But really, the fact that my writing has a “voice” is less egoistic than “sounds like me.” A writer’s voice is, I think, two things. The first is the sum of the choices we make about words and punctuation, and the second is what we choose to observe and report on. And my writing has unique characteristics in both of those realms. I LOVE punctuation that allows me to digress within the stretch of a single sentence — the em-dash, the semi-colon, the parenthesis, even the simple bracketing commas surrounding a non-restrictive clause. And, as you can see, I love the sound and rhythm of repeating words, all of those “the’s” in that last sentence chiming like a liturgy.
When I observe situations in the world, I’m attentive to the exact words people use, and to their postures and the ways they express emotions. But I’m also attentive to what I’m thinking about it while I’m watching it, so my writing tends to be like a narrated film on the Discovery Channel — you get to see the animals playing, but you also get to hear me commenting on it at the same time.
The title of this blog post comes from Vladimir Nabokov. I’d never heard it until I read an essay by Patricia Hampl called "The Dark Art of Description." It’s not a terrific essay (mainly because I don’t so much care for her voice), but the ideas are important. Here’s a couple of sentences:
Next to grand conceptions like plot, which is the legitimate government of most stories, or character, which is the crowned sovereign, the detail looks like the ragged peasant with a half-baked idea of revolution and a crazy, sure glint in its eye. But here, according to Nabokov, resides divinity.So this is not my preferred voice — it’s a bit overblown, with the metaphor drawn out pretty thin. But what a perfect idea. We buy Robert Ludlum and John Grisham thrillers because the plots are fun, but the characters are little more than plot mannequins, and the details are careless and distracted. We may burn through them on the airplane, but nobody ever reads one again for the love of the language.
So now the context shift that brings us back to design. I think we can imagine that our focus on form and space is akin to a focus on plot — it grabs our attention on first read, but has little staying power. Perhaps character is something more akin to architectural material – cold or warm, generous or meager. But if we come back to good buildings, as we come back to good writing, it is because the details unfailingly please us. There are pieces of music I’ve heard a hundred times, and I get choked up at exactly the same place every time because that particular musician has made a particular choice about pacing or emphasis at a particular point in the score, and it’s just revelatory every time I hear it.
Architecture about form is the equivalent of books centered on plot — exciting once, but not savored. Architecture about “ideas” is the equivalent of the dessicated and emotionless academic paper — possibly interesting, but not what you want around you when you’re tired or lonely. It’s the details that reward repeated encounter, that show us something noble or joyous on each occasion.