The Craft of Voice: My Muriel Spark Binge

 In Essays

I’ve been binging on Muriel Spark the past three weeks: The Girls of Slender MeansA Far Cry from KensingtonAiding and AbettingLoitering with Intent, plus her short stories. She’s teaching me a great deal about that ineffable, elusive, all-important element of writing that everyone talks about but no-one can define: voice. The quality of presence formed by words on a page that seduces us into a prolonged swim in a fictional reality. What is that?

Like most of us, Spark’s stories are informed by her perspective, her experiences, her life. The novels and short stories I’ve read are most frequently told from first-person POV. And that first-person is often a sharp, funny professional women–frequently her profession is publishing. So the adage “write what you know” seems to be part of what she uses to entice us.

But what else? Why should we turn the pages of a story that’s about a woman eking out a living in 1950’s London? (A Far Cry from Kensington) Or working as a ghost-writer, also in London? (Loitering with Intent) There’s no gore, no melodrama, no bodice-ripping.

I turn the pages because Spark gives us non-gory, regular-life drama, normal-level romance in a voice that invites me in. She uses direct-addresss in the first paragraph of A Far Cry from Kensington, making her reader complicit with the story that she’s about to tell. “Insomnia is not bad in itself. You can lie away at night and think; the quality of insomnia depends entirely on what you decide to think of. Can you decide to think?–Yes, you can.” (5)

Insomnia. Most of us experience it at some point in our lives; it’s not dramatic, per se, but it’s likely an experience most readers relate to. And by having her first-person narrator tell us how to handle insomnia, Spark begins to create the voice that we’ll want to hang out with for another 170 pages.

But what if insomnia solutions don’t grab your readers? Spark also piques our curiosity by letting us know in her first pages that the story she’s telling is in the past: “. . .it is a far cry from Kensington and the early 1950s . . . . But even now, when I return to London, to Kensington,. . . . I find again my . . . . thoughts of the night dwell often on those past thoughts of the night in the same way that my daily life at the time has a certain bearing on what I do now.” (5-6)

I’m sure there’s an exception to this “rule”–but who among us isn’t intrigued by someone who tells us the past reminds them of the present, and offers to fill us in? As a colleague of mine said, aside from I love you, some of the most delightful words a person can hear are, Let me tell you a story.

Craft frolic:

Do you have a piece of writing that’s about, well, “just life” that your gut says is interesting but that the words don’t show? Move your protagonist twenty years into the future after that “just life” event and list ten ways their lives have changed since that event. Different job, spouse? Did their parents die? Do they sleep in a different bed? Pick the one difference that feels most intriguing to you, set your timer for fifteen minutes and free write with this as your starting line: “Since [insert event], I no longer [insert difference], because . . . . ”


Page references in this post are from the 1988 New Directions edition of A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

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