More Thoughts on Voice

Actually, I am always trying to tone down the arrogance. Not that anybody I know in person ever described me as being arrogant. Arrogance is the character that seems to infuse my writing. This is one of those things that leads me to believe that we are different people when we are in our writing mode.

As a bilingual, and I mix with quite a few bilinguals, I know that your personality tends to change a little when you switch languages. Japanese people tend to become more outgoing and assertive when they speak in English. Often, they muster the courage to be more blunt. Strangely enough, Americans who speak Japanese do not become more restrained or self-suppressed, but tend to become self-deprecating and more empathetic.

I suppose, even when you are limited to the same language, your personality may take on subtle changes when you are writing, instead of just interacting in real life. After all, writers tend to be introverts in person, and garrulous on paper.

In person, I am just another restrained and repressed middle-aged Japanese man in a tweed sports jacket and corduroy slacks who still wears a necktie to work. I honestly am still baffled why, when I write, the words seem to have such an incorrigible nose-in-the-air feel about it.

Perhaps it has something to do with the voices I conjure in my head while I write. One of my favorite actors is James Spader, and I like to hear his voice in my head while I write my narrations. Mr. Spader has not played a humble character in decades. He seems to be type cast as an egomaniac. He started his career as a teenager, doing a series of teen movies with John Hughes, then he moved on to yuppie movies Less Than Zero and Wall Street, then to Steven Soderberg’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, a quintessential ’80s movie. In the ’90s, he made a series of artsy and under-appreciated political thrillers and sexual character sketches. He kept flailing at tittering, self-conscious, meek roles, and burning rubber in abrasive, arrogant, dominating roles until he settled on a style that seems to best suit playing wounded but ego-driven smart-aleck characters.

I don’t always write with the same voice in my head, and I am not sure if the voice is the cause or the effect of my writing style. More than one person have expressed that they sense a mild contempt for the reader in my prose. I sense it myself sometimes. I am rather sure that it is there, although it is not intentional. I write, if fact, with a sense of humility in that I am never quite sure if my writing is good enough. Cate Kennedy wrote, “A story is an offer, not a claim.” Words to live by. I have struggled to shake the habit of writing in order to prove something about myself, with spotty success. Veering between naive awe at the power of words and narcissistic self absorption, the personality of my writing style may have evolved into  something like a distilled character performance.

It would be most desirable if it had. Stephen King has pointed out that readers do not read for the story or the plot, but for the voice. Maybe my writing voice is a little too intrusive. Or maybe it is unpleasant or annoying. Either way, I must say that I am not certain that it is a voice that will win me some fans. When you are still pretty sure that your own writing sucks, it is not easy to love your own voice that conveys it. But if my voice is condensing into a style through the years, I will sooner or later have to make peace with it.

Jazz legend Dexter Gordon, portraying himself in the movie Round Midnight, said “You just don’t go out and pick a style off a tree one day. The tree’s inside you, growing naturally.” It is a wild tree with a mind of its own, and you cannot control the way the branches grow.

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