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Voice Lessons

Nancy Mairs

On Becoming a (Woman) Writer
Published by Beacon Press in 1994
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©1997

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It should be obvious from the subtitle that this is not about how one woman found her singing voice, but rather her writing voice in a world of mostly male writers. Not surprisingly, she credits Virginia Woolf for a major assist in finding, devising, inventing, and contriving her Nancy, her writing self, her voice.

To reach her objectives she must first climb out of a prison of male expectations and opinions. Below are quotations from writers, mostly female, that helped her in her construction of her own voice. As an example of the male view of the unimportance of making babies, she quotes an unidentified male on page 38:

"Balls!" he rumbles, "who would want to make a thing like that, all noise and stink, and only half finished?"

On a feminine view of the male phallus she says on page 37:

What intrinsic value, from a woman's point of view, does a whatever-it-is have, beyond its decorative function and its potential for putting out very small fires.

Quoting Shoshana Felman, she says on page 48:

Reading is an access route to discovery. But the significance of the discovery appears only in retrospect, because insight is never purely cognitive; it is to some extent always performative (incorporated in an act, a doing) and to that extent precisely it is not transparent to itself ... And since there can never be a simultaneous, full coincidence between practice and awareness, what one understands in doing and through doing appears in retrospect: nachträglich, après coup.[This quote explicates an insight I had nearly twenty years ago that I incorporated into Matherne's Rule No. 8: It Always Happens Before You Know It.]

Quoting Montaigne on page 75:

If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.

On her avoidance of hyphenated word constructions, capital letters for effect, puns, and alliterations, she says on page 87:

If I want to speak plainly to you about particulars — and I do, more than any thing else — I must use the language that I know you know.

Quoting Virginia Woolf from A Room of One's Own on page 95:

...a woman must have money and a room of one's own if she is to write fiction.

Quoting Bachelard, Mairs writes on page 120:

"Thus, very quickly," writes Bachelard, "at the very first word, at the first poetic overture, the reader who is ‘reading a room' leaves off reading and starts to think of some place in his own past. You would like to tell everything about your room. You would like to interest the reader in yourself, whereas you have unlocked a door to daydreaming. The values of intimacy are so absorbing that the reader has ceased to read your room: he sees his own again." If I do my job, the books I write vanish before your eyes. I invite you into the house of my past, and the threshold you cross leads you into your own.

[Quoting Virginia Woolf on page 142.]

You must refuse all methods of advertising merit, and hold that ridicule, obscurity, and censure are preferable, for psychological reasons, to fame and praise. Directly badges, order, or degrees are offered you, fling them back in the giver's face.

By now you've gotten the idea that her book is filled with superb quotes from the books of other authors on the subject of writing, so let us end with a quote from the author herself on page 135:

These books are all about going on. All the way. To our common destination. To which none of us wants to go ignorant and alone. Hence, into the dark, we write.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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