Sunday, March 12, 2006

Listening to Voices

Do you ever listen--really listen--to your voice?

Voice is such an integral part of our being. Yet, if you're like me, I suspect you take your voice, despite its frequent use, for granted.

Perhaps it's because our voice comes from the deepest part of ourselves that we don't always hear it. But it exists, a part of our breath. And if we listen closely, we can hear the rhythm of our hearts, as constant as waves, beating within it.

Once a friend told me, as we sat talking on a bench, that she could feel the vibrations of my voice through the bench's back-rest.

Isn't that an amazing idea? She could feel my voice. Imagine if everyone could feel voices as well as hear them. What would life be like then?

Even if we don't think much about our voice, we use it every day, don't we? And whether we're aware of it or not, it's more than a tool for communicating. It's a doorway into who we really are, a way for us to know other people, as well as ourselves.

Voice is part of our identity.

If we listen carefully, we can determine where a person's from, their level of education, whether we trust them or not, even how they feel...simply by detecting clues contained in a voice.

When we pick up the phone, we can make a guess about the person on the other end... and what they want... solely by the sound of a voice.

It's the same when we meet a stranger, isn't it?

We get a sense of the speaker. And when we respond, the speaker gets a sense of us.

Our inner selves.

Voice plays the same integral role in a writer's work

The challenge is to get the sound of your voice from your ear...onto the it can be heard in your reader's ear.

That's a kind of magic, isn't it?

The "voice" on a page reveals so many things. What's most important, though, is that the reader hear and feel the emotional content of that voice.

Listen the next time you're reading and try to identify this aspect of voice. Train your ear to hear the voice's underlying emotional content.

Select any book you want. Try it with picture books (even picture books without words). Classic tales that quiet children. Boisterous tales that surprise and delight. You can go anywhere with this... all the way through early and middle grade readers to YA's.

Listen to the voices.

Ask yourself what you hear, then describe the emotional tone of the voice and the way it makes you feel.

Now... turn to your own work. Read the words that you've put down on the page, then close your eyes and listen. What do you hear? Can you describe the emotional quality of your voice? Can you name the emotion?

Put down your pen for a moment. Stop typing.

Just listen to the sound of your voice.

Here are a few additional resources for exploring voice:

Christopher Meeks, a writer who teaches at Santa Monica College, as well as at CalArts and UCLA Extension, shares insights in "Finding Your Voice" at

Jan Nielsen, an intern minister, wrote about searching for her voice in a moving sermon that she delivered at First Parrish, a Unitarian Church, in Concord, MA. You can read the sermon at

Susan J. Letham, a British writer and online creative writing tutor (see offers some helpful tips for finding your voice at

Mystery novelist Barbara Klaser discusses voice in a review of Finding Your Voice by Les Edgerton

For an interesting, albeit brief, discussion on voice and Julia Alvarez's work, check out this blog at Middlebury College:

Or take a look at this analysis of voice by Patti Steele-Perkins, a literary agent who explores a common mistake among writers: losing your voice in the writing process. It's at

You can read what Susan Orleans has to say about voice in The Narrative Journal, a report of the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. Her comments appear in Neil Shea's "Raising Your Voice: Who Speaks When You Write?" It's at


Barbara W. Klaser said...

Bruce, thank you for the mention and the nice comment.

What a thoughtful post. I especially like, "And if we listen closely, we can hear the rhythm of our hearts, as constant as waves, beating within it." So true.

jo'r said...

Good session Bruce. The links were interesting in finding out more views on how writers are thinking of voice. I think most seemed to feel the best approach to developing a good narrative voice was to stay with your own, more or less conversational, style. Don't try to write in the style of someone you admire, like Hemmingway, for example. Too obvious an example, perhaps. When I think of writers whom I might know just a little up close, and some of their books, like YA authors Graham Salisbury, Jack Gantos, Carolyn Coman, Brock Cole, they seem to more or less keep their own, consistent narrative voice. And do a great job. YA author Chris Lynch seems to experiment a bit more with a voice different than his own, and also does a great job. So, I remain intrigued with the possibility of supplying a different narrative voice than my own for some stories, and have them turn out well.