Starting in January, 2011 "First Page" will be a regular column feature in The Writer Magazine. Look for it!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Song of the Dust Bowl

Often in fiction writing workshops and guidebooks much attention is paid to what, for lack of a better term, is called the author’s “voice.” Though almost everyone talks about it, no one seems to really know what it means. Are we talking about a character/narrator’s voice, or the author’s voice? Are they one and the same? Is voice the same as style? If not, what’s the difference?

I tend to tell my students, “Pay no attention to voice or (for that matter) to style. Instead, focus on three other words: clarity, concision, and precision.Write clearly, efficiently, with as few wasted words as possible, and choose those words you do use with the precision of a surgeon choosing his instruments. Do those things, and 'style' (or 'voice') will take care of itself."

I dispense such advice in earnest, because I believe it, and because I think any other approach to style is a recipe for self-consciousness, and self-consciousness is the surest way to doom a piece of prose. To try for a "unique" or "poetic" or "interesting" or "effective" style, to make style the object of one’s efforts and not what it should be, an organic consequence of an author’s genuine desire to connect with readers, is to court failure, embarrassment, and disgust. To think about style is to put ego ahead of what we writers exist to serve: stories.

Some may argue that in swearing allegiance to the same three gods (clarity, concision, precision), we'll all end up sounding alike. But I doubt it. There are so many ways to be clear, precise, and concise. And even if there weren't, still, we're all trying to be clear, precise, and concise about different things. Given these same humble goals, each of us finds his or her own way. One writer needs a sentence to be clear; another needs a whole page. All of which is to say that the author whose urgent wish is to connect with readers, will, through that sincere need, arrive at not only a good voice, but a unique one.

This first page presents us with a strong voice born of urgency. Under a bright blue sky riddled with “mocking” clouds, twelve year-old Julie tends a parched garden, “a few scraggly rows of whatever we were able to keep alive.” The year: 1936, the last year of the so-called Dust Bowl that ravaged a hundred million acres of farmland in the Great Plains. Even without those mocking clouds that blue sky would be ironic, its cheerful hue teasing at best, a stark contrast to the faded blue of the mother’s (probably gingham) dress as she bends to harvest the garden with her daughter.

From the house comes an infant’s cry. Julie—the girl—is sent inside to tend to her baby brother who has kicked away his covers and whose wailing face is “as red as an over-ripe tomato”—riper, for sure, than any tomato likely to sprout from the dessicated land outdoors. Nothing on this first page escapes the Dust Bowl’s merciless heat. Everything—sky, earth, vegetables, baby, mother and daughter—burns with it. The absence of adult males is duly noted. Where have they gone, why, and will they return? For the time being, in any event, these women are left to their own devices, at the mercy of the elements and of their powers of faith and endurance.

I wish that the opening lines of this first page engaged the first person narrator, and not just clouds and sky. Stories are about people, not weather, and I'd like to experience that blue sky and those clouds through the narrator's eyes, and not apart from her, as here. Beyond that, I've no complaints.

As for the “voice,” there’s something stark, dry, and dusty about it, something of the faded blue gingham cloth of which the mother’s dress is doubtlessly made: utilitarian, without zippers or frills, and yet not without its humble charms. Like water from a well dug deep into the dry earth and served in a spatterware cup, it may not be much. But considering the source it’s something to sing about.