When I stroll down my block, or look around my yard this time of year, there seem to be flowers on the shrubs everywhere. As I think about the progression of the seasons I often wonder why I don’t remember how bright and festive the lavender blooms on my rhododendron are, or how lively and engaging the tiny white flowers on my thyme bushes can be. But even so, the surprise of discovering flowers bursting forth this time of the year can be delightful; perhaps more so because each year the flowers seem altogether unexpected and new.
Writer Pam Houston has said, “I’m about going out in the world and noticing stuff, going home and writing it down, and putting it next to other stuff I’ve noticed and seeing what happens.” And borrowing from our glimpse of William Carlos Williams’s work last month, Williams was all about noticing the little things around us, the things that change from day to day or things that we have never stopped to look at. Paying attention is a huge part of a writer’s job, a writer’s inspiration.
It is easy to become discouraged as a writer. Almost all of our work is done alone, in a solitary manner. We often go long periods without having a way to measure if our work is good, or if it has reached a reader. Yet we can always stop and look at things around us, come back to our desks, and write about what has caught our attention. It may be the floating wings of the seasonal Monarch butterfly, or it might be the overlapping waves in a pond’s ripples. It may be the cry of a child in distress, or the sound of our loved one’s whispers. What has caught your attention lately? How are you bringing those things attended to into your writing?
Work In Progress – “Little Books”
I’m excited to say that I have completed my small manuscript of stories about lies, The Little Book of Lies. What a great feeling to go through the story collection in this small chapbook-length collection, about 25,000 words long, and to see new worlds, people and places that have come to life in these stories. A few of the stories have been published in 2017, and I’m starting to send out some of these stories for submission to short story journals. (To view published stories, click here!)
What’s up next? I have two companion collections in progress, The Little Book of Monsters, and The Little Book of Fables. While these are all short-length manuscripts for commercial publication, my poet-friends tell me that chapbooks are often part of a poet’s work. A smaller-length book seems to fit well for flash fiction as it does for poetry, which many of the stories are.
Writing Tip – Building Voice
Recently I’ve been reading Mary Karr’s book on memoir, The Art of Memoir. Although her book focuses on developing the memoir, Karr talks quite perceptively about the importance of a strong and unique voice, something that grabs the reader’s ear and makes you want to keep reading all the way to the end. This is particularly important for fiction also.
Let’s take this example from Harry Crews’s startling memoir Childhood, The Biography of a Place (suggested by Karr):
The man got two Cokes out of the scarred red box behind him and Uncle Alton paid him. We went on back to where the men were talking. They all spoke to Uncle Alton in the brief and easy way of men who had known each other all their lives.
They spoke for a while about the weather, mostly rain, and about other things that men who live off the land speak of when they meet, seriously, but with that resigned tone in their voice that makes you know they know they’re speaking only to pass the time because they have utterly no control over what they’re talking about: weevils in cotton, screwworms in stock, the government allotment of tobacco acreage, the fierce price of commercial fertilizer. (19,20)
For contrast, here is the ending of Hemingway’s “The Hills Like White Elephants”:
He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.
“Do you feel better?” he asked.
“I feel fine,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.”
And, one more, an excerpt from James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”:
When he [Sonny] was about as old as the boys in my classes his face had been bright and open, there was a lot of copper in it; and he’d had wonderfully direct brown eyes, and a great gentleness and privacy. I wondered what he looked like now. He had been picked up, the evening before, in a raid on an apartment downtown, for peddling and using heroin.
I couldn’t believe it; but what I meant by that was i couldn’t find any room for it anywhere inside me. I had kept it outside me for a long time. I hadn’t wanted to know. I had had suspicions, but I didn’t name them. I kept putting them away. I told myself that Sonny was wild, but he wasn’t crazy. And he’d always been a good boy, he hadn’t ever turned hard or evil or disrespectful, the way kids can, so quick, so quick, especially in Harlem. I didn’t want to ever believe that I’d see my brother going down, coming to nothing, all that light in his face gone out . . .
You can pretty quickly pick up a difference among these voices in the three examples above, and you can imagine that those differences come from the cadence of the author’s voice, from the rhythms in the sentences, from the language and word choices. Hemingway’s recognizable simple declarative sentences, Baldwin’s richly descriptive phrases and his narrator’s internal reflections, and Crews’s deep-dive into the rural tobacco-growing part of Georgia where he grew up. An author’s voice may be different from one book to the next, from one story to the next, but making a voice memorable and authentic in our work is a powerful way to capture the reader’s interest. It makes our work especially memorable!
Making the voice authentic – that is the challenge, of course. How to do this? As you may have discovered, just by writing, and by studying other writers whose work you admire, you’ll uncover the voice that you feel is true to your work. Take a look at poetry for language and cadence – even reading a few poems before starting your writing day can help you tap into a more lyrical pattern of prose.
Thanks for joining me in this exploration of voice. A strong and unique voice can make our work even more amazing!