“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment
before starting to improve the world.”
Reading these lovely words made me think of the beautiful Anne, which led me to search for my copy of The Diary of A Young Girl. What a pleasure it is when you suddenly yearn to open the pages of a story and find that it is on a shelf just waiting for you!
When I turned to the opening, Anne’s voice leaped out at me: funny, fresh, passionate, real. Anne was fierce in her likes and dislikes, from first to last. Consider how she describes two of her schoolmates:
“Jacqueline van Maarsan is supposedly my best friend, but I’ve never had a real friend. At first I thought Jacque would be one, but I was badly mistaken… J.R. — I could write a whole book about her. J. is a detestable, sneaky, stuck-up, two-faced gossip who thinks she’s so grown up. She’s really got Jacque under her spell, and that’s a shame.”
How alive Anne is! How we can almost see her in her classroom, fuming about the “sneaky, stuck-up” J.R. and her “two-faced” ways. In a few strokes, like Rembrandt, she paints us a picture — not just of her friends, but of herself as well. What marvelous writing! Anne made me think of other narrators who tell their own tales: Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, for instance, and Pip in Great Expectations.
Thinking about all these personalities, real and imagined, made me ponder once again that mystical writing quality called “voice.” It’s so elusive and yet so emphatic and energetic. As readers, we respond to it instantly, embracing characters who’ve been conjured up as if we might meet them tomorrow on our doorstep. But as writers, finding that pitch-perfect voice can be so challenging!
I remember reading that Frank McCourt wrote scores of pages of Angela’s Ashes before he penned a scene in a playground; once he’d written that, he said, he’d found his voice: that magical mix of humor and tragedy that he sustained with never a false note.
Of course, finding your voice as a character in the first person is one thing and finding it as a narrator recounting a story in the third person is quite another, but in the end, it all comes down to one thing: believability. Even an unreliable narrator can be made believable in his/her unreliability in the hands of a skilled writer. How amazing all this is, isn’t it: How we conjure up whole lives with a handful of words. Write on!