Posted by: Melany | August 27, 2009

The Value of Using Different Voices

Literary journalism is a non-linear style of writing. It goes beyond the traditional style of writing and allows the writer an opportunity to meander through different thoughts and accept a ‘meditative’ style of writing. As one idea develops, often other ideas will flow through. Literary journalism allows the exploration of these ‘tangent’ ideas.

In traditional writing the narrator becomes the ‘eye-of-God’. He or she stands back and is detached from the piece. To the audience it reads like they are watching a movie – the uninvolved fourth wall.

Literary journalism, however, offers an arena for the use of various different voices. Some more personally involved in the story than others. These little bits of information are crafted into a complete tapestry that appears flawless from a distance, yet involves many different techniques and styles to complete. This is done through the use of various ‘voices’ in the story. As the voice changes, the tone of the story also changes. Ideally, these changes in voice will be seamless and not appear clunky to the reader. It should appear like a natural progression and a narrative tool to guide the reader through the story.

To experiment with different voices and to distinguish the different voices within a literary journalism article the class split into groups. The group I was in read through “A Boy’s Life: For Matthew Shepard’s killers, what does it take to pass as a man?” by JoAnn Wypijewski.  We decided to read through the first few pages and determine which different voices we could pick out.

In this story we identified a number of different ‘voices’.

  • The ‘separate’ voice of the dominatrix whose quote starts the story. She is reflective and is commenting on the story with little to no personal involvement.

“When I think of how fragile men are,” a dominatrix once said to me, “I feel so much pity. All that fear, all that self-mutilation, just to be ‘men.’ When I heard that those guys in Laramie took Matthew Shepard’s shoes, I was so creeped out. I mean, shoes are so symbolic- ‘walk a mile in my shoes’ and all that. Why did they take his shoes?””

  • The current affairs news reporter. Certain facts have been included and they are told in a sensationalised manner, however attempting to appear objective. This was similar to that of A Current Affair type report.

“Matthew Shepard… lured out of a bar by two “rednecks”, hijacked to a lonely spot outside of town, strung up like a scarecrow on a buck fence, bludgeoned beyond recognition, and left to die without his shoes, his ring, his wallet, or the $20 inside it.”

  • The narrative voice that uses observation and breaths life into the story. This is the almost ‘meditative’ element.

“Shepard was murdered, in a field of prairie grass and sagebrush within eyeshot of suburban houses, a cross had been laid out in pink limestone rocks. In crotches of the killing fence, two stones have been placed; one beard the word “love”; the other, “forgive”.”

  • The voice of the media-cynic. This voice reminded us of Media Watch. It presented the facts of the story without the hype used by current affairs media.

“What is known, though somehow elided, is that in the most literal definition of the word, Matthew Shepard was not crucified. His hands were not outstretched, as has been suggested by all manner of media since October 7, 1998, when the twenty-one-year-old University of Wyoming student was discovered near death, but rather tied behind him as if in handcuffs, lashed to a pole four inches off the ground. His head propped on the lower fence rail, his legs extending out to the east, he was lying almost flat on his back when Deputy Reggie Fluty of the Albany County Sheriff’s Department found him at 6:22P.M., eighteen hours, it’s believed, after he was assaulted… by eighteen blows from a three-pound Smith & Wesson.”

  • The final voice is that of the locals. Wypijewski has included quotes from her interviews with the locals and determined that their whole way of life, their way of speaking is contrary to the other voices used in the story – and also contrary to the speech pattern of Shepard, who was being college educated.

“He affected a gangsta style – droopy jeans, baggy shirt, Raiders jacket, gold chains, gold on all his fingers. He’d ape hip-hop street talk, but “he couldn’t get it going if he tried.” His nickname was Dopey, both for his oversized ears and for his reputation as a serious drug dealer and user. His shoulder bears a tattoo of the Disney character pouring a giant can of beer on his mother’s grave, an appropriation of a common rapper’s homage to a fallen brother: “Pour a forty ounce on y homey’s grave.””

To be honest, I did not initially recognise these different voices in my first reading of the piece. This shows how well Wypijewski has woven together these voices into a seamless tapestry. Theses voices combined to create a story that reveals facts, has interest and allows the reader to attempt to get inside the heads of the people involved. This is done successfully and evidently in a smooth, careful manner. It was not until we considered the various elements of the story that these different voices could be identified.

I believe that this use of various voices is a very strong narrative tool. I intend to change my ‘voice’ and the tone of the story that I write. I am hoping to use this to offer insight into my various characters and to create a rhythm. Magic is a global thing; however everyone’s experience with it is unique. I am hoping to include different voices to match various different attitudes towards magic. Ultimately, the different voices will help guide the reader along the piece.

Matthew Shepard Photo: Gina Van Hoof

Matthew Shepard Photo: Gina Van Hoof

Henderson and McKinney

Henderson and McKinney

This article was successful in provoking thought. I do not believe that the writer was trying to convince the reader of their point entirely, although this may be the case to some degree. However, it definitely did attract my interest and provoke thought and discussion about hate-crimes and the response of the public to people being obviously homosexual. I have since learnt that this crime occurred around the time that Ellen Degeneres came out as a homosexual. So it seems that this was a topic of interest at the time. This crime also encouraged people to campaign for rights and equality between different sexualities. I’m not sure of the role that this particular article played in that, however the changes in society and the thought that this crime provoked was definitely very powerful.

The other group in the class read ‘Zeitoun’ by Dave Eggers. This group used a very different tactic (I always find it interesting to see how different people respond to the same question). This group read the entire piece in the voices of Zeitoun, his wife Kathy and a narrator. These are the voices that they identified. The group emphasised the motifs and repetition that the writer included.

This story is written in a lively way and draws the reader into the story. I like the way that the writer ends his paragraphs. For example, on the first page, one paragraph ends with “The day had roared to life.” The idea of “life” is a recurring motif and this particular example indicates that action will follow and helps to progress the story.

Eggers has also utilised the concept of the inner monologue. He reveals what his lead characters are thinking and considering at various stages of the story. “As he entered the kitchen, seeing his daughters bow and curtsy and wave imaginary fans, he thought, At least they’re not singing.”

Repetition is also used. This sentence creates a sense of rhythm with the cumulative list of noises. The question at the end appears almost interactive and thoughtful.

“But now there was another thump, and the dog barked, and another thump followed. What was happening in this house?”

“Thump” has been used twice in one sentence, creating a repetitive echo.

The use of motifs, repetition, rhythm and different voices all combine to create an appealing and interesting story. Obviously not all stories can appeal to everyone, however if you something to say, it is best to write in a way that encourages audiences to continue reading. Literary journalism allows the writer to go on their own journey while writing and these narrative techniques allow these various components to still work together and combine harmoniously. If these are not utilised, the work can appear disjointed and awkward. In my piece, I endeavour to use as many of these elements as seem appropriate. On the flip side, too much repetition and motifs that are glaringly obvious can seem cliché and get in the way of an important story. As with most things – the key is to find the right balance for your style of writing and the theme of your story.


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