With the support of the Copyright Agency‘s Cultural Fund, and in partnership with the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre, Westerly delivered our fifth Writers’ Development Program in 2020–21.
Three talented emerging writers were offered professional guidance and support in developing their work for publication in Westerly, both in print and online. We are delighted to showcase their reflections on the Program at the Editor’s Desk, and will celebrate the publication of their writing in the upcoming Westerly 66.2.
As an emerging writer, lately I’ve been concerned with finding my own voice: like a set of keys I lost on the bus; a shell I can’t quite crack; or a god I can’t quite believe in. Every day I write, read and think about the coordinates of its location, the right tool to crack the shell, or the right prayer to access belief… okay, okay, okay. But the array of metaphor is instructive. What even is voice?
Etymologically speaking, voice is connected to the sounds humans make with their mouths: one may say ‘I heard someone’s voice’, or ‘I’ve lost my voice’. It evolved in usage to capture a person’s particular quality or characterisation—for example ‘Freddy Mercury sings like an angel’. Further along, it broke the sound barrier and opened up the possibility of standing as a sign for some distinguishing character or expression, so that, in literary terms, when we talk about the ‘voice’ of Sally Rooney, Patrick White or Junot Diaz, effects are conjured which are intimately related to their particular je ne sais quoi.
We can talk cogently about how literary building blocks like POV, tone, syntax, etcetera construct a voice, but any comprehensive argument collapses into reductionism. Some definitions equate voice with authorial point of view, implying that if Toni Morrison and Tim Winton chose the second person present tense, then their voice would be the same. But the whole is not reducible to its parts. You can’t explain Jackson Pollack’s style by colours, shapes, tone: the only way to comprehend a Jackson Pollack is to look at a Jackson Pollack. The same carries to voice in fiction: we can pick up a book, read a paragraph and spot a Gabriel Garcia Márquez, an Alexis Wright or a Peter Carey. As a reader, when I think of great writers and how I’m affected by their art, I think about their voice. As an emerging writer, this is the holy grail I’m chasing, and what I mean by the term ‘finding my voice’. I want someone to pick up my story, read a couple of lines, and go, ‘A-ha! I’ve got a Ben Mason!’
Here, I’m going to propose a general tripartite structure to examine how voice is made: part writing, part reading, part life experience. I’ll define the concepts and use them to reflect on how I developed voice in my story, ‘Revival of a Dying Town’ (to be published in Westerly 66.2):
I can think about problems in my work, like plot or the rhythm of sentences, and locate specific causes and cures. Problem: not enough variety at a sentence level. Cause: too many simple sentences. Cure: I need more compound and complex sentences. But when I think about problems to do with voice, it’s often just a feeling that the words aren’t sparkling on the page. A story may be readable or interesting, but doesn’t grab you by the collar and drag you through the work. When you can’t establish the exact issues in your work but know there’s a problem with voice, there are only two cures: rewriting and/or heavy editing.
There was one particular paragraph that I loved in ‘Revival of a Dying Town’. It was the second paragraph and it explained who the narrators were and why they were telling the story. It allowed a rhetorical flourish as well as some humour, and gave a sense that the narrators might be putting a bit of mayo on their story. Laurie Steed, my mentor, advised me to delete it because he didn’t see it as necessary. I pushed back because I liked the writing. Laurie appreciated this and, while guiding me through some of the issues I should then consider, encouraged me to own my own story.
When Jo and Daniel (Westerly’s Associate Editors) told me to delete the paragraph, I knew it had to go. Daniel went even further and cut more narrative intrusions out. These suggestions turned me around from the mirror and let the story breathe on its own merits.
Like a frog was always a tadpole, a writer was always a reader. But there’s a problem in the beginning: what we write tends to be very bad and/or very copied. The reason we don’t have our own literary voice the same way we have our own voiceprint is ontological: our unique sound is embodied in our physical features; our tonsils, tongues and teeth. But writing is a technology that requires external tools to manipulate the outside world, and this technology has developed over thousands of years. We must learn it to master it to write well. For the writer, this means paying homage to the age-old advice: read far, deep and wide. In doing so, we better equip our creative mind when it instinctually grasps for the best means of expression.
Reading Roberto Bolaño destabilises my world. I return regularly to Last Evenings on Earth (1997, translated into English in 2006), which follows Chilean exiles roaming around Mexico, France and Spain in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There’s a moral seriousness to Bolaño’s characters as they undertake road trips and float around bars drinking and discussing literature, and telling stories of gangsters and kidnappings. Their alienation is made tragic by the barely mentioned but fully felt recent history of their homeland: a CIA orchestrated coup of the socialist President Allende, who suicided after the military dictator General Pinochet’s forces surrounded his building. Bolaño’s stories speak to me about the disassociating effects of modernism and make me more present to the horrifying background of our own times and lives, whether I want to be or not. In ‘Revival’, the foreground of the characters’ lives are dictated by background events.
