Next weekend I’m reading an excerpt from Wire to Wire at the Springwater Grange in Estacada, Oregon. It’s a big room, and I’ve been practicing for it, working on getting it loud.
I can do loud, but I don’t do it naturally. My speaking voice is normally a little bit quiet. In fact, a long time ago I adopted the line from the B-side song “The Quiet One” by The Who: I ain’t quiet – everybody else is too loud. (For younger readers, The Who are an a cappella group from Leeds, known for their delicate harmonies.)
On the other hand, when I started learning fiction, my writing voice was the opposite of my speaking voice: I always wanted the writing to be loud. A blast of voice is how I would describe my early style now, though at the time I called it incantatory – because I had read that Kerouac and Joseph Conrad, both of whom I liked, were incantatory writers. I wanted sentences that went on for pages, doubled back on themselves, and emptied the bench of every punctuation mark known to man, especially semi-colons. Dashes were good too.
Of course, I was doing this at about the same time Raymond Carver was revitalizing the short story with short, direct sentences that displayed exactly the opposite signal to noise ratio. (In Carver’s case, all signal, no noise.) My allegiance to the sound of a sentence (caring more about how the syllables fell than the story being told, would be a harsh way of putting it) might have been an early warning sign of the long road ahead. But I wasn’t deterred.
In fact, I once sent a friend an unmarked cassette tape with a message, written in Sharpie, probably in all caps, that said: “This is how I want my writing to sound.” On the tape was an Elvin Jones drum solo. I bought some of his albums to listen to when I wrote.
(And I still have them. Filed under J right next to Joan Jett. Go ahead - imagine me as a vinyl aficionado if you like. It’s not really true, but I like the way aficionado sounds on the page. Which explains why I once changed my name to Johnny Revillagegado for a very brief time. But that’s a whole nother post, as we would say in Michigan.)
Eventually I finished a story built around voice. It opened like this:
It was a new time and we rode slam hard, rode it on flatcars and hoppers and bulkhead flats, in empty woodchip cars, gons, auto ramps, and piggies all over the west, the prairies and dirty western towns of district nine, Kalama, Lillooet, Sutter’s Portage, dozens of towns seen from the frame of a boxcar and eyes numb past blinking. Towns of dust where dirty kids threw rocks at the train – in laziness, not maliciously – and empty towns on the straight flat where the last lit beer sign burned thirty miles into the night.
The story worked, sort of – it got published in a low-circulation newsletter – but soon I discovered the limitations of voice (like the problem of wearing the reader out). And I started reading Robert Stone. Since then I’ve read the opening sentence of Dog Soldiers about 7,000 times. “There was only one bench open in the shade and Converse went for it, although it was already occupied.” A setting, a character, and an action, all in 19 fairly quiet words. My admiration for that, and for the rest of the book, started me on a new path – one of looking beyond voice. Beyond loud.
I would still be lost on that path today – wandering through the woods, eating acorns, clutching an unfinished manuscript for warmth – were it not for Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose. Stevan and Joanna teach writers in Portland at The Pinewood Table, named for the table in Joanna’s living room. I joined the group in the early 2000s, thinking I would stay for five weeks or so. I stayed for five years instead. I read every word of Wire to Wire around that table; the parts that puzzled me most (and there were lots of them) I read two or three times. If not for Stevan and Joanna and the other writers at the table (from whom I learned nearly as much) there would be no book, no blog, no readings. Among the many things I learned at that table was when and how to stop writing Wire to Wire.
Stevan and Joanna are both reading at the Grange this coming weekend – Stevan organizes the Writers Night event once a year. This year, the theme is "On the road." I’m thrilled to be reading there with them. I’ll be going to a lot of great bookstores this summer – places I’ve always dreamed of reading. But nothing could be more perfect than starting with Stevan and Joanna at the Springwater Grange in Estacada.
As far as I’m concerned, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
Elvin Jones explains how to build a drum solo around the melody of "Three Card Molly."