May 2018 | An Exploration of Voice


Photo by Theresa Barker.


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!

22 thoughts on “May 2018 | An Exploration of Voice

  1. TheresaBarker Post author

    Reblogged this on Theresa Barker – Lab Notes and commented:

    Have you thought about the development of voice in your writing? Have you seen, or fallen in love with, other writers’ voices? In this month’s writing newsletter we explore voice and its effect on writing and the reader. Take a look!

  2. Miriam Hurdle

    An excellent post, Teresa. Yes, memoir gets a lot of attention, I noticed that. For me, I’m writing to pass on my legacy, so I’ll have my daughter and granddaughter and their kids in mind when I write. Thank you for sharing. I think I’ll get Karr’s book. In the coming Writers’ Conference, I’ll attend the 3-day series workshop on memoir writing. It’s coming up in a week.

    1. TheresaBarker Post author

      Oh, that’s great, Miriam! I know your family will benefit from your writing down the stories that are important to you. I’m sure the Writers Conference memoir workshops will also be of value. – The Mary Karr book is oriented toward tough memoirs, just to let you know, so, take a look through it before you buy it, I’d hate for you to be disappointed. I, too, have been thinking of writing up my family stories and they would not be as fierce and intense as her style of memoir. But I still got value from the book, more for my general writing. 🙂

      1. Miriam Hurdle

        On blogger got her grad degree in memoir writing, and Mary Karr’s book was used for discussion. I’m sure it would be a good book to study. I’m just writing a casual memoir. I belong to a Facebook memoir group, people write all kinds of funny stories as their memoir. 🙂

  3. Dahlia

    Loved the glimpses from your part of the world Theresa – over here it is too hot to even think of going outside even at night. I love the title of your story collection – especially the book of lies and book of monsters. They beg to be picked up! Wish you all the best with this venture. Voice is a big mystery to me, despite your giving some excellent examples. My primary point is can one ‘read’ or ‘hear’ ones own ‘voice’? Isnt writing about doing what you love most and then hoping that someone will ‘hear’ you and decorate you with a voice? Did I make any sense? Thanks Theresa for yet another thought provoking and enjoyable read 🙂

    1. TheresaBarker Post author

      Hi Dahlia, I loved reading your message. I wanted to take a moment to think more about voice, and your message has been on my mind for the past week. You ask the BEST questions, I’m so honored you are part of my community.

      I talked to a couple of writer-friends about the question of voice. We think that it’s something that is hard to “craft,” that you can read other voices and analyze them, like the Hemingway or writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, etc., but analyzing and doing are different things, eh? So, what came out of the conversation with my writing colleagues and me is that voice is something that develops through one’s writing, and that it can take some time to “find” or craft one’s voice. I have one friend who is a photographer, and he said he thought it was like what he does with photography, in that at first he took lots of pictures, and while they were fine, over time he started to notice things in his photos that he liked more, and that were more “his own style” than other things. For him, it was the small sights, the macro-compositions, things that looked even slightly abstract in his photograph, but that other people might not see. I think writing voice is like that, too, noticing that you are noticing certain things that other people don’t necessarily see as they walk by or as they are writing.

      When I think of your writing, for instance, I just love the way you view trees, that you make them come to life, they talk to you, that you notice what they look like in bloom and after blooming, how they react to the weather, what they seem to be reaching for, etc. Also your walls and old buildings, think of it, these are all inanimate objects yet you give them voices and personality! With wit and humor! If you ever wanted to, I can imagine a lovely set of stories that features the hidden life of trees, walls, old buildings, or historic monuments, and I could even see a young woman who (unbeknownst to everyone else) knows these things are intelligent and somehow talks with them or has an adventure in their world. I know how much advocacy you do for women who are imprisoned by their marriage circumstances, I wonder what might happen (just dreaming here) if a young woman imprisoned by marriage found out her tree could help her somehow escape psychologically and physically … hah! But back to voice, it’s something that “how to write” books don’t have a lot to say about, but the more you write, the more you discover what’s unique about your thoughts and writing that other people don’t have. What are your thoughts?

      Thanks again, Dahlia! I’m so fortunate to have you in my blogging and writing community! 🙂

      1. Dahlia

        I am deeply touched and humbled by your warm support and encouragement. I especially appreciate the freedom (and inspiration) that you give your reader to think and express nebulous thoughts and ideas. Your photographer friend’s views were an eye-opener and makes a lot of sense (especially when you link to my fledgling floundering efforts) please do convey my thanks to him but mostly to yourself for making the effort to put things into perspective for me. Asking questions is easy – giving answers that too the BEST not so 🙂 Thank you Theresa for too too many reasons to list!

        Re my thoughts on voice development and discovering your own voice – I think it is more important for others to discover my voice (if any) than for me to discover it. My job/purpose is/should be to write and focus on bringing forth those thoughts and emotions that dwell within me, hidden even from my own self. And the rest will take care of itself. If I may take up a little more space and
        your time, I would like to narrate a little incident from my son’s school days. He was about 12 or 13 and being interviewed for the position of Head Boy of his school’s Primary Section. He was asked to list his qualities that made him suitable/or the best for this position. His answer was “I should not tell you that, others should tell you that.” Despite being repeatedly asked and even coaxed, he refused to budge from his stance.

        Needless to say he did not get the position and in fact I was called for a discussion on action plan for improving his confidence levels. When I told them I not only agreed with him but was proud of his reply, they looked at me as if I was from some other planet. As for confidence, unlike them I thought he had too much for such a little boy and bordered on arrogance!

        Oops I seem to have digressed from the earlier discussion but it had reminded me of this incident and couldn’t resist sharing with you. Have a wonderful day 🙂

      2. TheresaBarker Post author

        Well, Dahlia, I love your thoughtful approach to voice and to one’s own accomplishments. How lovely! To have one’s own best qualities speak for themselves. So lovely.

        And thank you also for your very kind message about my message! Looking forward to reading even more of your writing! 🙂

  4. Anne J.

    A wealth of information here, Theresa. And I find them interesting, too. I love the little books. It’s great that you are sent It them out. All the very best!

  5. Luanne

    I love this thoughtful presentation of voice as well as hearing about your accomplishments. I can’t remember if I told you about the prose chapbook work shop I took at AWP. It’s a trend IMO. Congrats, Theresa!

    1. TheresaBarker Post author

      Oh my gosh, no, I haven’t had a chance to hear about the prose chapbook workshop. Do you remember you were the one who filled me in on chapbooks last year? I’d love to hear more … but I know your time is limited. Any pointers to material would be much appreciated, Luanne! 🙂

      1. Luanne

        Yes, I remember that! The workshop was focused on the notion that there ARE chapbook publishers interested in prose (specifically nonfiction, in this case). Most people assume they are all for poetry, but that is changing. I have something to share with you, if you want to email me. The WS also looked at the WHY of publishing a chapbook instead of waiting until you have a full-length book. Mainly, that goes without saying. It’s a way to test out your material, get a publication under your belt, get the collected material in the hands of the reader, etc.

      2. TheresaBarker Post author

        Wonderful! I have a small list of prose chapbook publishers that I made from listings in Poets & Writers (on their website for subscribers), I think it was after you told me about the existence of the chapbook form. Good to hear it’s a way to test out your work, a great way to look at it. In my search of the P&W database last year, it was true that about 2/3-3/4 of the chapbook listings were for poetry, but the remaining 1/3-1/4 were looking for prose.

        Thanks for your offer to send me something – I’ll send you a note through your website!

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