Monday, March 12, 2018

The Narrative Voice by Cecilia Brainard at Cebu Normal University, January 26, 2018

I gave this talk last January 26, 2018 at the Cebu Normal University. ~ Cecilia Manguerra Brainard 


The Narrative Voice:
Talk Given at the Seminar-Workshop, Cebu Normal University, January 26, 2018
By Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
“Voice” was one of the elements of creative writing that I had to understand before I could make serious headway with my writing.  I was confronted with the issue of “voice” when I was a writing student at the Writers’ Program of UCLA Extension. I had taken Fiction Writing I, and got an A for that class, after which I signed up for Fiction Writing II. 

            I was at the time a mother of two children, and those Wednesday evening classes were part-therapy, part-entertainment, my chance to be away from little children and be with grownups who talked about topics I was interested in – writing and books. Fiction Writing II was at 7 p.m. and I couldn’t wait for my husband to get home from work so I could turn over the children to him, and I would drive off and brave the horrific traffic to get to UCLA where the writing classes were held.
            Fiction Writing I had been easy. It was primarily a lecture class with in-class exercises. Fiction Writing II was workshop-style, where a dozen or so participants had to complete 10-page or longer stories. Two stories were critiqued each week, and participants brought the manuscripts home, read them carefully, and made notations on the stories, and prepared their feedback, which was considered just as important as the submissions themselves. The three-hour workshop session was devoted to critiquing the two stories, and no holds barred.
            I was not aware that some participants had taken the workshop before and were savvier and more ruthless than the neophytes like me.
            The first time my story draft was critiqued, I waited breathlessly for people’s comments, expecting praise. The woman across me, stared straight at me and declared, “This has absolutely no redeeming value whatsoever.”  (I still remember her words exactly and her stern face. I still remember my feeling of wanting to get sucked down into the middle of the earth.) She continued, “A graduate from Sacred Heart College in New York City could have written this.”
            The other participants had a field day critiquing my work as well. I was rattled, crushed, and discouraged. I wanted to drop out from the workshop, but then I would get bullheaded and say, no one would drive me out of the class.  This went on and I did finish the 12-week workshop. But it was a horrible and painful experience. However, it was a turning point in my development as a writer.
            Fortunately, I went beyond my bruised ego and actually listened to the feedback, no matter how negative.  What struck a nerve was the statement, “A graduate from Sacred Heart College in New York City could have written this.”  It was an intriguing comment because, while I had attended Catholic schools, I was not a New Yorker. So, why, I asked myself, could my work have suggested I was a New Yorker? Why did it not sound as if I were Filipino (or Cebuano or Filipino-American)?
            After the workshop experience and when I had calmed down, I pondered on this, until I came upon the notion that something was wrong with the “voice” of my work.  There I was, a Filipina, sounding like a New Yorker – clearly I had failed to communicate that in my work.

            When I became conscious of the idea of “writer’s voice” I looked for it in the works I read.  Even though I took writing classes and workshops, I always looked at good writers as my teachers. Fyodor Dostoevsky, E.M. Forster, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Graham Greene, and many others were my teachers. I would read their books for pleasure and then I would read them a second or third time to analyze how they did dialogue, scenes, character development, or plot. If I loved some parts, I would scrutinize these to see what the authors did to make those parts strong.  I also wondered why I could grasp the work of Dostoevsky when these had been originally written in Russian. Ditto with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work, which had been originally written in Spanish, why did I get immersed in the magical world Marquez had created? And the same thing with Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which had been written in French.
            I stumbled on the idea that there is more to a story than language. In other words, language, like grammar, were tools that went into the creation of fleshed-out characters and their fictional world. I came to understand the importance of Characters. In other words, the characters of Raskalnikov (in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment) and Emma Bovary (in Madame Bovary) are what I remember most of all. Most novels considered “great novels” have strong believable characters that carry the stories through.

            While observing how writers told their stories, I started experimenting with my own writing voice. Since I had decided that it was insulting to have created work "that a graduate from Sacred Heart College in New York could have created" I deliberately drew from my Filipino or Filipino-American history, culture, folklore and my personal memories. Suddenly there was so much to look at, and what fun it was to use as a model for a character a Cebuana said to have horns. As a child I used to stare at the two poofs of hair near her forehead, to cover her horns, I had always assumed as a child.  How fascinating it was to remember her, to use her in a story, and watch her morph into Agustina Macaraig in Woman with Horns, a story included in many Philippine textbooks. 
            There was another local character in Cebu whom we called a witch, Alba, and she was also an inspiration for a story with the same title. There were classmates, old boyfriends, even pets from my teens who also found themselves in my short stories. My old maid aunts who lived on Mango Avenue were also sources of inspiration.
            My parents who lived through the horrors of World War Two inspired me to write When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, also known as Song of Yvonne. I was born after the Second World War but heard countless stories about that terrible from my parents and their friends.  My own parents had to leave their home in Manila and go to the hinterlands of Mindanao, where my father joined the Guerrilla movement. Their stories of the doctora massacred by the Japanese, my mother’s own miscarriage of a child “while the Japanese patrol was nearby” found their way into the book.      
            My great-grandmother Remedios Cuenco, who was widowed at 39 years old and had to take over her husband’s publishing business, the Imprenta Rosario, became Ines Maceda in my third novel, The Newspaper Widow.  

