“Once upon a time there was a pair of pants. They were an essential kind of pants—jeans, naturally, blue but not that stiff, new blue that you see so often on the first day of school.”
Chances are you instantly recognized the above passage as the opening sentence of Ann Brashares’s mega-bestselling Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
You know why you recognized it? It’s probably the same reason I remembered it almost verbatim even though I haven’t read that book in ages.
Hollywood casting directors have the “It” factor. Record label executives talk about “star quality.” In the publishing world we have “voice”.
No one can define it. It can’t be taught or manufactured or broken down into ten easy steps and sold, via DVD, on late night infomercials or at www.instantbestseller.com.
I can’t even tell you what it is—but I know it when I see it.
And I definitely see it here…
“His real language was basketball, and he was such a taut, fluid athlete that he couldn’t help seeming a little bit bottled up indoors…Danny existed in suspension, neither black nor white, neither beating up or beaten, beautiful but unfazed by the concept of girls, rotten at schoolwork but coasting through classes, and frequently unanchored by gravity, floating between pavement and the tangled chain-mesh of the St. Vincent’s basketball hoops.”
That passage comes from Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, a book so rich in voice that I could probably close my eyes and point at any page and find something worthy of posting here.
Why do I love these examples? I don’t know. Why do you think a painting is pretty or a song hypnotic? When I think about voice I remember that writers are artists, drawing from our language’s common pool, stringing syllables and lines together into something so unique and rare that when it is done well it is no less than beautiful.
Voice—like fingerprints, it leaves traces on everything we touch.
Some say writing is a skill you learn like any other. Some say it’s a talent you are either born with or not. I like to think that there is truth in both.
Jonathan Lethem and Ann Brashares are blessed—talented. But don’t tell me they didn’t labor over those passages (and the thousands that came before them) as they mastered their amazing gifts.
Writers write. And now we’re back where we began, so I guess that’s my cue we’re finished.
Hopefully the last few days have been enjoyable for you—I know they have been for me. Thanks for letting me rant about my pet peeves and crazy theories, but now I have to stop preaching and start doing.
So I’d better get busy.