to my door, and when I opened it he grabbed me around the waist and lifted me off the floor. This might sound innocent, but his was not a celebratory gesture. We hadn’t won a game or been granted a stay of execution, and carefree people don’t call you a “hand puppet of the Dark Lord” when they pick you up without your consent. I knew then that there was something seriously wrong with the guy, but I couldn’t put a name to it. I guess I thought that Chaz was too good-looking to be crazy.
When he started slipping notes under my door, I decided it was time to update my thinking. “Now I’m going to die and come back on the same day,” one of them read. It wasn’t just the messages but the writing itself that spooked me, the letters all jittery and butting up against one another. Some of his notes included diagrams, and flames rendered in red ink. When he started leaving them for Rosemary, she called him down to the parlor and told him he had to leave. For a minute or two, he seemed to take it well, but then he thought better of it and threatened to return as a vapor.
“Did he say ‘viper’? ” Sister Sykes asked.
Chaz’s parents came a week later, and asked if any of us had seen him. “He’s a schizophrenic, you see, but sometimes he goes off his medication.”
I’d thought that Rosemary would be sympathetic, but she was sick to death of mental illness, just as she was sick of old people, and of having to take in boarders to make ends meet. “If he was screwy you should have told me before he moved in,” she said to Chaz’s father. “I can’t have people like that running through my house. What with these antiques, it’s just not safe.” The man’s eyes wandered around the parlor, and through them I saw what he did: a dirty room full of junk. It had never been anything more than that, but for some reason—the heat, maybe, or the couple’s heavy, almost contagious sense of despair—every gouge and smudge jumped violently into focus. More depressing still was the thought that I belonged here, that I fit in.
For years, the university had been trying to buy Rosemary’s property. Representatives would come to the door, and her accounts of these meetings seemed torn from a late-night movie: “So I said to him, ‘But don’t you see? This isn’t just a house. It’s my home, sir. My home.’ ”
They didn’t want the building, of course, just the land. With every passing semester, it became more valuable, and she was smart to hold out for as long as she did. I don’t know what their final offer was, but Rosemary accepted it. She signed the papers with a vintage fountain pen, and was still holding it when she came to give me the news. This was in August, and I was lying on my floor, making a sweat angel. A part of me was sad that the house was being sold, but another, bigger part—the part that loved air-conditioning—was more than ready to move on. It was pretty clear that as far as the restaurant was concerned I was never going to advance beyond dishwashing. Then, too, it was hard to live in a college town and not go to college. The students I saw out my window were a constant reminder that I was just spinning my wheels, and I was beginning to imagine how I would feel in another ten years, when they started looking like kids to me.
A few days before I left, Ava and I sat together on the front porch. It had just begun to rain when she turned and asked, “Did I ever tell you about my daddy?”
This was more than I’d ever heard her say, and before continuing she took off her shoes and socks and set them on the floor beside her. Then she drew a hank of hair into her mouth, and told me that her father had died of a heart attack. “Said he didn’t feel well and an hour later he just plunked over.”
I asked a few follow-up questions, and learned that he had died on November 19, 1963. Three days after that, the funeral was held, and while riding from the church to the cemetery Ava looked out the window and noticed that everyone she passed was crying. “Old people, college students, even the colored men at the gas station—the soul brothers, or whatever we’re supposed to call them now.”
It was such an outmoded term, I just had to use it myself. “How did the soul brothers know your father?”
“That’s just it,” she said. “No one told us until after the burial that Kennedy had been shot. It happened when we were in the church, so that’s what everyone was so upset about. The President, not my father.”
She then put her socks back on and walked into the parlor, leaving both me and her shoes behind.
When I’d tell people about this later, they’d say, “Oh, come on,” because it was all too much, really. An arthritic psychic, a ramshackle house, and either two or four crazy people, depending on your tolerance for hats. Harder to swallow is that each of us was such a cliché. It was as if you’d taken a Carson McCullers novel, mixed it with a Tennessee Williams play, and dumped all the sets and characters into a single box. I didn’t even add that Sister Sykes used to own a squirrel monkey, as it only amounted to overkill. Even the outside world seems suspect here: the leafy college town, the restaurant with its classical music.
I never presumed that Kennedy’s death was responsible for Ava’s breakdown. Plenty of people endure startling coincidences with no lasting aftereffects, so I imagine that her troubles started years earlier. As for Chaz, I later learned that it was fairly common for schizophrenics to go off their medication. I’d think it strange that the boarding house attracted both him and me, but that’s what cheap places do—draw in people with no money. An apartment of my own was unthinkable at that time of my life, and, even if I’d found an affordable one, it wouldn’t have satisfied my fundamental need: to live in a communal past, or what I imagined the past to be like—a world full of antiques. What I could never fathom, and still can’t, really, is that at one point all those things were new—the wheezing Victrola, the hulking davenport. How were they any different from the eight-track tape player, or my parents’ Scandinavian dining-room set? Given enough time, I guess, anything can look good. All it has to do is survive. ♦