Bwog staffers Lily Mooney and Phoebe Mulder attended the third talk in Columbia’s Creative Writing Craft Series.

Last Thursday, February 16th, Columbia’s Creative Writing Department hosted Angie Cruz for the third segment of their four part series of Craft Talks featuring critically acclaimed fiction authors. Upon our arrival, we were very impressed with the fanciness of the event, which included multiple kinds of wine and Mediterranean food–one of us had a pita! Needless to say, we were hooked before Cruz even began speaking. Wine in hand, feeling as fancy as one can feel being slightly underdressed and in a room full of people who definitely knew much more about writing than we did, a professor of the Creative Department introduced us to the guest of honor. 

Angie Cruz, author of four novels, including Dominicana: A Novel and most recently How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water, introduced the event with a working definition of voice, though, throughout the evening, the meaning began to warp and expand. Cruz defined authorial voice as a personal style; how we distinguish ourselves as writers. It can be improved, strengthened with practice and experience, but should always reflect the author’s true self. This vulnerability is essential in crafting authorial voice. Cruz developed hers through listening to her family tell stories as a child. As her family members included details and plot twists, she realized an important aspect of storytelling– a good story holds the reader’s attention. Authorial voice is one of the most important tools in this endeavor. 

Just look at the first paragraph of Toni Morrison’s Jazz, Cruz suggested. Morrison’s narrator establishes a distinct cadence and phoneticism from the first sentence. Cruz described it as one of the finest introductory paragraphs in the literary canon. It was born from a moment of frustration–unable to unlock the voice of Jazz, Morrison tossed her pen and sucked her teeth, making the Sth sound that ultimately became the novel’s first line. 

In addition to authorial voice, Cruz illustrated the concept of narrative voice, which, she explains, is most enticing when it directly opposes, or, at the very least, conflicts with, the desires of the characters. A good narrator shouldn’t be on the same page as the other players in the novel–rather, they should be constantly and unapologetically creating moments of tension. It is in these moments that the readers get to know the characters best, and in which the plot is propelled forward. Cruz went on to cite one of her greatest inspirations in learning to develop narrative voice, Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector. Cruz specifically discusses The Hour of the Star, and its narrator Rodrigo, whose own personal agenda stands against that of the characters. This narrative friction is what, as Cruz puts it, allows the writing to ‘pulsate and reverberate on the page’. 

However, Cruz acknowledges that there is more than one way to engage and excite the reader, such as looking for nuances in the language in which she writes. For Cruz, this process is rooted in the act of translation. Though at first it seemed the audience, ourselves included, struggled to grasp what she meant by this, she elaborated that she often writes in Spanish, or “Spanglish” and then translates it into English. In doing this, Cruz gives her writing an “undercurrent of Spanish” which is more accurate to the characters identities as English-as-a-second-language speakers. Furthermore, the act of translation promotes a messiness, or wildness, that Cruz leans into; it invents opportunities for the discovery of new phrases and potentially poetic syntactic choices that originate from mistakes. Above all else, Cruz prizes accuracy and relatability–her characters aren’t perfect, and neither is their dialogue. 

It is with this in mind that Cruz describes character voice, and the specific impetus for the narrator and protagonist of How Not To Drown in a Glass of Water. Cruz explained how character voice is something that can only come once an author has found their voice, and further, after the bulk of the plot and background has already been established. With her most recent novel, Cruz told the story of how protagonist Cara Romero came to her one day as she stood on a subway platform waiting for the train to arrive. Mindlessly glancing at a woman reading an unidentifiable handbook, Cara just began speaking to Cruz. Through the slow and arduous process of research, planning, and preparing, everything Cruz needed to formulate Cara’s voice had culminated in a moment of revelation. On the train that day, with Cara Romero rambling inside her head, Cruz typed up the beginnings of her latest novel in the notes app on her phone. 

The discovery of Cara Romero’s voice may have been sudden, but it was the product of the years of research Cruz conducted as she wrote Dominicana. This seems to encapsulate the major message of Cruz’s presentation. Voice is inherent, unique, and often spontaneous. It can be accessed in moments of kismet–throwing a pen or riding a subway. But this event was a craft talk, and craft is something to be honed, sharpened. Craft is, Cruz asserted, the conduit for artistic spontaneity. It is the muscle you strengthen and a tool kit to expand. 

Header via Bwog staff