Communal Voices

December 25, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROGER ROSENBLATT: “The individual voice is the communal voice.” Joyce Carol Oates, who recently received the Kenyon Review lifetime achievement award, says that in a new book, called “The Faith of a Writer.”

The individual voices is a communal voice, meaning that a writer creates something out of personal experience, and then trusts that the personal is universal, and will be received gladly because of that. The statement requires some faith itself.

In “Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison says something similar when his mad and sane hero asks, “who knows but that on the lower frequencies I speak for you?” Speak for me? I’m not African American; not confined to a basement illuminated by 1,300 light bulbs.

Not alone, not invisible. Oh, but the invisible man isn’t invisible either. He’s just a man. And on this assumption of common feeling is all writing is based, and all art, and much of life. One of Joyce Carol Oates’ novels is called “Because it is Bitter, and Because it is my Heart.”

“Write your heart out, because your heart, once out, belongs to everyone.”

Clergymen deliver sermons believing the same thing. Politicians make speeches and have the same faith. Advertisers create ads with the same hope. What I say, you say, too– or think, or feel. The individual voice is a communal voice.

If this is so, the imagination really has to stretch. By what stretch of the imagination is a crazed, peg-legged, whaling captain’s voice the communal voice — or the dimwitted rich girl at the end of the dock with the green light? Or her great tormented idolater, for that matter? Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to discover that he has been turned into a giant insect.

Is everybody snug as a bug? What’s required for these understandings to get through is something in common that lies hidden, hidden in “King Lear,” in “Emma,” “Blue Boy,” “The Mona Lisa,” jazz, rap, Beethoven, and “Roll Over, Beethoven”– the idea that we are all part of the same story, a story that we all tell and listen to and create.

Why be especially charitable in the Christmas/Hanukkah season, unless you really believe of the down and nearly out, “there but for the grace of God go I?” The season darkens and grows cold, and so does the story we’re part of.

Can that be me, that bundle of rags asleep in the doorway, that kid strung out on drugs, that manic, desperate voice crying out in the night? Who knows but that on the lower frequencies that voice is yours and mine?

Every social transaction, every word one writes or speaks, every gesture made toward someone else, everything invented or dreamed of, good and bad, takes into account that the individual voice is the communal voice.

“Write your heart out,” says Joyce Carol Oates.

The writer writes our heart out because it is bitter and corrupt and helpless and occasionally heroic and lovely and kind, and because it is our heart.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.