Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Poetic Voice Lesson 2 - Expand Your Range (conclusion)

This is the second and concluding article in a two-part series on poetic voice. (Part 1: Poetic Voice Lesson 1 - Sharpen Your Ear)

Nothing spells disaster for a singer like a case of laryngitis. A close second is a limited range—above and below which notes are strained and pitch is off key. Did you know that writers can also suffer from laryngitis and a limited range? In this second voice lesson, we’re going to work at developing voice. We’ll look at some things that cause poetic laryngitis and suggest exercises to help you find your writing voice and expand your range.

Poetic Laryngitis

1. Mental and emotional permission
When poet Sheila Bender began writing poetry she described her voice as “rusty from disuse.” Under the teaching of poet David Wagoner, she explored reasons for this and found they were mostly mental and emotional. She realized that her family looked on art as superfluous. Furthermore, when she wrote about deep feelings, she felt like she was betraying her parents and husband. In order for her to “sing loudly and at greater length,” like her teacher instructed, she needed to give herself permission to write, and to write about certain subjects.[1]

The same may be true for you. You may feel strongly about some things, yet when you write about them you worry about betraying those close to you, disappointing those who have ideas of what you’re like, or even compromising your own ideals. The permissions and taboos we impose on our writing are personal. It’s important to realize, though, that these self-imposed rules will affect voice, perhaps even our ability to sing at all.

2. Bombast Complex
After spending some years in jail before becoming a writer, Les Edgerton occasionally returned to visit his former mates and encourage them to believe that life could be turned around. He soon began getting letters from inmates that were “rollicking and exhilarating.” They told of car chases, lawyerly ineptitude, shootouts, judges they were convinced had been fixed and more.

So impressed was Edgerton with what he called the “literary gold” of these letters, he invited the writers to send him stories they had written. But did he get back writing of the same quality? No. The stories they sent were “writerly”—poor mimics of Zane Gray or as stiff as school essays.[2]

The same thing can happen to you. If instead of being yourself on the page, you write to impress the reader, your voice can get lost in Thesaurus-hyped purple or academic stiffness and bombast. Natalie Goldberg says, “Learn to trust the force of your own voice. Naturally it will evolve a direction…but it will come from a different place than your need to be an achiever.[3]

Voice Exercises: Find your voice and expand your range

Before we go any further, let’s make sure we’re on the same page by reviewing what we mean by voice in poetry. In Voice Lesson 1 we used John Drury’s Poetry Dictionary definition of voice: “…the characteristic sound, style, manner, tone of a particular poet or poem.[4] We examined the elements he named in his definition—diction, syntax, attitudes, subject matter, rhythmic proclivities, line lengths, punctuation, the presence or absence of meter and rhyme, and tone—and explored how each contributes to a poet’s voice.

Keeping that definition in mind, here are six things you can do to help you re-discover your voice and expand your range.

1. Find your subject matter.
What matters to you? What affects you deeply? To discover what these things are, make a list of high points, low points and turning points in your life. These subjects will probably lead to your most powerful poems.

In addition, always carry a notebook with you to record ideas. As poet and teacher Michael Bugeja says, “If you record your muse, you’ll increase your output as a poet. You’ll also become more aware of epiphanies and experiences.”[5]

2. Imitate the poets you admire.
Artist Pablo Picasso believed that the very attempt to recreate another artist’s pictorial voice ultimately led an artist to his own. Writer Gabriele Rico says, “…we grow into our own voices by trying on many voices, not just the voices outside of us, but the multiple voices within us…. All the voices you try on are aspects of yourself.[6]

To mimic a writer, pick a written passage (poetry or prose) you admire and read it several times. Choose a word from that passage. Prepare to write by doing an idea-generating exercise from that word such as brainstorming a list or making a word cluster.

Now do a timed free-write, keeping the sound of the model passage in mind as you write. Return to your free-write later and refine what you have written into a poem or salvage one or two lines to use later in another poem.

