The truth is, March was not one of the books I planned read for this mailing. It’s probably not a book I would have picked up at all on my own. My writer’s group chose it for March. To be honest, I have four papers to write for this mailing and since the last mailing I’ve read exactly four new books. March is one of them. This novel by Geraldine Brooks is written from the perspective of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and attempts to some degree to characterize the famous Bronson Alcott (inventor of recess!) through the imagined character of Mr. March. Mr. March has joined the Union Forces to serve as a Chaplain to Civil War troops.
When I first realized that I would either need to write about March or read another book in a hurry (not my preferred method), a topic to write on did not come to me. As I read, I write notes in the margins of my books and in the front cover and then go back to peruse those notes when it’s time to write these critical papers. The notes in March were spare and lacking in epiphanies. What to do? Then, I remembered one topic that came up in our book group discussion and some emailing that followed about Brooks’ use of diction. The narrative and the letters March writes home are remarkably formal, proper, and restrained. One of our book group members is a librarian who during her internship years once did some transcribing of Civil War letters. After the meeting, she sent us a link to where we could read them online. Another group member replied saying how surprised he was by how the letters she transcribed really did seem to match the style of March’s letters home, his narrative: so careful and polite. This set me to thinking about how diction is to some degree part of the setting, something to be considered when writing. But, how does one consider diction? Thinking about word choice is a scholarly exercise; writing is a practice of imagination. Then I thought: A-ha! This is about voice. And this is about practice. And, A-ha! I see what works for me. And I will come back to this A-ha moment and explain, but first I’d like to look at some lines from March and some lines from my novel in order to better demonstrate what I mean.
The refined, polite diction in March is indicative of another time and the words with which March narrates and write letters home transport us to that place as much as the other descriptions Brooks’ uses to take us to a time and place unfamiliar, long past. In one letter home, Mr. March writes: “My pupils, the old and young, progress apace with their letters. They open their heads to me now, and are no longer reticent. Josiah, who still ails and has a wracking cough that breaks your heart to hear, has nevertheless become a regular chatterbox, so that I can hardly reconcile him with the sullen, silent boy who met my boat” (Brooks 145). Notice in the first sentence the two introductory clauses before the verb and antecedent. This way of taking time to get around to the point, this gentle, polite voice, fits the chaplain Mr. March, who is earnest and of strong moral intention. This meandering style also contrasts with our contemporary voice, which leans toward concision and the striking out of extraneous words. Brooks’ novel abounds with introductory clauses, parenthetical clauses, clauses that elaborate, and so on. Words like “ails”, “wracking”, “ letters”, are antiquated, set us in a time unlike our own. The wordiness of phrases like “nevertheless become a regular chatterbox”, “can hardly reconcile”, and “progress apace” have the same effect. In a later section of narration, March muses, “Are there any words in the English language more closely twinned than courage and cowardice?…Who is the brave man—he who feels no fear? If so, then bravery is but a polite term for a mind devoid of rationality and imagination” (Brooks 168). With this kind of rhetoric, it was really quite natural to find myself reading a scene in which Ralph Waldo Emerson moved among the guests. The polite precision of Brooks reads quite flawless to me. I found myself reading with surprising enjoyment, reclining, my feet propped up, a blanket in my lap, willing to follow this clear, gentle voice. Afterward, after I’d mulled over the story with my writer’s group, I found myself thinking about how she came to find that voice while she was in the imaginative practice of writing. Maybe she read some of those civil war letters. Maybe she steeped herself in Emerson and his contemporaries. Maybe she listened to some of their works on tape. However she did it, I am impressed and thinking about the process of writing from the angle of the voice that tells the story, a voice constructed of particular words.
How does this all relate to my own work? Well, I just finished a critique session with my writer’s group in which one of my peers said that my piece had “strong voice”. I like to think so. I like to think I’m creating the voice of a literate, reflective, forty-something woman who has a story to tell about uncommon struggle and how she not only survived, but transformed herself in time, through movement. Her voice ought to be confident, enthusiastic, and reflective, not necessarily all of those all of the time. The story should move between those aspects of Eve (protagonist) as she recounts the story of her life from a mature point of view. Developing this particular voice has been a focus in writing this novel, my first longer work written in first person. How have I done this? By slowing down and listening. By writing the entire current draft out by hand, then typing it in later. By speaking. Yes, when I write by hand, when I type in what I’ve written by hand, I speak the lines aloud to test the voice, to make sure that each word sounds like Eve, who is teaching me more than I imagined she would. Reading March prompted me to ponder voice in my work and how to achieve clarity of voice.