Voice, Thundersnow, and the Power of Experience
Science educator Katie Slivensky blogged this morning about Thundersnow. You see, here in New England we are bracing for a blizzard. Oh, it’s snowing. The wind is a-blowing. My laundry and dishes are a-going (in case we lose power and/or water). And I have plenty of canned food, bread and milk. (I’m short on cat food, though, so it looks like I might be sacrificing some cans of tuna over the weekend…) Apparently, we have at least a couple of feet of the white stuff headed our way in a serious storm. This storm might include Thundersnow, which Katie explains quite nicely (head on over there and read it…I’ll wait).
Cool, right? Especially the 8-bit Nintendo-looking diagram? So I’m going to get back to Thundersnow in a minute. But first, some background:
In class this week, we spent some time talking about voice. You know, that thing that you, as a writer, are supposed to have. Of course, the trouble with voice is the same problem the Supreme Court had in defining pornography: no one can describe it exactly, but you know it when you see it.
Steven Schwartz suggested that voice is what happens when writers “face the intersection of their unique experience with that of the larger culture.”¹ Our class grappled with exactly what that means. Does it mean that you have to have experienced something in your own life in order for your fiction about that subject to have a voice? As you can imagine, the conversation went in circles: if everyone wrote only what they knew, no one would make anything up. Yes, yes. But then, how can you find an authentic voice?
My take: I think it has something to do with using your own experiences to find the concrete details that can evoke the emotions you’ve felt, and then applying those details to the fictional situations and characters you create.
Okay, so back to THUNDERSNOW. And we’re about to get a little bit serious. Forgive me.
My first experience with the phenomenon of thundersnow (that I can remember) happened during the April Fool’s Blizzard of 1997. Yes, on March 31, 1997, mother nature dumped two feet of snow on Providence, Rhode Island, where I was attending Brown University. But I had other things on my mind.
The day before, I had returned to campus from spring break, excited to see my friends. I was a sophomore and a new-ish member of a co-ed fraternity, and my friends were my life, as they can only be in college. When I arrived at the house, I was greeted by my very somber roommate, who made me sit on my bed and then ran out of the room. She returned a minute later with another brother, who sat down next to me and shared the awful news, his hands cold around mine.
One of our members had been killed in a car crash over the break. Her name was Kat. We loved her.
It’s still difficult for me to write about this. I’ve tried. Even now, I’m feeling that familiar tight-chested, need-to-take-shallow-breaths-because-my-lungs-have-closed-in feeling. Time makes things easier in general, but focusing on the details of that moment and the ones that followed over the next two days — focusing in the way I would need to in order to draw upon those details to create authenticity — makes everything fresh and raw.
The rest of the day was a blur, as everyone arrived all smiles and then sat in dark corners with lips pressed together and eyes staring into the distance. The next day, March 31st, the university worked with us to arrange for a bus to take us to New York for the funeral early the next morning. A chaplain arrived at the house that night and we hosted a gathering of students who had known and loved Kat.
And then we went outside, to gather around a ceremonial tree. It was snowing. No, it was SNOWING. The flakes were wide and fat and sluggish, but when they hit the ground they stuck, piling unevenly around the quad. We bundled up and circled the tree. We passed around a bottle of Jack and saluted our fallen brother. As we did so, the sky above us lit up with streaks of lightning and thunder crashed.
Someone hugged me. Tears froze on my cheeks and the tip of my nose. I swallowed a mouthful of whisky and felt it burn its way down my throat and into my chest, already making me feel giddy at the sudden heat. Across the circle, one girl threw her head back and shouted up at the swirling white, “We hear you!” There was laughter, and the thunder crashed again.
I haven’t thought about that night — really thought, gone back in time through memory, without glossing over the details — in a long time. Self-preservation and all that.
But maybe it’s finally time to draw on that experience, focus on the details. Take that unique experience that intersects with the larger culture and use it to find my voice.
Kat brought the thundersnow. Seems the least I could do in return.
¹Schwartz, Steven. “Finding a Voice in America.” Bringing the Devil to His Knees. Ed. Baxter, Charles and Turchi, Peter. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2001. 45-52. Print.