Rachel Kushner’s novels feature settings as disparate as the Cuban Revolution, the New York art scene in the 1970s and the modern-day Californian carceral system. Each of her works could be considered far-fetched, but she pursues her ideas with tenacious will and prodigious intellect. Kushner has friends in jail who she frequently visits, hounded the prison authorities to get onto a tour bus designed to attract new prison guards and ended up writing a now-famous essay on the abolition movement for the New York Magazine. She said it took her two years (!) to find the voice of the main narrator in The Mars Room. One striking phenomenon about Kushner’s work is the capacity for the self to elude being pinned to strict definitions or identities, instead to always change and transform. The characters in ‘Revival’ verge towards stereotypes, yet there are drastic actions taken, changes in fortune and confidence, that perhaps ask to what extent the idea of a stereotypical regional Australian is an identity or a performance?
Part Life Experience
My grandmother lived in a country town and together we used to read bush poetry that made fun of city people (me!). My other grandmother—my nan—is a hundred years old and lives in a tiny town on the South Australian border. She raised twelve children on a small dairy farm; a war plot given to my grandfather after he fought in World War II. Recently, she was interviewed in the local press as a founding member of another nearby town, now defunct. My father was born in a town in the same area, currently characterised by abandoned buildings and petrol stations.
Over my life, I’ve visited Nan and watched the population around her decline, land values drop and shops and pubs fall away. My cousin and her partner still own a small farm where Nan lives, and, not long before a visit, the Soggies (Sons of God)—no, not a bikie gang, the Victorian tactical response unit—stormed a neighbouring farm and streamed through their paddocks to raid a neighbouring farm, part of a meth syndicate. The same people had bought and done up the only remaining pub in town.
What if, I thought, a drug syndicate rescued a dying town?
The question sat in my head for a while but seemed too implausible. It wouldn’t go away, though, and composted until I got the idea of using the collective pronoun ‘we’—an idea floated while reading Last Evening on Earth. And once I realised the ‘we’ was the town, I knew it was defending and distancing itself from the disgrace and shame brought on by the events of the story. But as if any true-blue country person would offer a grovelling explanation to city sensibilities? Thus, the collective narrators can’t help but lapse into indignation—into almost a defence of what took place—and become unreliable. I draw two conclusions from this: first, a strong motivation for the reason why the story is being told will help drive voice. And secondly, adding in a secret or something unsaid helps ramp up the tension. Or, if you like, tightens the strings of voice. Whatever the case, it made for great fun writing.
I now question whether there is such a thing as ‘finding’ a voice. The metaphor suggests something out there in the world waiting; it also plays into the myth of the genius artist, those ‘naturally’ creative prodigals who can do what the rest of us cannot.
Previously I had thought ‘voice’ would strike me like lightning and then I would have it for the rest of my life. But, on reflection, voice is worked at through reading, risk-taking, wisdom and intelligence and re-writing and editing. In this way, I was not the only person who contributed to the voice in ‘Revival of a Dying Town’. Communities in newspapers and Facebook pages from towns I have lived, like South Hedland and Bunbury, are in this work; my grandmothers and Rachel Kushner and Roberto Bolaño were involved in its gestation too. Others, like Laurie, Daniel and Jo, actively played a role in co-creating this work, in developing ‘my’ voice. A better metaphor for this process, I would advocate, might be ‘creating’. If we begin to think of how we create our own voice, it suggests something yet to be formed, with different possibilities and potentialities. It speaks to how we can construct voice, bit by bit, rather than finding it stuck in the seat on the bus. Undoubtedly, writers are going to have distinguishing characteristics. But perhaps we are putting the chicken before the egg when we imply these characteristics must be a result of something intrinsic to a single person. Perhaps the distinguishing characteristics are only ‘found’ when we look back at a body of work and see what has been created? Or at the people, places and moments behind the body of work? And, maybe one day, I will have worked hard and wisely enough so that someone can pick up a paragraph and exclaim, ‘Ah-ha, I’ve got a Ben Mason.’
And then one day, just over three years ago, Benjamin Mason listened to the other voice, and decided to become an artist. Although his heart was set—and still is—on writing a novel, his one rule was to say yes to everything. He signed up at open mic nights, sent off short stories to every man and his dog—rejected, rejected, rejected—became an inaugural member of the South West’s finest sea shanty singing group, The Anchormen, founded the Bunbury Writer’s Group—who have produced Open Mic nights at Caf-fez and produced three books with a local publisher BookReality—and acted in a play. Home Invasion, his collection of short fiction, garnered a long-listing for the 2019 Fogarty Award. His short stories have been published, awarded and performed, including in Westerly, Overland and LitLive. He has won a couple of Slam competitions, placed third in the WA leg of the Australian Poetry Slam, and performed at Bunbury and Perth Fringe Festivals. He has been a Fellow with KSP and a Writer-in-Residence with FAWWA.
And now Ben’s trying to say no, in order to concentrate on fiction. His themes focus on class, and what it means to be Australian in contemporary society, in both regional and urban environments. He is stoked to be a participant in Westerly’s Writers’ Development Program.
And he’s still trying to write a novel.