Voice is a Slippery Fish

May 3, 2008

Paul here –

I ran into an old friend at a film screening the other day. He had heard about Kickstart and asked, quasi-jokingly, whether I considered myself an author, an editor, or a “compiler.” This was a bit of a toughy.

Maybe it’s the three years I spent at university devouring, worshiping, and critiquing what the English consider the paragons of their language’s literature, but I still consider “authors” to be members of an elite club you need to do a certain amount of intellectual heavy-lifting to join. An “author” does something beyond simply writing a few words you can sandwich into a binding. They create or re-create worlds in which every detail, from the grandest to the most minute, needs to stand up to scrutiny. Alex is an author. His forthcoming novel, The Toronto Trilogy stands up to the test. I, however, am still something else.

But an editor? No, what we did with Kickstart went beyond editing. And “compiler”? Well, no offense to my friend, but I haven’t a clue what that means.

Kickstart is composed of small, first-person entries in which the participants in our book discuss being young, struggling to find their path through life, and working towards some kind of attainment of their desires. To produce the book, we engaged in a process that some of our readers have found slightly mystifying. Perhaps that’s why I had such difficulty distilling precisely what it was that I did.

It went a little something like this: we met our participants (usually over coffee) for several hours, talked to them on the record, typed out transcripts of our interviews, identified what we thought were the structural spines of their stories, and then worked collaboratively with them (referencing the above-mentioned transcripts) to produce a series of first-person narratives that we found lucid and compelling.

There. That’s it. So, what do you call that?

When I started thinking about it, I tried comparing the act of creating Kickstart to “ghost-writing.” In our interview with June Callwood, she talked quite a bit about ghost writing. She had done some in her time, and considered it quite a skill (if not necessarily her favourite literary pastime). As a ghost writer, you are part story editor and part voice capturer. You find the kernel of the story (which the teller may not know themselves) and you capture the cadence and tone of what they are expressing. That’s no easy task.

Several years ago, I wrote a piece for Maisonneuve magazine about political speechwriters. When I began researching it, I felt that political oratory (especially in Canada) was largely insipid piffle because those delivering the speeches rarely penned them. To me, too many politicos looked like bad actors that had only received their hastily written scripts five minutes before delivering them. But as I talked to experienced speechwriters, I learned to appreciate the craft.

One Liberal speechwriter in particular spoke of the importance of capturing voice. He made a study of how different politicians composed their thoughts by watching them in Question Period. Allan Rock, he pointed out, always spoke in complete sentences while Anne McLellan rarely did. In lieu of forcing a speaker like McLellan to adhere to the straight-jacket of a grammatically correct sentence, he explained, it was best to tailor her speeches to her natural verbal idiosyncrasies and rhythms. Legendary JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen would answer the phone pretending to be the president. He imitated so as to master. To write a successful speech for someone else, you had to practice talking, and thus, indirectly, thinking, like the person who would deliver it.

To write for another person’s mouth, though, is very different from distilling their voice in a written work. With Kickstart our aim was for the reader to feel as though they were sitting down to coffee with each participant. We wanted the prose to feel conversational and genuine.

We had two things on our side. For one, we had the transcript as a reference; and two, we were exchanging drafts with the participants in question. The problem was that both of these positives weren’t always as helpful as you’d imagine.

Let’s address the first one first. The transcript of a conversation is indeed the precise record of what words were spoken in what order. But anyone who has ever compared the record of a conversation they’ve witnessed or partaken in with the memory of said conversation will know that the former is usually a pale shadow of the latter. The snap, crackle, and pop of a person’s conversational speech are typically nowhere to be found in a transcript. As a result, you need to infuse the lifeless words and chaotic grammar on the page with your interpretation of the “spirit” of the conversation you had.

The second problem relates to the question of self-awareness. Few people have any idea what they sound like when they speak. Usually they have far more important things to worry about. Often, when we presented participants with faithful versions of what they said, we were told that “it doesn’t sound like me at all.” When we acknowledged this was possible and allowed the participants to take a kick at it themselves, they often sent us back dry regurgitations of the facts in their stories without an ounce of the spirit or verve with which they’d been relayed in the moment. The three of us ensured that the participants in the book always had final say over the words in their chapters, but getting to the point where everyone was happy was a laborious process.

So what would I call myself? To be fair, I’m still not at all sure. But the whole process of attacking that question (and the questions that have sprung out of it) has been very educational, especially as I set out to write yet another draft of my current short film project. In it, I’m trying to capture the voices of two Elmore-Leonard-esque toughs. Getting it right requires a lot of listening on street corners and subway platforms. It requires removing (as much as possible) the preconceptions and traps imposed by too-many bad movies. But it’s a process that could easily go on forever.

Voices are slippery fish, never wholly caught in the net of written language.

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