You could also do a poem echo. Copy out a favorite short poem. Below it write a poem of your own (any subject) using the same line, sentence and punctuation structure as your model poem.

3. Use the four-step voice process (developed by Michael Bugeja[7]).
In relation to any specific poem ask:
i] With whom am I speaking (myself, child, parent, society at large, etc.)? The listener may never make an appearance, but having him in your mind as you write will help you determine the voice of the piece.
ii] Where is this conversation taking place? Again, the setting may or may not make an appearance. But even if it is only in your imagination, it can affect your tone.
iii] What is the nature of the epiphany I wish to share? A self-deprecating poem that makes fun of a quirk of yours will surely have a different tone than one in which you realize how unforgivness has shriveled your spirit.
iv] What voice is appropriate for i, ii and iii above? List the adjectives that describe the voice you’d like people to hear from your poem. Now go through your poem again and substitute words that best convey the voice you are after.

4. Explore your own various voices.
Identify the voices you use throughout the day e.g. spouse, parent, employee, child. Do a free-write on any topic in the voice of each of these personas.

5. Get into character.
Reread a favorite Bible story. Rewrite that story from the point of view and in the voice of each main (or minor) character.

6. Read your poem aloud.
Read your poem aloud to determine how your poem’s voice comes across orally. Adjust the physical elements of your poem—line lengths (short lines slow the reading, long lines speed it up), punctuation, stanza breaks etc.—to reflect how you would like others to read/hear it.

Vocalists work on scales and exercises regularly and for years to bring their voices to full potential. Voice training for the poet takes time and practice too. But unlike the rote repeating of scales and exercises that train a singer’s voice, a writer’s voice training is far more varied.

Each day can be a foray into new territory. Gabriele Rico calls it play: “We learn about voice in writing by taking on many voices, by experimenting, by allowing our imaginations to express this voice, that voice. In the process we find the writer’s voice that is most authentically our own… Only by playing can you discover authenticity of voice. No one can do it for you.”[8]


[1] Sheila Bender, Writing Personal Poetry (Writer’s Digest Books, 1998), p. 13
[2] Les Edgerton, Finding Your Voice (Writer’s Digest Books, 2003), p. 2
[3] Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones (Shambhala, 1986), p. 37
[4] John Drury, The Poetry Dictionary (Writer’s Digest Books, 2006), p. 342
[5] Michael Bugeja, The Art and Craft of Poetry (Writer’s Digest Books, 1994), p. 19
[6] Gabriele Rico, Writing the Natural Way (Tarcher / Putnam, 2000), p. 171
[7] Adapted from The Art and Craft of Poetry, p. 144
[8] Gabriele Rico, Writing the Natural Way, p. 173

© 2009 by Violet Nesdoly. This article was first published at Utmost Christian Writers.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Writers on Vacation

Recently Shelley Haggard and I teamed up to write "Writers on Vacation." Her story "I Was Planning to Write .... Really!" tells of her recent trip to Italy and what became of her resolve to blog about it. That's followed by my "Ten Tips for Vacationing Writers."

Read "Writers On Vacation" (published this week in Abbotsford Today).

Monday, August 15, 2011

The discipline of paying attention

Luci Shaw's musings on paying attention are wise. They urge us to live through senses exquisitely attuned to wonder and the sacramental. She says:

"I want to start where I am and use what I have and in the writing the mundane and the trivial may show themselves to be of greater significance. All of the ordinary givens are fodder for my faith.... God speaks from the loaves of bread, mu granddaughter's water-colour of a rainbow, the buzz of a housefly....These graces often begin with moments of attention and surprise" - Luci Shaw in Breath for the Bones, Kindle Location 1676.

For me, following in Ann Voskamp's train and keeping a gratitude journal has, for the past year, helped me to do this. Then last week a comment on someone's post about Breath opened a little wider the door to fulfilling this discipline. She said something like: "Stop in the middle of what you're doing and ask, What is holy about this moment?" (Sorry if I butchered the quote; I looked for it again but now can't find it.) I love that—for I'm still far too easily distracted from seeing the sacred in everyday things and need all the help I can get.

