Writing with Intent

How do we learn our notions of what a story is? What sets a story apart from mere background noise, the wash of syllables that surround us and flows through us and is forgotten every day? What makes a good story a unified whole, something complete and satisfying in itself? What makes it significant speech? In other words, what qualities was I searching for, perhaps without knowing it, as I read diligently through my pile of tear sheets?

I’ve spoken of the voice of the story, which has become a sort of catch-all phrase; but by it I intend something more specific: a speaking voice, like the singing voice in music that moves not across space, across the page, but through time. Surely every written story is in the final analysis, a score for music. Those little black marks on the page mean nothing without their retranslation into sound. Even when we read silently, we read with the ear, unless we are reading bank statements.

Perhaps by abolishing the Victorian practice of family reading and by removing from our school curricula those old standbys, the set memory piece and the recitation; we’ve deprived both writers and readers of something essential to stories. We’ve led them to believe that prose comes in visual blocks, not in rhythms and cadences; that its texture should be flat; that written emotion should not be immediate, like a drumbeat, but more remote, like a painted landscape: something to be contemplated. But understatement can be overdone, plainsong can get too plain. When I asked a group of young writers, earlier this year, how many of them ever read their work aloud, not one of them said she did.

I’m not arguing for the abolition of the eye, merely for the reinstatement of the voice, and for an appreciation of the way it carries the listener along with it at the pace of the story.

Our first stories come to us through the air. We hear voices. Children in oral societies grow up within a web of stories; but so do all children. We listen before we can read. Some of our listening is more like listening in, to the calamitous or seductive voices of the adult world, on the radio or the television or in our daily lives. Often it’s an overhearing of things we aren’t supposed to hear, eavesdropping on scandalous gossip or family secrets. From all these scraps of voices, from the whispers and shouts that surround us, even from the ominous silences, the unfilled gaps in meaning, we patch together for ourselves an order of events, a plot or plots; these then are the things that happen, these are the people they happen to, this is the forbidden knowledge.

Margaret Atwood
from Moving Targets
Writing with Intent

Creative centres

Centre for Literature
Centre for Creative Storytelling