Tuesday, January 20, 2009

My Cracked Kettle

In which I channel Flaubert and become self-aware. And rhyme unintentionally.

Today, in honor of the inauguration, I would like to write something beautiful and deep, something like this, or something like Obama's speech, that would leave you shivering and alive, something that would RESOUND. I want to RESOUND, people.

I do not resound. And I fear I am far more likely to leave you giggling to yourselves than I am to leave you shivering, unless you are visiting la Maison Jacqui, where we refuse to turn the thermostat above 64 degrees.

My very favorite quote when I was 17 was from Madame Bovary: "...human speech is like a cracked pot on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to when we would make the stars move with our melodies."*

I would make the stars move with my melodies still, but lately, I think maybe I should leave the star-moving to others. Voice is my strength. My plots stagnate and my middles are meh, but my characters' voices are unfailing. I have been asking myself, though, what is MY voice? And the answer, when I am honest, is that I am practical. I am realistic and "let's get going why are you standing around talking about stars when there's life to live?" I love to play and I love more than almost anything to make people laugh. That is me, much more than heaviness and philosophification. And the older I get, the more I am able to let go of the dream of being James Joyce, and to cling to the dream of just being me. Dancing bears are outright funny, and someone's got to bang their drums. And you know what? I'm pretty good at the cracked kettle.

I have read countless chapter books and novels for young adults and children. I tell every new writer who asks me for advice to read, read, read every classic, well-written book for kids they can find. I stand by that advice.

But after the last chapter, I am learning I need to close the door on all those other voices. I need to leave Katherine Paterson and Nancy Farmer and, gulp, even Salman Rushdie, at their own writing desks, so I can be alone at mine. And I think only then will I be able to write the novels that are my own.

So here is my challenge for you: who are you? What is YOUR voice? And if it's not in your writing, why not? No, seriously, I want to know.

* my translation, because that's how I remember it and it fits my French version
** photo from Wikipedia Commons, by Fernando Revilla


Tabitha said...

This is too funny. I think the universe was sending out Voice vibes when we wrote our blog posts. :)

Elise Murphy said...

Ah, to be precise, that was a very moving and inspirational blog post. And so apropos to my current situation. Your advice is sound . . . you have to be able to tune out all expectations, recommendations, trends, when you are looking for your own voice. And love what your voice is. Have no regrets for what your voice is not. Maybe Salman Rushdie is out there saying, "Gah, I wish I could write something lighthearted, funny, and smart like Jacqui."

Jacqui said...

Tabitha, or we share a brain. :)

Elise, thank you. I hope Salman is able to live with his shortcomings...

Brenda said...

Mama always says my voice is hidden like a deer in the woods. But when it does come out I hold on like an old hound dog to a bone, daring anyone to mess with me.

Okay the above is from my MG story I hope to one day finish...only in my story you need to change the word "voice" to "temper"...I find I tend to write with a bit of (as Hubs says) backwoods charm.

J. Thorp said...

definitely sound advice, J ... simple, too, but not easy!

Jacqui said...

Brenda, I love that line -- with temper or with voice. My temper is also hidden but mighty.

Thorp, thanks.

Rena said...

Nice post, Jacqui. I'm still trying to figure out what my voice is. Sad, but I don't have a clue.

Candace Ryan said...

Hey Jacqui,

Don't sell humor short. Laughter may come from the belly, but it stirs the heart on its way out.

I've never heard someone ask, "Where would a person be without a sense of profundity?" But a sense of humor-- heck it's the sixth sense. And you have it!

To prove how human humor makes us, we only differ by the two last letters. It's essential to our being.

As for James Joyce, he favored giggles over shivers, but his giggles are so hard-earned in labyrinthine layers of allusive and multi-lingual language, that they can have the effect of leaving shivers once one discovers their amazing symmetries.

Sadly, I believe his last words were something to the effect of, "Does nobody understand?"

For myself, I make a lousy James Joyce, but a pretty decent Candace Ryan. Viva la humor!

Candace Ryan said...

Sorry for the second comment, but I also wanted to show how it isn't just writers who struggle with voice (and the mixture of other voices in one's head). In the words of composer Aaron Copland:

"My love of the music of Chopin and Mozart is as strong as that of the next fellow, but it does me little good when I sit down to write my own, because their world is not mine and their musical language [is] not mine."

Jacqui said...

Rena, I think it's really really hard.

Candace, you are spot on about humor. I've never said, "Oh, she seemed nice enough but she had no depth." I love the quote and you can comment as much as you want. I love comments.

J. Thorp said...

I like the Copeland quote, too -- and it reminded me of how the influences of very different voices can be heard in unexpected places. Alicia Keys was quoted in Rolling Stone years ago, extolling Chopin's preludes -- her words were, "Chopin is my dawg."

Who knew?

I've read "The New Girl ..." many times now. It's light, funny -- and it touches something deep (in me and the kids). You may never write East of Eden, J, but your book moves me enough to recommend it and buy it for friends -- and I don't do that sort of thing very often.

J-Rob is my dawg!

Angela said...

I still am in the process of letting go. I think for me I spent so much time learning the rules of writing, I struggle with the letting go of them to free my voice. I need to figure out how to just let it all fall to the wayside and let the words come without thought. Great post!

Jacqui said...

Thorp, thank you. And thank you.

Angela, that's the key, isn't it? Somehow thinking yourself out of thinking? Aak.

Mary Witzl said...

I love this post.

Let Salman Rushdie eat his heart out -- I go for light and zany too, for what it's worth. Once in a while, I do aim for thoughtful and heart-rending, but there has to be a lot of fun in it or it's just no good.