Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

In the DNA?

Did he steal his fate or earn it?
Was he force-fed, did he learn it?*

 Anyone with even a passing interest in the Beatles and/or John Lennon probably thought the same thing I did when hearing “Valotte” — the first single from Julian Lennon’s debut album — back in the fall of 1984: “Holy shit, he sounds a lot like his father!”

His father, of course, is John Lennon, and the resemblance, physical and vocal, between the two men is striking. One thing I do find interesting: Julian at twenty-one sounded less like his father in his twenties than he did his father at forty. Take a listen to something like “Please Please Me” compared to “Watching the Wheels” and you’ll see what I mean.

I’m no expert, but there are two things that seem to go into creating a voice: the physical component is based on things like the shape and size of your larynx and vocal cords, chest and lungs, nasal and oral cavity, and probably more than that, but you get the idea. These things go into making the sound of your voice, the timbre, if I’m using that in quite the right way, and these things are determined by genetics. In other words, Nature.

The other component of voice is the way you speak (or, in this case, sing). It’s in your word choice, pronunciation, accents, phrasing. These things are the product of non-physical factors: where you live, the people around you, socio-economics. This is nurture. Some things are absorbed, and some things are put on, but these things are easier to learn, unlearn and change than the physical components of voice. I say “Lawn GUYland” because that’s where I grew up and that’s how everyone talked. I add “eh” on the end of a lot of my sentences because one of my friends and I used to mock (lovingly) Canadian hockey players and broadcasters and that’s how THEY talked; in my case, it became habit (Fun fact: in college, I had a guy peg me as from being from Long Island based on how I said the word “strawberry”; some years later, the sister of a co-worker thought I was from Canada).

Questions of voice and nature versus nurture occurred to me last week as I read Joe Hill’s latest (published in 2013, so I guess it’s already “old”) novel, NOS4A2. Hill is the author of three novels, with a fourth due out in a few weeks, one short story collection and at least one graphic novel. He’s also the son of “America’s Horror Master,” Stephen King, a fact he reputedly withheld from his agent for twenty years until his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box came out in 2007.

Last year, knowing full well that Hill was the son of King, I read both Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, which came out in 2010. I enjoyed both books and admit that I went in at least partly searching for similarities to King. While there were some, they didn’t stand out to me hugely. Heart-Shaped Box felt like a solid debut novel (and Hill won major points with me when, in HSB–SPOILER ALERT–he let a side character that I liked live; I have no doubt his father would have killed that character off ‘cuz that’s how he rolls), while Horns was a little grittier. If there was any resemblance to King in that one, it was King when he was masquerading as Richard Bachman. But in NOS4A2? Oh, the resemblance is strong.

Aside from the fact that Hill references several of his father’s works in this one (remember when I was talking about Easter Eggs last week? Yeah, that post could have been inspired by NOS4A2), it’s the style that’s eerily similar. There’s liberal use of italics and parentheses (though not quite in abundance), and things that advice-givers tell newbie authors to avoid like the plague, like ALL CAPS! AND EXCLAMATION MARKS! AND THE BOOK IS 700 PAGES LONG! And it just really feels like younger Stephen King. So I ask the question: Can something like this be passed down from novelist to novelist, the way elements of appearance or voice (physical) can be? Or is it the result of learning and absorption? What do you think?

*”Victim or the Crime” by Gerrit Graham and Bob Weir

6 Responses

  1. I think a person's style of writing is learned through absorption and not from any DNA. But is the ability to write passed down through DNA? Maybe. If singing runs in the family, why not writing?

  2. Why not, indeed? Maybe there's some kind of inheritable brain chemistry or something that inclines a person to writing. Or maybe it's the repeated exposure to reading throughout the early stages of life (since writers tend to be great readers first) that predisposes someone to writing. I don't know!

  3. I had those thoughts when Valotte came out as well, but have not listened to it in a LONG time; now I'll have to find it again!

    One of the things I did in writing my first novel was to NOT read (a) my favorite books, specifically historical fiction, which is my genre and (b) anything on my subject, other than research. Knowing I am an innate mimic in 3D, I didn't want my work to be influenced in 2D as I wrote, so I just avoided any possibility. A few years on, I don't know whether I would be so much influenced as distracted – less a matter of voice than treatment (covering certain incidents, or going for an overall tone other than that I've established so far). I do think voice is shared, though. My own writing is strikingly representative of my family's voices, particularly on the paternal side. Anyone who read my brother's or my nieces' writing might not make the connection, given the disparities in what we write *about* – but anyone standing in a room with us would recognize rhythms and word choices, without a doubt.

  4. It's interesting, when I first started writing seriously, I never thought it would be an issue to read something in particular while writing. The more I do it, the more I find myself at least thinking about what I'm reading in a particular way. It's more thematic elements that want to creep into my work.

    Thanks for commenting, Diane.

  5. I think any talent is based more on nature than nurture, but there are always rogue talents which seem to pop up from nowhere. I kind of wish it was more nurture (or determination) 'coz I only have non-fic authors in my family and learning to write fic has been a struggle.

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