This post started out as a comment to Kettle’s post today: Write Like You Talk…. But as it got away from me and I started taking over her comments, I asked her, “Do you mind if I write my own post in response?” She was gracious enough to say no, she didn’t mind at all, so please go read hers first and come back.
Ok, to review, the gist of it was that there is a piece of advice, often heard, “Write the way you talk.” The other part of the post was that prose writing is different from poetry and plays, and so…restrictions apply, I guess.
I don’t disagree with what she said. It’s just that, as usual, I have numerous thoughts on the subject. And I guess they hang out on both sides of this fence.
Write how you talk. Great advice. And, like all advice, only meant for sometimes.
I love a fresh voice. I love something that jumps off the page as being real, new, authentic. And I often loathe reading something that sounds pretentious and…overtly intellectual.
Still, you know, the way we talk might be far different from the way we think. Possibly, that has a lot to do with our audience. And if some wonderful voice is trapped up inside someone’s head because they don’t feel comfortable sharing that voice with the people immediately adjacent, maybe putting that secret voice on paper and letting the paper words find the right audience is the way to be. “Write the way you talk” would not be the right advice for that person, nor for the people who go into different worlds in their writing, different regions and social classes. There are writers who can hear the cadence of Ireland or the the drawl of deep South and can reproduce that on the page so that we can hear it too, yet they probably cannot make their mouths form those same sounds.
And so then “write the way you talk” becomes more– write what you hear in your head.
I think most people who write have noticed their tendency to mimic. Some writers keep the Muse on a strict diet when they’re working a particular part of their process. Has anyone ever read an historical and then found their characters saying, “I shall go and look,” or some such thing in the middle of their contemporary? Or using other old-fashioned language that now sounds melodramatic like using “for” instead of “because”- all because you were just engrossed in reading that employed that kind of language?
I am the “shall” police. I hate coming across what I consider to be antiquated, melodramatic, or pompous sounding language while I’m reading. It’s a huge turn-off for me. It doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the words themselves, but the overall tone and my perception of the intent. If you just sound like one smart lady, if I believe that that’s just the way you talk, if you can use those 50¢ words and yet make me relate to you, I’ll go scurrying off to the dictionary a few times and thank you for teaching me something. But if you come off as trying too hard to impress me, or worse!!, trying to make sure I am fully aware of your intellectual superiority (by making me feel dumb) with needlessly complex sentences and pretentious French phrases– uh-uh. Don’t need that. And I don’t believe that’s really you, I believe that’s who you need me to believe you are. [ooh, issues much, Susan? Why yes, thanks for noticing.]
I guess what struck me about the post was that the advice was being given to someone whose speech Kettle knows, she knows that’s not the way he talks, and she can call him on it. And I think that’s sort of dangerous because part of writing is finding out who you are. And how can you get to know that as yet unheard voice inside you’re head if you’re being told to live up to expectations based on the real-life person you’ve been presenting?
The other part of it was that, while most people don’t read aloud to themselves, there are those of us who hear as we read, who silently move our mental lips. While prose perhaps isn’t intended to be performed, I think it’s possible that those who tend to read in this way are sometimes less forgiving of those times when the writer lets herself drift into a less authentic mode. And my theory is that this happens most often because the writer’s output is being too heavily influenced by the reading input. So that when you’re reading that historical or literary novel while you’re writing that contemporary romance or gritty crime novel, it’s important to be aware of how one affects the other.
What do you think? What kinds of writing do you like to read? Are there voices you love, and are there things that just make you toss the book across the room?
ETA: If you’re following this non-debate, Kettle has written a follow-up post at her blog. Go over there and read it and my response.