Trick of the Voice

The question is, how does one find the voice of the narrator? 

I kind of have to trick myself. 

I am reading (the brilliant) Kate Zambreno’s Drifts. It’s a novel that purports to be notes written while the narrator is supposed to be working on another novel, also called Drifts. At one point, the narrator describes her project to a writer friend as “my fantasy of a memoir about nothing.” Then she thinks of Rilke, writing an autobiography of an alternate self. 

I think of Doctorow’s World’s Fair (yes, I’m still, perpetually, reading Doctorow), a (fictional) memoir with bits of (fictional) oral history, and I also think of Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. It’s a way to write a novel: to introduce some formal convention — the memoir, the autobiography, the epistolary — that transports you into the voice. You are not you, writing. You are your lover, writing her autobiography. 

My favorite type of book, and I haven’t found many examples, is a genre I call let me tell you about my  friend, aka memoirs of others.

In these books, someone relates the life story of someone they knew, not trying to come off as an objective third party, as a biographer usually would, but through the extremely subjective lens of a person who knew the deceased (I have never found an example where the subject is not deceased) intimately. It’s part autobiography, because the author is a character in the story, but they are not the main character. 

What I love about these books is the first-person point of view speaking of the experience of the other. It is also the experience of the self, of course, but it’s the experience of the self refracted. I also love how this form forces us to question how well a person can really know another.

I toy often with the idea of writing a fictional let me tell you about my friend. Stein’s Autobiography isn’t quite it. I mean a fictional subject and a fictional narrator. 

This next novel isn’t that, but thinking of that type of narrator — and her far remove from me as a writer — is helpful. And I’ve been introducing different forms to try to reach her. The blog, the screenplay, maybe some reportage, maybe some oral history.

Who knows what will stay and what will fall away. Right now, it’s all part of the trick.