Across The Waters
An Interview with Jill Hackett (originally posted by the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative)
SBWC: The idea of voice in writing is a slippery one. How do you define voice?
JH: Indeed ‘voice in writing’ is a slippery term. Its slipperiness is what inspired my research and my book—and the second chapter, Describing Voice, wrestles with definition. The most useful definition I unearthed was from Donald Graves and Virginia Stuart—a kind of foresenic authorial DNA: “Voice is the imprint of theperson on the piece. It is the way in which a writer chooses words, the way in which a writer orders thingstowards meaning. As writers compose, they leave their fingerprints all over their work.”
I began each interview asking the women authors how they defined their own writing voice. YA author Yoko Kawashima Watkins’ response was one of the most memorable: “In simplicity. A shout from the heart. That’s all, nothing more. Tell the truth, and the feelings.”
SBWC: You’ve said that as a technical writer you were trained to write “in other people’s voice, or in no voice at all.” Can you talk about the process of discovering your own writing voice?
JH: As a technical writer, I was trained to write mute. Erase the person (and their fingerprints) from the information—e.g., just hand the reader the correct wrench and tell them how to use it. Ironically, my 20 years as a technical writer strengthened the craft of writing—making me all the hungrier for the art of writing. It taught me to write to deadline, pound out a first draft, revise, incorporate edits, assess criticism, and integrate necessary unforeseeable major changes in almost finished manuscripts. Software tools became involuntary muscles that no longer got in the way of writing. Technical writing thoroughly taught me the skill that author James Michener attributed his success to: “I can put the seat of my pants to the seat of the chair for 8 hours a day, every day.”
As I apprenticed myself to published women writers through interviews, I started to discover the variety of ways that creative work can begin. Some authors begin with a title. Some begin with setting. Some create a palette of words, other writers stream words. Some have a character lead them into the story. John Irving always knows he is beginning a new novel when he has written the complete last sentence of the book. He writes the last sentence first, then plots the whole novel, then writes from the beginning to the end, and never changes the last sentence. My own strongest writing begins kinesthetically—it is a physical feeling I get when I know a piece is ready to be written.
SBWC: In your wonderful book, I Gotta Crow: Women, Voice, and Writing, you identify “three voice centers,” the voice from our head, the voice from our heart, and the voice from our bodies. Can you talk a little about the value of this distinction for you, and the way these centers might work with or against each other? Do our internal voices need to harmonize to do our best work?
JH: The three voice centers are: the voice from our head (the rational voice: ideas strike us and set offthoughts and plans), the voice from our hearts (the emotive voice: feelings, memories, longings, andpassions), and our body voice (language of the gut, hunches, intuition)
From rational to emotive, there is a range. No writing is purely from one polarity. Technical writers deal withhunches and intuition of how to order their pieces, even while they may strive to erase personality. Poetsuse the logical mathematics intelligence of the rational mind to manage meter and form. Each of us hasour primary, favored voice center, but any of the voice centers can lead off effective communication. Each center has its own purpose.
For me, the rational / head voice is useful for plotting, editing, and structure. Working from the heart works for me when working with dialog and character development. When my writing is flowing best, I am writing from my gut. Natalie Goldberg discusses that when she finds herself getting stuck when writing, she drops into her belly.
SBWC: In The Sound on the Page, Ben Yagoda writes, “…it is frequently the case that writers entertain, move, and inspire us less with what they say that by how they say it.” What role does style play in the idea of voice? Is crafted writing authentic writing? Is voice learned or innate or both?
JH: I would suggest that Yagoda’s “by how they say it” may not be just style—but perhaps something more than words. There is information that travels on top of words, which the writer’s voice transmits. Stephen King discusses this in his book On Writing: a memoir of the craft, where he suggests that writing is a telepathic activity. The writer creates a scene in their own head which they put on paper and expect their reader to receive months or years later.
Have you ever noticed, when listening to non-fiction books on tape, that when the author reads their own book, it is much easier to grasp the concepts than it is when a professional voice over artist reads it? King’s writing book is a good example. I read the book, and then listened to the audio version, and absorbed much more information from the audio than the written book. Information traveling on top of the words.
Similarly, in written format, “the way in which a writer chooses words, the way in which a writer orders things towards meaning” is more than style, and creates impact, influencing meaning.
SBWC: Voice in fiction is tied to the idea of persona. Is the idea of voice the same for the novelist, short story writer, or poet as it is for the technical writer or the memoirist?
JH: Writing voice “echoes” within the reader. Something resounds. Strike a tuning fork and move it closerto, but not touching, a second matching tuning fork. The second fork will begin vibrating, picking up thesound waves from the first tuning fork. A strong writing voice, likewise, moves something within us. This resonance, I believe, occurs in novels, short stories, memoir, and poems.
In good technical writing, the issue is not as much about resonance and voice as it is about clarity and simplicity. I once had worked extremely hard to present a complex control panel in an understandable usable way. My editor commented to our manager that this was so simple, anyone could have written it. To this, our manager replied that it was an excellent piece of technical writing precisely because something so complex was made simple. I had succeeded in erasing the person from the piece and writing mute—and handed them the wrench.
SBWC: In I Gotta Crow, you explore the ways gender impacts voice. How do writers historically marginalized or silenced find their authentic voice?
