As Garrison Keillor informs us, today is the birthday of poet W.D. Snodgrass. Keillor quotes a statement from Snodgrass that is quite striking and applies not just to poets but to everyone who writes:
“The only reality which [a poet] can ever surely know is that self he cannot help being. … If he pretties it up, if he changes its meaning, if he gives it the voice of any borrowed authority, if in short he rejects this reality, his mind will be less than alive. So will his words.”
In general, the confessional poets–Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Snodgrass–were never my cup of tea. Even the prose writers of that mindset, authors like Pat Conroy and James Dickey, rubbed me the wrong way because, it seemed to me, they viewed the craft of writing as an act of personal vengeance upon the world and upon those who had done them harm in life. There was not, in my view, enough transmutation in their prose to take the merely personal and make those situations or events applicable to all of us. To be fair about it, Dickey as a poet achieves this universality, and I concede that Conroy’s prose in The Prince of Tides, The Lords of Discipline, and The Great Santini is often quite beautiful. Still, there’s a level of self-absorption and self-indulgence in confessional poetry and novels that doesn’t invite us to experience growth in our reading as much as it invites us to become voyeurs of a life.
On the other hand, the key phrase of Snodgrass’s statement is, “that self he cannot help being,” and it holds up. If the confessionalists can’t help being who they are, if they know that this is the way they are, then it is up to us to respect their voices, their personas as writers, and draw from them as much as we can. Writers are not the voices they create on the page–Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life should convince us of that–but the issue is not identification with the characters one creates. Rather, the issue is whether the voice one creates to connect with a reader is a true voice, a voice that actually belongs to us as the writer. We can see writers struggling to create that authentic voice even in published works, as Brian D. Perry, Sr. does in Algiers Point; but we can also see writers who have created a voice that could only belong to them, as Robert Penn Warren does in All The King’s Men, or Shirley Ann Grau does in The Keepers of the House, or Paulette Jiles does in News of the World. The task of achieving authenticity applies to non-fiction writing, too: read any of C.S. Lewis’s works of literary criticism. You will recognize his voice in any of them. You will recognize Doris Kearns Goodwin’s voice, whether she’s writing about the Roosevelts or about Lyndon Johnson or about listening to Brooklyn Dodgers games on the radio when she was a girl. Carl Sagan’s voice is the same, whether he is speculating about the evolution of human intelligence or about the expansion of the universe.
The task for all writers, no matter the job, is to create a voice that is simultaneously a real part of ourselves and appropriate to the genre within which we are working. That voice doesn’t have to be flawless or perfect. God knows, the epic language that Tolkien created for Middle-Earth has been parodied without end; but God also knows that there are many moments when that language is exactly right for the scene at hand. If it can carry us through many revisions of our drafts, the odds are it will carry readers just as far when they take up our finished work.