Sunday, December 16, 2018

Learning How to Listen

Open a novel, start reading a poem, or begin a short story, and you’ll hear a writer’s voice immediately.

Each voice is distinct, the author’s voice melded with the narrator’s voice into something never heard before, offering us an invitation into a secret world, an inner world ordinarily hidden from view. It’s this intimacy that we expect as readers. 
But often as writers we take our voices and this intimacy on the page for granted, believing (mistakenly) that our voices—our writer’s voice and our narrator’s voice— are granted us automatically rather than something we need to labor to achieve. 

Using our voice is a skill that we need to learn. It takes a good deal of effort, as you know, to replicate the sound of our voice on the page and in the reader’s ear. For many of us it can take years to find our narrator’s voice before it sounds authentic in our ear, as well as on the page.

How does a writer find his or her voice? What sort of exercises, if any, are helpful? What’s the secret to capturing the sound of a narrator’s voice? 

Lately, I’ve been asking myself these questions because of a severe case of  laryngitis that I came down with six months ago. And I've been wondering if understanding how our speaking voices work can help us understand how to better work with our writer’s voices. 

I hadn’t given much attention to my speaking voice until I lost it last June. Whenever I spoke to people face-to-face or over the phone, I expected my voice to sound as it always sounded. It was my voice, after all, and my voice had a certain sound, a certain timbre, shall we say, as well as a certain cadence and volume. Much like a fingerprint, it identified me to all who knew me. 

But suddenly my voice was gone, and over the next few months doctors told me to rest my voice, which was harder than it might sound. I didn’t realize how much I used my voice. But, my goodness, I discovered I used my voice a lot more than I’d thought. And resting my voice—which meant, essentially, not speaking—was a challenge.

After a while my ENT doctor suggested I take speech therapy to help rehabilitate my voice. He thought therapy might help strengthen the muscles around my strained vocal cords and, in turn, improve my voice. So I started speech therapy sessions, and what I learned about my speaking voice might, I think, help other writers find their writing voices, as well as the voices of their narrators.

1) Learn to relax.

It was almost the first thing that I was advised. Relax! I was given exercises to help me learn to relax my neck and throat, to rid the muscles of tension. In the process of relaxing I learned that forcing myself to speak would only strain the cords and give my voice an unnaturally tense sound. I think it’s the same with writing. Tension will change your voice and how you sound on the page. So, first, try to relax.

2) Warm up.

I had to learn how to physically warm up my voice before speaking. This meant I had to repeat vowel sounds, lift my shoulders in slow circles, massage my jaw. At the start of some sessions I was given a warm towel to wrap around my neck for a few minutes so the heat could help soften the muscles and ligaments in my throat. I was literally warming up my voice to speak before I uttered a word.

And it may be the same for writing. Before you begin writing, you might try some form of physical exercise to help you warm up your writing muscles. What if you spent ten minutes reading someone else’s words (or listening to their voice). Or what if you devoted a few minutes to drawing or doodling? You might be surprised how warming up your hand muscles also warms up your voice muscles. 

3) Reduce the strain.

I had to learn how to project my voice from the front of my mouth in order to reduce the strain on the back of my throat. That meant using lots of words that began with ‘m’… and feeling a kind of buzz on my lips… and making sure that I was using my diaphragm to speak instead of forcing air through my vocal chords and straining to speak from my throat instead of from my belly or core. 

So, if you’re having trouble hearing your voice or your narrator’s voice on the page, or if you feel like the voice doesn’t sound authentic, you might consider changing something about the way you write—the time of day, for instance, or the chair you sit in, or the location of your desk. Or try a new pen.  Or a new journal. 

What if you went to a cafe to write? Or to a bus station? Or to a park? Or just switched rooms? Would your voice sound different if you wrote something there? Maybe that’s something to explore: can the place where you write influence your voice?

4) Learn how to listen. 

After six weeks in speech therapy, I was given another test to see how my voice sounded… and the printout showed me what my ear told me. I could hear a difference between when I’d first started therapy and six weeks later. 

This, too, offers a clue to how we can find our voices on the page. We need to learn how to listen for our voice, and to recognize it when we hear it so that we can reproduce it again and again. That’s why sometimes it can be helpful to read one’s work aloud, or to listen to someone else—a trusted friend, a helpful colleague—read one’s work so we can hear our voice as it sounds on the page.

After six months I’m lucky that I have regained a good deal of my voice. Although not all of it has returned, enough has come back so that I sound almost like I remember sounding. It’s my speaking voice, just not quite my voice! That means there’s still more work to do and more exams to determine if the vocal cords have healed yet.

But I’ve learned a lot that I hadn’t known about my voice. (Did you know, for instance, the human vocal cord is a half-inch to an inch long?) And in the process I learned a lot about my writing voice, too.

May the pages that you write in the days ahead be filled with the magical sound of your voice.

Many thanks to all for following wordswimmer over the past year. I’m looking forward to spending more time with you in the year ahead. Happy writing in 2019!!

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