JH: Gloria Steinem said that “especially for any group that has been marginalized, you need a time of being central.” It is important to find a community that listens and allows the marginalized voices to develop more fully. Hedgebrook.org on Whidbey Island, Washington state, was founded to support women writers—particularly women advocating change. Amy Wheeler, the executive director of Hedgebrook, said, “when you understand that storytellers shape our culture, they shape who we are as individuals, as a people, then, who gets to be the story teller is a really pivotal question.”
The Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and Girl’s Development confirms this approach. In a longitudinal study of girls during their ages of 7 though 13, the study found that girls who had an older female relative, who was willing to stand outside the dominant culture, and listen to the girl—these young girls were able to hold on to their own knowing, and their own voice. The results of this study were published in Between Voice and Silence: Women and Girls, Race and Relationship, by Jill McLean Taylor, Carol Gilligan, andAmy M. Sullivan.
SBWC: I’m very much interested in the idea of elision in writing; that is, what we leave out of our stories or essay or poems can convey as much as what we put in. What role does silence play in voice?
JH: Silence is an important language. Not speaking can be an intensely relational act, as is the struggle tofind one’s true voice. Our voice is shaped by what we do—and do not—voice, and by when we choose tospeak and when we choose silence.
The author chooses what is foreground, what is background. Repression is a different kind of silence, andalso shapes voice.
SBWC: We grow as people and as writers. How do you reconcile the idea of an authentic voice with changes in our abilities, our interests, and ourselves?
JH: I have wrestled with the myth that, to write and let you read it, my thinking has to be fully mature,complete, finished—and that five years from now, I’d agree 100% with what I wrote. There is somethingdaunting about the permanence of the written word. A phone call fades, even e-mail is more likely to bedeleted than not. But a written note can be taken out and read over and over again, over time. And itcontinues to speak from the person who wrote it—who I might not be in five years.
Annie G. Rogers, when talking about writing her memoir book, A Shining Affliction: Tales of Harm andHealing in Psychotherapy, said that one of the most difficult tasks in the writing was to go back to theperson she was when she was experiencing this, and write from that voice. That’s one thing, memoirs.Somehow, change in that genre is expected.
But, for me anyway, I have had to work at giving myself permission to grow in my writing. To begin with apiece that I know I will be able to improve on someday, but let it be read, let it go. I struggle with thisconcept in writing this book. Roni Natov, a professor at Union Institute & University, told me, “Just do yourbest writing. It will change. You are still learning and will always be.” That helped.
Then I thought about the other arts—specifically, looking at Georgia O’Keeffe’s work. Her early pieces, inblack and white, are very clearly early efforts with seeds of her later brilliance. Put an early sketch next to awondrous oil from the end of her career and step back. I can only have admiration for where she began, andwhere she concluded.
So, I foster my courage and court inspiration by tucking an early O’Keeffe near my keyboard. And givemyself permission to grow.
SBWC: What most surprised you about these discussions? What did you find most helpful to your own work?
JH: I was surprised by the generosity of story, and willingness to support and share experiences. Writing can be such a solitary act, and yet, through these interviews I felt deeply accompanied . The many different ways that writers began writing was fascinating to me as well as their writing habits and disciplines.
SBWC: If voice is something that is partly learned, how do beginning writers develop voice? What role does reading play?
JH: When a visual artist first learns drawing, they often start by studying the masters. A pianist will begin with learning scales (craft) and then classic pieces as their skill allows. Similarly, it writers helps to read voraciously to hone their ear. Author Phyllis Hoge mentioned that she can now see the influence of Rilke and Yeats on her early work, when she first began writing poems, because she was reading a lot of their work.
And part of the work of finding one’s voice is peeling back the inherited voice, which has been layered onto us by our families, schools, communities and Zeitgeist. I interviewed Nancy Houfek, who was head of Voice at the American Repetoire Theatre. When she trains new actors, she begins by peeling back the learned habits of the environments in which the actors were raised. She mentioned that mid-westerners had a way of holding their muscles tighter around the mouth than, say, New Englanders. Getting the budding actors in touch with these habits gave them awareness to make choices—it develops their body into a blank canvas that they can layer as they build their characters for the stage. And this process helps to unveil their natural abilities and innate skills.
Similarly when we as writers can examine our inherited voice, and understand our cultural shaping, we may be able to find our blindspots, our strengths, and make more powerful choices about the voice we choose.
SBWC: One element you explore in your book is the idea of “inherited voice”. How do our personal histories affect our writing voice, and what can writers do to increase awareness of these invisible or forgotten influences?
JH: There are many ways that our inherited voice impacts our writing, and we will be exploring some of these ways in the workshop on September 17th, “Mining Family Stories.”
For example, in family therapy theory, family systems are rated on a continuum from enmeshed (where your mother talks to you through a closed bathroom door) or disengaged (when many things are just not mentioned). These patterns of communications are learned, and can inform how close you hold your reader, how you have your characters interact.
SBWC: Strunk and White call the issue of style/voice “high mysteries.” Are there elements of voice that seem indefinable to you?
JH: We know voice when we feel its resonance. We know when a piece we have written comes through so clearly—writing from the bone. What is more challenging to define is one definition of writing voice since it is the fingerprints we leave all over our work—and is as unique as each writer’s DNA.