Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Lessons from a Master: David Vann on Voice and Language

It was from David Vann that I first learned about "aspirational authors." Soon he became one of mine. Recently released is the book Vann deems his best, Goat Mountain. Booklist agrees, calling it “his finest, most contemplative work to date.” As the starred review in Library Journal notes, “Alaska-born Vann experienced catastrophic family violence in his past, and his work has returned to this theme again and again, this being his most ambitious exploration of the subject.” And just last weekend came the announcement that Vann's previous novel, Dirt, had been selected from among 170 entries for the $50,000 St. Francis College Literary Prize.

Three years ago, Vann led the first 49 Writers Retreat at Tutka Bay. What I learned from him there about the relationship of content and language changed the way I approached my own work. A clear voice emerged from the novel I'd been attempting, and with that, the book, Cold Spell  found its legs. Here, a few notes from Vann's lecture on language, focusing on a selection by Annie Proulx, who’ll be the keynote speaker at the 2014 AWP Conference in Seattle.

  • Listing is a great way to compress content; an epic convention (from Greek and Roman) – compresses content, collapses time.  Also doesn’t fill in time.  Sentence fragments. 
  • You can divide the English language into grammar and content.  Morphemes not the same as words – they are the building blocks.  Grammatical parts organize; content parts are what Proulx (opening pages of The Shipping News) leaves in – nouns, adjectives, and active verbs.  She converts verbs to adjectives.  Using words as other than their normal parts of speech:  this makes language fresh.  Becomes foregrounded – readers tend to be automatons.  Cliches are bad b/c we get only the literal meaning.  Poor writers – readers can just skim.  As soon as something’s outside of its usual position – you’re required to pause. 
  • Style is choice.  There are different ways to present something:  the kinds of sentences, whether things are foregrounded and not in their usual spots.  Style is the combination of choices – syntax, phonology, lexicon; voice is the combination of that and the sensibility (attitude toward the world) – voice is bigger.
  • Basic distinctions of style:  language divides into Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) and Latinate lexicon and meter.  Each has its own vocabulary and metrical properties.  1066 is the most important date in English literature.  Latinate meter in Aeniad is accentual syllabic (dactile: heavy stress, two soft stresses).  Metrical line arranged by the kind of metrical pattern in each foot plus the number of syllables.  Everything declined and marked.  Sentence order didn’t matter – much more flexible than Germanic, which had only accentual meter:  two heavy stresses and then two more (number of syllables doesn’t matter).  Poets can use either paired heavy stresses (accentual meter) or iambic pentameter (Latin) to satisfy readers.
  • Chaucer – first to write verse in Middle English instead of Latin or French.  Class divide in our language:  German is low; refined is French (example:  cow v. beef).  Instinctive class divide can be used for jokes:  Latinate sentence with crude German word thrown in for fun.  (Ex:  mad libs – swaps content with grammar; not fun to switch out grammar).  Grammar is our glue and we can’t process if grammar is switched.  Double heritage:  high/low vocab; double metric schemes.  Language use – simplify distinctions; tough words go away.  Hymns forced full ideas into single lines – destroyed language over time.  English made difficult sounds vanish; French – we’ve shortened sounds.  Chaucer’s initial lines:  Latin meter.  Over time, lost vowels, lost aspirations.  Language deteriorates, but English is still the beefiest.
  • Annie Proulx is one of our best stylists.  She matches style to content.  In first two pages, she heaps up content, cuts out grammar.  Favoring content over grammar, favoring Germanic over Latinate.  These two pages are among David’s favorite in contemporary writing.  Emphasis and foregrounding in last sentence on page 3, providing a snapshot of the rest of the book – theme.  Points of emphasis are about the meaning of the book and the character.  Similar moment to Faulkner:  this sentence tells us how to read the rest of the book; it will work through the landscape.  The book is a love story.  The sludge could be his thoughts, but it could also be his heart.  We get some sympathy for Quoyle.  We can’t reduce it to a one-to-one correspondence.  Syntactic departure – David’s theory is that the beautiful is not just in content, but it’s created by syntax.  There are road signs to beauty.  
For a study of voice and its impact on writing, I'll be teaching a four-week workshop “Sound and Fury: Find and Free Your Writer’s Voice,” in Anchorage beginning Oct. 17.