words follow me


archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

third letter

Dear aburo,

In the first of my letters to you, I spoke about clarity of sentences, avoidance of cliché, and other such basic matters. I think that these are suggestions that anyone can follow and, in so doing, come up with something readable. But mere readability shouldn’t satisfy you. There are books you have read that left you with only astonishment. There is some part of you, perhaps, that wishes to re-create that astonishment in your own readers. How does one get there? Well, if I knew that, I would be so busy collecting prizes that I wouldn’t have time to write to you at all! But let us explore the question…

For centuries, writers have tried to figure out how to match story to mood and expression. Some have focused more on plot, others have expended their energies on rhetoric, and others yet believe that the secret is in the length of the book or in its title. In my view, one of the things that matters most is voice. Great writers know all about it, and ordinary writers ignore it.

But what, exactly, is voice? Writing is silent: mute ink on a flat page. Writing has no volume, no timbre, no accent, no actual sound, and when we read, the only voice we hear is the imaginary one in our own heads. But we “hear” something when we read the following: “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements.”

From these two short sentences, we can make the educated guess that the speaker is some sort of insider. The voice feels older, much older than the twenty-eight-year-old author who wrote those lines in 1958. The narrator, we surmise, knows enough about the nine villages to be able to say what does and does not constitute “solid personal achievements.” But what is interesting here is that the narrator doesn’t say, “I know enough about the nine villages…blah, blah, blah.” The narrator’s authority is something we pick up from the voice. We have a notion not only of Okonkwo’s prowess but of the narrator’s opinion of that prowess.

The plot of a given novel might not kick in until page fifteen, or page fifty, or it could even turn out to be an excellent but plotless book. But one thing that’s always there, right from the opening lines, is the voice. When we are speaking to someone in real life, we use many nonverbal hints to help get our point across. Our faces give away a great deal—flaring nostrils and darting eyes; the tempo of speech, the inflections, the slight modulations of accent. But such cues are not present in writing. They must be brought into the text as unobtrusively as possible.

Listen to this: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” What can we tell, from the voice, about the kind of story being told here? It is a similar voice to Achebe’s, in that it seems to be drawing on a collective memory; but this is a more intricate and more playful voice; it is gossipy, flipping between distant future and distant past, and eager to press a yarn into your willing ears. That initial suspicion will be borne out by the rest of the book: One Hundred Years of Solitude delights in weaving in and out of itself, playing with time, and introducing outrageous characters.

Another example, also from the first page of a novel: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it.” Well, this one is quite different, but as with Achebe and García Márquez, what J.D. Salinger is doing here is more than simply giving us information. He is telling us what kind of narrator we are dealing with. The narrator, is named Holden Caulfield, and he is funny and impetuous, but there is also more than a hint of sadness in him. It could be a single word or a phrase—in this case, the self-defensive “I don’t feel like going into it”—that opens up an entire new dimension to the work.

I love the way Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus begins: “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.” The facts, from the foregoing, are that a boy named Jaja is in trouble with his father and that the dispute has to do with religion, but what else has Adichie hidden in there? For one thing, there is the obvious reference to Things Fall Apart. And then there is that strange word at the end—”étagère”—which makes you raise your eyebrows and say, “Who is telling this story, and why has she chosen such a peculiar word? Why doesn’t she just say ‘shelf’?” So you read on, as much for the story as to figure out how the mind of the narrator Kambili works. And isn’t it just like a bright fifteen-year-old to say “étagère,” if for nothing else that to warn you that she’s well-educated and not to be trifled with?

So, aburo, as you set out to write your story, be aware that it is very much a matter of voice. Ursula K. LeGuin has written that “the story is not in the plot but in the telling.” What all great works have in common is that the voicing is secure. There is evidence, throughout, that how the tale is being told is precisely how the author wishes it to be told.

In fact, I suspect that voice is not simply the way you tell the story, but rather it is itself where the story comes from. The novel I have just written began with a voice—an intelligent, sorrowful, but self-deceiving voice—and it was from this voice that the entire book itself emerged.

It is likely I will return to this matter of voice in some future letter to you, but I hope these thoughts are useful as you translate that tale in your head into ink on the silent sheet.




Filed under: letters to a young writer, literature

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