Listening to Voices

Writing often feels like listening to voices inside your head. Little snippets capture you, if you have ears to hear. You’ve really got to tune in, though.

Listening to Voices

When should we write? When should we look at the ideas that we’ve captured in our little notebooks or in the apps on our phones and tablets, and say to them: “It’s time to commit you to the page”?

For me, this can be a frightening question. Once I move from idea to actually writing, the possibility that I will get it all wrong emerges. In the idea phase, things are perfect because they are formless. Like souls, ideas have nothing to weigh them down. They float and flit about without strings to keep them rooted and anchored and real. The problems that might exist with an idea can easily be addressed by amputation or metamorphosis or some other process that solves things.

But when we move the idea to the concrete, when we begin to write it down—and notice that we do write things down—then the problems become fixed; they gain a sort of reality that requires more effort to remove them. The soul has found itself in a body and we can’t just lop off limbs willy-nilly, but we have to consider how the amputations affect things more generally.

Worse, however, we become attached to them. That attachment personifies the idea and we begin to experience remorse when the thing grows and changes. The piece goes from a twinkle in the parents’ eyes, to a child who mimics the parents, and then to an adolescent who rebels against the parents. Ultimately, the idea lives its own life and we are just going to have to be okay with that. Against our advice, it takes up with an unsavory lover, drops out of art school, and lives a dumpster-diving existence that we parents never intended for it.

When we give form to an idea, we take the same risk that Dr. Frankenstein took: we give life to something that we cannot hope to control.

For three years now, I have been attached to an idea. Throwing caution to the wind, I committed that idea to paper in the form of a novel, 17 chapters and an epilogue, more than 70,000 words. I printed it out in manuscript form and put it on a shelf where it rested for several months before I let Natalie read it. She had kind things to say, of course, but she also had ideas of her own. I asked her to commit those ideas to writing, perhaps because I was scared to talk about them.

More than two years have passed, and I still haven’t returned to the project except in thought. The only tangible evidence of my return to that novel is a set of notes that hangs on the wall directly in front of me, a single typewritten page that spells out a new version of the novel, a version that has to be rewritten from scratch because I have realized that the story needs to be told from a different point-of-view. While I enjoyed bringing all of the characters in the novel to life, one character in particular was not done justice, and she happens to be my favorite. Let’s call her “Lorraine”—because her name, at least for now, is Lorraine.

Lorraine’s story was not properly told and the more I think about the novel, the more I realize that it is, indeed, Lorraine’s story.

In recent weeks, I’ve begun to hear Lorraine’s voice in my head. She comes to me in fits and starts. Her worldview and her speech patterns combine for a moment, her soul and her body, and I begin to see what she would see and hear what she would say or think.

I committed a few pages of Lorraine’s voice to my journal a few days ago, on May 21st, to be exact. Here’s what I wrote in introduction:

I am thinking about Lorraine this morning. Her voice might be coming to me, which is both wonderful and worrying. Do I have the stamina and the gumption to put her on the page? I do not know. But here’s a taste of what I’m hearing…

I then scrawled out three pages of Lorraine’s point-of-view in what I think is the opening scene of this novel. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s not. But it was fun to put down what she had to say.

When should I finally commit to Lorraine?
When should I say to her that it’s time to hear her story?

I’m not sure. But I do know that writing often feels like listening to voices inside your head. Little snippets of voice capture you, here and there, if you have the ears to hear. You’ve really got to listen, though; you’ve got to tune in to what’s being said.

Sadly, our day-to-day lives often work to drown out these voices: bills, household chores, the day job, etc. We get to the afternoon and find that all we really want is a beer to dampen our senses and a good series on Netflix to distract us.

As I told Gus, though, in last week’s letter: what we pay attention to grows.

  • Do we pay attention to the voices inside our heads?
  • Do we let them speak for themselves?
  • Do we commit the idea to the page, to give it form, to give a body to the soul?

I know that Lorraine has much to say. Is it time to raise her voice?