OTHER ELEMENTS OF WRITING: Setting, scenes, character, character development, conflict, dialogue
            I should mention at this point that to help me with my fiction writing, I took Cebu and reversed it to create my mythical place, Ubec.  In other words Ubec was the setting for some of my stories.  This helped free me to tell stories about characters and places that may be a lot like Cebu. 
            Going back to my writing workshopping days, it was when I started playing with “voice” that I started to get published.  I have to add that all the other elements are important too: character and character development are extremely important, conflict is essential in story telling if you don’t want to bore your readers.  What wants to read something where nothing is happening?  Dialogue and language were challenges to me because I am a Cebuana/Filipina/Filipino-American who writes in English.  That was another code to crack before I could make headway in my writing. 
            Take dialogue for instance.  Many of my characters actually speak in Cebuano or Tagalog, but I’m writing in English.  How do I handle this problem?  I can’t use Cebuano or Tagalog because many of my readers will not understand the languages. And yet I want to communicate the idea that these characters are from another place and culture.
            To solve this problem, I had to go back to the premise that language is a tool.  Language is important but not an end-all.  It must support and make the “fictive dream” flow.  If it breaks the dream, if it leaves my readers lost and puzzled, then I’ve failed. 
            My solution was to use simple and straightforward English language, with just a bit of an “accent.” I’ll include a few Cebuano or Tagalog or Spanish or even French words, just to give the flavor, but not to confuse my readers.
            Another important part of this “solution” was to use scenes in my stories.  My characters are in a specific place as the story moves along.  In other words, I’m working with images in my stories.  I am, as the famous writer and teacher, John Gardner said, creating a “fictive dream.”

FICTIONAL DREAM, by John Gardner
Here’s what he says about the fictional dream, and many writers work with their “fictional dreams.”
             “In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again. This and nothing else is the desperately sought and tragically fragile writer’s process: in his imagination, he sees made-up people doing things—sees them clearly—and in the act of wondering what they will do next he sees what they will do next, and all this he writes down in the best, most accurate words he can find, understanding even as he writes that he may have to find better words later, and that a change in the words may mean a sharpening or deepening of the vision, the fictive dream or vision becoming more and more lucid, until reality, by comparison, seems cold, tedious, and dead.”
You can see, from this quote, that story telling involves images of characters in a specific time and place, and they are acting, in pursuit of something (or somethings), whether this be love, truth, power, or to exact revenge, or something specific like a bicycle or money, and so on.
In fact, for many writers, in a story, a character want something and either gets it or doesn’t. For example: Prince Charming meets Cinderella and goes out to find her. In the end, he succeeds and they live happily ever after.

There are two more things to consider about voice.
1.      If I were to hand you unidentified writing by say Dostoevsky, Marquez, and Flaubert, and asked you to identify who wrote what, chances are you will be able to do this.  This is because each writer has his or her own writing voice.
2.      Interestingly, if you look at the different writings by a particular writer, you will also note that each story or poem will have its own unique voice. This work could be sad, for instance, while another one could be happy or comic. The tone would be different depending on different things --- theme could be one thing, the type of character could be another. In fact, some writers posit that each work has its own demands and so it’s not so much a matter of the writer imposing what he thinks the work should be, but tuning in to the work’s demands, that is what the work wants to become. This may sound strange to some of you, but many writers will attest to the somewhat magical fact that they are tools that make the work come to life.
The great sculptor Michelangelo said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free … Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” 
Writers, too, work to free the “angel in the marble” only they are using their imagination and words to free the story that’s in their minds and in the drafts.

            In the first part of this talk, even though I focused on “narrative voice” I touched on topics such as “story” and “scene” and “character” – all basic elements of storytelling, and which you should know if you want to be a creative writer.  Let us go through some elements of storytelling, and if you have questions, take note and ask them during our Q & A:
1.      Setting and Scene
2.      Character and Character Development
3.      Conflict
4.      Dialogue
5.      Plot
6.      Point of View
7.      Theme, tone

Part III: Questions and Answers

The following pictures were taken at the formal presentation of my book donation to the Main Library of Cebu Normal University last Jan. 31, 2018.

Tags: Philippines, Cebu, literature, writing, writers, books, authors. Cebu, Cebuano, #CebuNormalUniversity #CeciliaBrainard
Read also:

  • Cebu as Inspiration to My Writings by Cecilia Brainard

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