Did you ever notice that if you've been involved in a major event, suddenly the newspaper stories, the books recommended to you, the TV shows you watch by chance seem to be related to that recent experience?
I've agreed to review a book by Diana Athill that is a NY Times best seller, and when it arrived, though I was prepared for its subject from its title: Somewhere Towards the End, I didn't think it would be like reading something that would make it almost impossible to keep silent in a room empty of another person. I want to tell the author that I understand exactly what she means some of the time, and the next minute I can't believe she means what I've just read.
I also just finished Christopher Buckley's memoir in last Sunday's New York Times with the same series of reactions. Both memoirs deal with death; both are written by avowed atheists. In both cases, I had to bite my tongue to keep from speaking out loud. You can't just yell, "You must be kidding!" at the cat or the dog -- can you?
It made me think that every writer, no matter the generation or gender, must always have a unique view of his or her experiences, and that's what makes the writing engaging. Maybe that's what is meant by "voice."
That thought leads to my impatience and discouragement when looking at "author's guidelines" for agents and publishers of periodicals and books. Over and over we see the requirement for "fresh" and "new." Many specify that what they want is a new "voice." Nearly all human experience is, after all, old-- it's all been done and endured before. That also makes me rethink the traditional praise for fiction with a "universal" theme. I can't help wondering whether there is such a thing at the personal level, which is the only level for me that's worth the reading time for fiction and poetry. When it comes to biography and the personal essay, it becomes essential that the reader see through that particular writer's eyes, even if the story is about buying a pair of shoes that don't fit. You may nod in agreement, you may laugh out loud, or stifle sobs. You may (if you're lucky) feel as if you've met a friend.
Does anyone else find these disturbing dichotomies upsetting your writing life? Is the implication that one must aspire to be a writer either of fiction (and poetry) or of nonfiction? Most of us wouldn't try for the epic or the mythological, I imagine.