Thursday, May 20, 2010

Voice, Gender, Intuition, and Empathy

Elizabeth Zelvin

Some writers find they benefit greatly from books and workshops about the craft of writing. This is true not only for newcomers but for some well established writers. For example, the highly successful Nancy Martin wrote on Poe’s Deadly Daughters a while back that at a certain point in her career, she decided she wanted more control of her craft and turned to writers who had analyzed the process well enough to write books about it for guidance.

So far, this has not been true for me. I’ve participated in a lot of panels and interviews in which I’m asked how-to questions about various aspects of writing fiction, for example: How do you build a character? How do you make sure your protagonist’s behavior is consistent? How do you write dialogue that rings true for a historical character or for a character whose life experience is different from your own? How do you create voice? Some authors tell about how they keep lists and journals or arrays of post-it notes or read their draft aloud. Not me.

I often have to say that the process is intuitive. Having reached an age when I know a lot more about myself (as well as other things) than I did when I was younger, I can even tell you what “intuitive” is for me. I happen to be someone who processes information very, very quickly. That means that without consciously following a train of thought, I make many, many small decisions in a short amount of time. I think this is especially true for me in the matter of voice.

I recently took part in a panel on women writing male characters (like my series protagonist Bruce Kohler and others in my novels and the protagonists in some of my short stories). One of the questions the panelists were asked was whether we ever get it wrong. “Do men ever tell you that a man would never say something you’ve put in your male character’s mouth?” I hope my confident “No” didn’t sound too hasty, bald, or immodest, because it’s true.

One of the strengths of my writing (and believe me, I know the weaknesses too) is voice. I believe Bruce’s voice sold my first novel, Death Will Get You Sober. And since then, thanks to the gift of opportunities to try short stories, a form new to me, I’ve discovered that his is not the only voice, male or female, that I have within me. When I write a line of dialogue or first-person narrative, my brain is using intuition, ie doing a high-speed unconscious sorting of choices based on all of my experience of how people talk and think, so the character will say the right thing for who he is.

There’s another factor at work, too. An old friend said to me not long ago that he became an philosophy professor because he loves to argue. (When he realized that he didn’t like the other aspects of academic life, he quit. No, he didn’t go to law school and become a litigator—or get a theology degree and become a rabbinical scholar. He went into finance and made a ton of money. But that’s another story.) Anyhow, his comment interested me. My parallel reason for why I do my own work is that I became a therapist because I love knowing people’s secrets.

Talking with a group of friends about our pet-peeve expressions, especially those our nearest and dearest use or used over and over, I came up with the one of my mother’s that used to drive me wild: “You can’t imagine....” Sorry, Ma, but indeed I can. Imagining what people different from myself are capable of saying, doing, thinking, and feeling is my stock in trade as both a therapist and a fiction writer.

This trait, skill, gift, or tool—probably all of the above—is called empathy. It’s enabled me to speak with authority in the voice of a sardonic half-Irish recovering alcoholic New York guy, a young Marrano sailor on Columbus’s first voyage, a perennially traumatized Vietnam vet, and an eleven-year-old girl who’s being molested, among others. I have a lot of interactions, personalities, and secrets stored on the hard-drive of that marvelous computer, my brain, and I can empathize--feel vicariously what they feel, walk a mile in their moccasins, understand their motives and what they will or won’t do—well enough to form them into distinctive fictional characters who, when it’s working, come alive on the page.


Anonymous said...

You do have the gift of voice, Liz, and it comes through clearly.I think it's partly inate, but also has been developed by your career and listening to people. I've loved both your books and your short stories that I've read. Gloria Alden

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks so much, Gloria. :) It was great to see you f2f at Malice.

signlady217 said...

Well, the comic strip character "Maxine" is drawn/written by a man. John Wagner says she was inspired by his mom, grandmother, and maiden aunts. He nails it every time.

BTW, Maxine is one of my personal favorites.

Shalanna said...

My pet peeve is "he thought to himself." Well, unless all his thoughts appear on the nearest computer/TV screen and billboards within 1000 feet, YES, we KNOW it's "to himself." Sheesh! But you see this ALL THE TIME in published work.

lil Gluckstern said...

Lovely post, and yes, you do have the ability to hear the other's voice, and then write it. It's a gift, I think, to be given others' stories, and then, find yourself creating what you do. How nice it is to read you.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Lil. It's an honor to have appreciative readers. :)