Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Al Alvarez - The Writer's Voice

I just finished reading Al Alvarez' The Writer's Voice. I thoroughly recommend it for writers (and to a lesser extent critics or art/literature historians), I really do. There's little excuse not to, a dolt like me could have easily finished it within a day and, despite it covering relatively complicated concepts, I understood it.

It was perfectly complementary to a number of titles I've read for my university course, whilst giving a fresh, dynamic and also further-reaching account of literary issues that are close to my heart. It was like a small cog in a machine, deceptive because of its size, but actually the thing that ties so much of the rest of the workings together. For example, Alvarez' talk about the relationship between physicality ('muscular processes') and mental exercise brought up a number of parallels with Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Similarly, the schism between public projection of an artist and the actual writer is one of many things that Margaret Atwood covers in Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing that Alvarez also writes about. None of the material is reproduced, however, it is all fresh and stimulating. Further to my comparison with Atwood, I felt a similar sense of positively-affirming revelation after completing both books, but Alvarez' was much shorter. Being short isn't the be all and end all, of course, I'm merely saying that his succinct style packed a hell of a wallop, but if you have the time to check out Negotiating With the Dead too, I think they could go hand in hand as ways of understanding who you are as a writer and where you want to go next.

There were so many things to take away from reading Alvarez. The first - and perhaps the most 'pertinent', given the book's title - is that the writer's voice is the most important thing. One can hone craft, read widely and take all the mind-expanding substances one wants, but ultimately voice is something that can't be bought, ingested, learned or consciously changed, yet it is the difference between hitting home with your audience and simply putting words down on a page (I think the way I've put it implies that even 'review-type material' can have an energetic and touching quality with a compelling voice. I think that's spot on). My only real problem with this text is that in the first section ('Finding a Voice'), Alvarez makes a distinction between 'voice' and 'style' and then seems to fail to keep the two distinct (at least for someone of my intelligence to easily discern).

Other wisdom conveyed is that this voice can't be rushed (exactly what I need to be hearing right now), it can become powerful late on in life when youthful exuberance (ha!) has long since faded. There are so many 'lessons' I'd love to share, but I want you to read the book rather than read this. Plus one of the founding tenets of this blog is to 'keep it short', and I'm already off track there... So the last thought I'll say I took from The Writer's Voice is the disruptive (if not destructive) influence of the study of (English) Literature on literary production. I've been a keen literary student (if not a gifted one) and had, until reading this book, thought that Literature could help me write, learning, as it were, from heroes of the written word. I realise how false this is, not in the least part due to how context and the evils of biography overtake the text in primary importance. 'x was addicted to drugs, so now this poem is all about addiction,' is an overly-reductive (hey, I'm not getting paid to go into detail here haha) but fairly-true thought that may go through a Literature student's mind that will 'unlock' certain 'meanings' from a piece of writing, but also lock up and obfuscate the true power of creation that is unfolding between their eyes. This looks like a good place to shamelessly link you to Billy Collins' 'Introduction to Poetry'. But yeah, there's so much more to take from this, give it a go.

Now a bit of arse-licking: Alvarez is covering a massive swathe of time, from Classical culture all the way up to the Beat generation. Despite being a prominent critic in his own right, he covers the WRITING side of things consistently. In his considered approach, there is no deviation or afterthought. Instead he covers social, political, historical and cultural detail with an almost abrupt style, getting across strongly his voice and hygienic prowess by not wasting a single word or engaging in an ounce of circumlocution (that's my job). Clinical is a fairly good word - though it risks connotationally excluding the warmth and 'engagingness' he exudes - because he reminds me of a doctor I recently spoke to. He was such a friendly chap, it seemed like I was talking to a mate I've known for years. He talked about medical issues that were beginning to get beyond me, but then rephrased them in a more accessible way so that I fully understood. The only difference between he and Mr Alvarez is that the latter was not present to actually ask, "Did you get that?" I'm sure he would do, though, given the chance.

With that, I shall stop myself from going on even further. All I want to convey to you is how important this book is in terms of drilling right to heart of the matter of not just why writing can be important but how. It's far from a 'how to' guide, but the sensible ones amongst you will be stirred like a hot coffee and feel those granules of instant coffee within you dissolve, making the beverage of yourself stronger and more resolute. It's a day's reading, if that, so get it and make the time to absorb it. Comment back, maybe, tell me what you thought.

Peace out, and remember that no matter how down you feel, tomorrow is a new day and the limitless possibilities that abound around us
must contain some positive outcomes.

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