Futile Devices & Speaker Language
Sufjan Stevens has a really good song called “Futile Devices.” You should listen to it.
In my classes, we talk about “speaker language” when addressing another piece of work. As a creative non-fiction student, this makes a lot of sense: as we read and discuss the work of other authors, our peers, it is important to keep them out of it. After all, the stories we tell and ingest and think about are true in some way, and the truth is raw and dangerous and fragile and intimate. So we leave out “you” and the author’s name and say “When the narrator describes…,” “It sounds like the speaker thinks…,” “I appreciate the way the narrator characterizes her father in this way” instead.
And I think this distinction is important. To know that there is a certain level of respect for the experiences of others when we come together to talk about our writing. No one talks about my actions, my thoughts, my experiences, my failed relationships, my mental wellbeing. We, together, acknowledge that the person I am on the page is different than the person I am in real life. What is written there, presented in black and white, is only an aspect of who I am as a person, who I was in a specific moment in time, a person who can’t be fully represented by words. My peers read my writing and say “the narrator’s experiences” to acknowledge to me that this is true. And the same goes when I am reading the work of others. There is a safety in this separation.
But lately I have been thinking of the other implications of using these words. In a discussion of author the other day, my creative nonfiction workshop professor described the “author as character” who is shown to us on the page getting a bag of groceries, the “author as narrator” who reflects to us on the page about what the experience of getting groceries meant, the “implied author” who I grabbed a beer with the night before and emailed me the grocery store story that they wrote and is sitting across from me in workshop class, and the “actual author” who is the fullness of that person sitting across from me that I’ll never truly know.
And this underscores the foundational conflict with reading and writing: I read because I so desperately want to know others. I want to know about other people, both fictional and nonfictional. I want to be immersed in their stories, and to read my own life differently because I read about theirs. I write because I want this “knowingness” to be reciprocally true. I want my life and stories to be known and to allow readers to know themselves further.
And, as with most writers, I know this is a futile desire. In that Sufjan Stevens song he sings “words are futile devices.” I cannot know another person through their writing. I can’t fully communicate with another person through mine. Words are slippery and inadequate and don’t work the way we want them to. But to write is to keep trying to communicate while understanding this.
So with this discussion of “knowing,” I have been rubbed a little raw by the discussion of “the narrator,” “the speaker,” “the author as character” recently. I already know that this knowing is impossible; it just feels like we’re widening an already impassable gap, reminding ourselves over and over again that what we seek is impossible.
It’s not that I think we should stop using “narrator/speaker/I voice” language. I am not advocating for this at all. But I also think it is always important to acknowledge the other implications. Using language always has other implications. When we say “the narrator,” “the speaker,” “the author as character” in workshop, we are repeatedly acknowledging that the act of writing is a futile attempt at connection. We are reminding ourselves that we are trying to know the world through words and it’s not ever going to work the way we want it to.
But to write is to know the futility of this, to look it straight in the face, and to try engage in this work of mutual understanding anyway.