Voice and Language

I’m not sure when this turned into a literary review site either.  I heard about Megan Foss’ Love Letters a few months ago, but only got around to reading the piece on this quiet Saturday morning.  Storytelling facilitated her transformation from imprisoned prostitute to English professor.

I went to jail and I wrote because the writing had value.  It was a commodity and I could trade it for freedom.  It had a purpose I could identify.  In the process I discovered the myriad other purposes and value inherent in the act and I ended up writing in jail for the same reasons I wrote them letters I never mailed.  I wrote to discover and I wrote to heal and I wrote to decide.  I wrote to make meaning in a world that held none.

Her 11 page essay told me more about the importance of writing in one’s honest voice than any university course ever could.  The grammar and the word-choice and the syntax needs to be perfect.  But, especially with creative non-fiction, that “perfection” sterilizes the story and silences the author’s unique voice.  Communicating one’s meaning is paramount, much of that meaning lies in fragments, contradictions, discrepancies.

But one thing I learned early on was that people are judged by their use of language—that how they spoke could define them as trailer-park trash or it could define them as being potentially suitable for admittance to the country club….By the time I transferred to the university I was an English major thoroughly indoctrinated in how to speak and compose according to arbitrary conventions created by people who’d been dead for centuries and whose lives bore no resemblance to my own.

I grew up in a relatively safe relatively bland relatively respectable series of suburbs.  I haven’t done any drugs, missed a meal out of necessity, or been arrested.  Love Letters showed me what changes language can bring in someone’s life, in a way I never appreciated.  I grew up with English teachers telling me where commas go and how each paragraph should have its own focus and that I damn sure better use conservative language and leave two spaces after a period.  Megan’s story starts somewhere I’ve never even visited and she’s right, I can’t relate.  My language and modest education hasn’t held me back because I started off on the other side of the glass.

The gentle elderly professor of my nonfiction class told me that he’d be more comfortable if I’d present my prose as fiction.  Perhaps then such a voice would be acceptable.  In real life no one would ever believe that a $20 hooker with an eighth-grade education would know what hermeneutics meant.  And when I tried to tell him that he was wrong—that I had known what the word meant—he told me it didn’t matter.  No one would believe it.  I could never tell it true because the truth was somehow too disturbing.  And it wasn’t the $20 blow jobs or the self-mutilation of my veins that disturbed him as much as it was the apparent conflict between language and experience.  I think I understand what’s at the core of that discomfort.  I think I understand that to accept that the drug-addicted hooker that I was could have possessed intelligence and critical thinking skills somehow speaks to a societal failure as well as my own.  And so rather than forcing the world to question its own assumptions—rather than challenging the status quo—I was told to present my life as a lie—as a piece of fiction.

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Voice and Language