The 4 Voices of Story

Posted on February 17, 2013

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Image: This old cart was behind my house in Rye, next to the blueberry marsh, on the way to the creek in Riversong. Everything is true…

The Pre-Meander

Recently my brother Richard had his first child, John Thomas. Richard sent me the strangest message (I paraphrase, I cannot go back and retrieve it from IM):

Richard: When are you becoming a teacher?

Jon: ???

Richard: I want you to teach my son.

Well, I’ve long been looking for a path to academia that didn’t involve the MFA paper mill, but suddenly I am much more highly motivated.

John Thomas, this one is for you. And since my nephews are the closest things I’ll ever have to sons, I dedicate Die with a Human Heart to you, a story that took me 30 years to finish, I hope it makes sense for you. If I had a son, it is the story I would tell him.  Richard finally fell to earth.

Coincidentally, another friend, Ellen, and I had been IMing about a story I recently “published” here.  While Richard and I go back over 30 years, I’ve only actually had the occasion to meet Ellen and her husband a few times, but there was an instantaneous connection between us, no doubt reinforced by her being one of my biggest fans. Seriously, you want some loving, talk to me about my stories. What can I say? I’m not Vivian Maeir (whom I hope will soon be the topic of another post).

At any rate that story, Riversong, was a bit less direct and more “flowery” than some of my prose. While I hope to occasionally write a good line, this “story” essentially grew out of a collection of lines, thoughts, and memories tied together with the loosest of narratives. (As such, it took the longest to edit!) It seems some authors try  to pack every line with some literary meaning. My chiropractor gave me The Brothers K by David James Duncan, whose The River Why is supposedly about fly fishing, and I suppose  you could say it is – in the way The Hustler is about pool.  It could just be I hated the movie based upon my Brad Pitt infallible rating system: the longer it takes Brad Pitt to die in a movie, the worse the movie is. I think in this case it was something like 9 hours. But I read the first page of the Brother 48 times and never could get past it. It was overloaded, overbearing, overwritten. I know, he’s a great American writer and I have a blog. For penance I did suffer through a book of his short stories. Which I then gave to my chiropractor. Ah, the circle of life.

Maybe this is just a long apology for writing fluff. My literary philosophy can be summed up with this analogy: I loved the garage-rock stripped down sound of the U2 album War. Joshua Tree still held my attention and I appreciated their musical growth and, well, lyrical lyrics. By the time they got to the every 128th-noted filled wall of sound that was Zooropa it left me cold. I’m a British-invasion, blues-based story kind of guy. Don’t get me wrong I think some of those lyrics are beautifully simple (anybody who follows me on Facebook and isn’t permanently annoyed by my constantly posting them please let me know!) I want to write that kind of stripped down thing that is, as Keith Richards said “aimed at the groin, and not at the head.” I want a story first. You can layer whatever else you want on top of it, but please don’t go raising no boneless chickens. Give me the bones, then the muscle, then the sinews, and if you have all of that you can put a pretty face on it.

The Point

Where is this going? Oh, yeah. I was apologizing for writing fluff. Don’t worry, my current piece is a farce. At any rate, Ellen and I started discussing the fluff (I really wish I could pull up those old IMs!) and based on a Facebook chat about Black Sun on another friend’s page, we were talking about certain lines. People like to quote certain lines back to me in appreciation. For the fun of it, I even added a little competition for people to pick their favorite line.  She mentioned usually reading my stuff several times. (I may have an audience of 3, but they read them several times! Pretty much don’t need any more success than that.)

I quipped something to the effect that if she ever figured it out to please let me know.  The truth is, it can often take me decades to actually understand my own stuff. Maybe that’s why I’m so impatient with others’ writings. At any rate that brings us to the First Voice (finally).

First Voice

First Voice is just the story. What is it about? Was the author able to get their (I know, it should be his/her, whatever) basic story across? I remember I took a writing class in college (I actually have a minor in this stuff) and people were discussing one of my poems. Here is the thing, they all loved it, they all thought it was about something different, and none of them understood it the way I’d intended it. At first, I really thought I had failed, I mean I never got the idea across. Then I was okay with it, because there was enough there that they just told themselves their own story, and it moved them. It was revelatory on many levels.  I do think with stories there is, for me, one small difference. I do not give myself a pass on you not getting the basic idea. If I write a story about fishing, well, I hope we agree on that.

Second Voice

No story is about fishing! Right? Robert Frost said he never wrote a nature poem, he only wrote death poems. So, what is the fishing metaphor about today, Jon? Well, I think this should be something people can work out for themselves without me having to explain the punch line. Of course, it may have different flavors for different people, and I’m excited about that. Maybe Voice 1 is the plot and Voice 2 is the theme. Let’s go with that. I remember that much from high school and it kind of makes sense after a glass of Purple Haze.

Third Voice

This is the story behind the story. This is me talking to my friends. If you know me, then there is this little extra bit you get out of the story. There is a reason Loren, Ellen’s husband, wanted Riversong to be called Scent of Pine in an Oak Forest. And there is a reason I didn’t use my original title. Yet that line does stand on it’s own. It’s a great line. It speaks volume about this woman whose name you never even learn. The story-behind-the-story for The Very Cruelest Thing was so good, Mark Hoffman asked me to write a blog just on that. That got more hits than any post I’ve ever made.

Fourth Voice

You might have to be me, or ask me to know what this is about. And it might take me 20 years to figure it out and answer. As Stephen King said, roughly, the best thing about being a writer is  you get to hear the story first. In that sense I’m always my own audience. In fact, I think this is one of the most important aspects of “art.” Once you start creating things for an audience, I think you are lost. You need to create for you, and if you are talented, hardworking, can  connect, and have something to say, you might develop an audience. Look at me, I have three! Maybe if you knew I wrote Unrequited Waltz at a Grateful Dead concert it would add, maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe if you knew Dayan was Irish for “lioness” and the person in that story was a Leo you would care. Maybe you would know who she was. Maybe you knew everything the moment I said “brookie.” Maybe, just maybe, someday I’ll know it too.

Why is it I ever think I’m going to write short?

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Posted in: Fiction, Writing