Another help is the inspiration of reading the writing of people who actually pay attention. Besides Luci's own vivid examples, I think of what I recently read in one of Wendell Berry's essays.

"Perhaps it is to prepare to hear someday the music of the spheres that I am always turning my ears to the music of streams. There is indeed a music in streams, but it is not for the hurried. It has to be loitered by and imagined. Or imagined toward, for it is hardly for men at all. Nature has a patient ear. To her the slowest funeral march sounds like a jig. She is satisfied to have the notes drawn out to the lengths of days or weeks or months. Small variations are acceptable to her, modulations as leisurely as the opening of a flower." - Wendell Berry in The Art of the Commonplace, page 19.

Isn't that gorgeous? I read that and say, being attuned is worth striving after. So I will continue to work at the discipline of paying attention — one that I've been working on for a while now. I wrote this in 2004-ish.


Besides the path that winds
through my waking and sleeping
grow like wildflowers
scenes, insights, connections
Some days I am too rushed
or distracted to see
On others I am wiser
live with the perception
that gathers a bouquet
chooses one or two to press
between the covers
of a book

© 2004 by Violet Nesdoly

This post is part of the discussion of Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination, and Spirit by Luci Shaw. Laura Boggess discusses Chapters 9 (Paying Attention) and 10 (Cultivating Creativity) here. At the bottom of the post you will find links to other posts about these chapters.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Of trickles and gushers

I loved Luci Shaw's chapter on journaling in Breath for the Bones. I could have underlined the whole thing. I think one reason this chapter resonated with me so much is because Shaw has articulated my experience in many areas.

  • The way beginning to write sometimes turns on, in my brain, a Pied Piper's song for words and images.
"I find that as soon as I put words and ideas onto paper, in my notebook ... they begin to gather to themselves more images, more words and ideas" (Kindle Location 1394).

"I write my journal which is where most of my seed poems are recorded" (KL 1421).

  • I often begin a poem (any piece of writing for that matter) without knowing how it is going to end. The way inspiration comes to me during the process of work is one of the reasons I chose the Madeline L'Engle quote as my blog description: "Inspiration usually comes during work rather than before it."
"The writing, the music, the painting, the art will begin to open doors as it advances, without my always knowing where it is going or what the end result will be. The rational, planning mind does not leap ahead of the intuitive, imaginative mind. They work in tandem" (KL 1421).

  • I have also been often surprised by how much I find to say about some topics. Some subjects tap into deep, formerly undiscovered reservoirs within me (I think of it as finding a gusher).
"Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals what is alive" - LS quoting Henri Nouwen (KL 1430).

  • I have been a faithful journaler with much bookshelf space given to fat 3-ring binders filled with handwritten words...
    "The task of the writer is to create a rich, immediate, usable past" - LS quoting William Saroyan (KL 1439).

... until 2010. And then those jottings dried to a trickle. It took me a year and a half to fill up a 3-subject coil notebook. I just started a new one at the beginning of August.

What happened? I'm not sure exactly. Distraction? So many words floating around, any more seemed extraneous? Bored with the sound of my own musings? I think above all, I lost sight of the point. Luci's image of the lighted display of the path of an airplane at the beginning of the chapter reminds me about it.

"I want to see clearly the country I have come from, and what lies ahead, and how fast and direct is my journey toward it" - KL 1384.

Reading this chapter couldn't have come at a better time for me. So far this month, the journal-writing is flowing. I feel I have reunited with an old friend - myself. I may just be needing more 3-subject notebooks before the year is up!

This post is part of the book discussion of Breath for the Bones, over at The High Calling. Read Laura Boggess on Chapters 7 and 8 ("Be Brave with Words"), then follow the links at the bottom of the article to more discussion of these chapters.