I discovered The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman when it had reached issue 33. I’d never read anything like it, and from the moment I finished “The Sound of Her Wings” (Issue 8), I was a complete Gaiman fangirl. I even got Gaiman’s autograph when he did a signing in Gaithersburg. Autographs had never much appealed to me and I don’t have many, but my autographed copy of Preludes and Nocturnes never leaves my house. Issue 8, maybe not so coincidentally, is where Gaiman says he found his voice in Sandman. He struggled somewhat with voice through the first seven issues but with that first appearance of Death, Dream’s sister, the voice in The Sandman becomes unmistakeable, stunning in its depth and emotional range.
A few weeks ago, Gaiman made a stop outside DC on his tour promoting his latest book. Wolf Trap has a lovely outdoor performing arts center and the July weather, which can be stupid hot in DC, cooperated for a change. The evening was temperate. Downright gorgeous.
I’d heard Gaiman speak online in videos, and I love his speaking style. He answered prescreened audience questions, read from various of his writings, and told some stories. What really struck me though was his voice. Not his speaking style, which I also enjoy. His speech on making good art is a classic and if you have any artistic drive, you should give it a listen. It’s long but oh so worth it – Commencement Speech at the University of the Arts 2012.
I’m talking about his writing voice. His ability to evoke emotion, build story, and convey past time periods to modern audiences through word choice, narrative rhythm, and sentence structure. Reading Gaiman is one lesson after another in voice. Listening to him read his own stories threw that mastery into even sharper relief.
Voice is a multilayered concept. The author has a voice. The narrative has a voice. Characters have voices.
Returning to The Sandman, Gaiman states in the Afterward of Sandman Overture that one scene in the graphic novel was particularly fun for him to write. Morpheus, the Sandman, is an anthropomorphic personification of the concept of Dreaming. In a pivotal scene, Morpheus encounters multiple personifications of himself, and the different aspects of Dream converse. Gaiman conveys the voices of each of these Dreams through differing word choice, sentence structure, and rhythm while his collaborators Williams and Stewart use diverse lettering styles and coloring in the word bubbles of the different Dreams to drive home the differences. It’s a tour-de-force in the art of writing voice.
Unfortunately, writing voice is not so simple as discovering a master and copying his style. The very definition of the term means that each author needs to create and refine their own writing style and manner of descriptive narrative besides learning how to differentiate the various characters in their works.
Voice is something I struggle with. I’ve heard authors say that you can’t teach voice, and perhaps that’s true, but I have taken heart from Neil Gaiman and examining the way his voice evolved in The Sandman. One may not be able to “learn” voice per se, but when even great writers improve with practice and over time, surely with hard work the rest of us can develop our own voices to produce distinctive and compelling prose.