January 22, 2013 by bradcharlesbeals
I’ve begun asking myself this question recently: why do we write? I thought the exercise might make a good post or two. My first responses sounded like they came from grad students sitting in a circle, “reflecting”:
- We write because self-expression is a necessary component of self-actualization.
- We write because as human beings, we are uniquely endowed as communicators.
- We write to make sense of our inner dialogues.
- We write in hopes of hearing the world around us echo back
I didn’t like those answers, so I changed up the question a little. I asked myself why do I write. That was a lot easier and, more importantly, a lot more relevant.
I came up with 4 answers. Today I’ll tackle the first: VOICE.
About five years ago I read for the first time the novel Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. The experience added a category of shape the English language could take. For those who don’t know the book, it takes place in the Civil-War-era American South (if you know only the movie, disregard this post, you’ve been spoiled beyond help), but to say that it’s written in southern dialect and leave it at that might produce a Mark-Twain-Andy-Griffith impression. And that would mislead.
Just as Twain had his own purpose and genius, Frazier too has his own, a very different one. As I read Cold Mountain, I’m reminded of Annie Dillard’s work in that there is always the sense that at any turn–the next phrase, line, sentence, paragraph–I might run into something remarkable. Image after image (some, sadly, hijacked by the film) from CM have become intractable pieces in my interior landscape, and they present themselves at the most mundane times. I see an old wood-clad shack on a run-down acre and think of the slanting house of the betrayer. I taste honey and remember the black stuff Inman and Veasey ate on their wanderings. What sort of land produces black honey? I watch a vulture lift off road kill with something dangling in the beak and am reminded of the slave girl left to die in the cage. Some images are gruesome and some redeeming, but all are presented in unexpected phrasing. Cold Mountain is scoured clean of cliche.
I can still speak in a vulgar form of ColdMountainese. My thoughts don’t get dull, they get worn to a nub. The rain doesn’t wet the road, it beats the hard-pack to a sucking mud. I don’t eat on the go, I lunch afoot. At the time of the readings (I say readings because when I finished it, I turned back to page 1 and started again; I’ve been in some phase of re-reading it ever since) I thought in the narrative voice of the book. It became my inner native tongue, and I wanted to exercise it.
I was working on a collection of parables at the time. The characters from one of the tales are three brothers who live on a farm “situated well in rich bottomland.” The setting was perfect for some Southern flair, so I conjured up Frazier’s 3rd-person-limited narrator. It was great fun writing that story. So much fun in fact that I decided to draw the voice out for a whole novel, a whole 107k words. I chose to write a novel because I wanted to slip into a voice and stay there for a time. Voice came first, character and plot followed.
I’ve since blurbed my Raising Ebenezer as a Twain-meets-Tolkien fantasy adventure. I choose such company with tongue hard against left cheek. I am no Twain, Tolkien, or Frazier, but I can mimic. When I go stealing, I do know enough to steal from the very best.