Rumors of Water: Voice


When I left vocational ministry several years ago, I took a job as a custom framer. The owner of the little downtown art shop was turning over the framing responsibilities to an employee for the first time, and she worried aloud at home about whether or not I would work out. Her daughter, then a first grader, took on her distress.

She often came into the store after school and sat where she could watch me work, always looking away if I caught her eye. Like a good manager’s apprentice, she quizzed her mother daily about my performance, wanting to be certain I measured up to expectations. I wondered if one day I’d return from lunch to receive a pink slip from a seven-year-old with a hand on one hip and a clipboard in the other.

I returned to my early framing days today when I imagined L.L. Barkat and her daughter sitting together in their dining room (sunset yellow) talking about this new editor they’d taken on. In my daydream, they would look at the draft I submitted on Voice and shake their heads. Sara would raise a fork full of rice and spicy lentils to her mouth and say, “I’m sure glad I’m not the Managing Editor. What are you going to do?”

And her mother, forehead landing in the palm of her hand, would sigh and say, “I’m going to have to tell her it doesn’t sound like her.”

I once said something in conversation with L.L. that she gently broke into lines:

I am
if not
the creator
of my own

I proved it again today.

I spent a week thinking long, and too hard, about Voice, something I almost never do. I twisted myself into a rice-and-spicy-lentil knot, and wrote a piece that looks nothing like what you’re reading. Because what I wrote — about Voice — ironically didn’t sound like me. And the gently courageous Managing Editor dared to give it back to me and ask for the texture of my own voice.

For all my efforts to sound like myself this week, I find her words ringing true. Perhaps cultivating a writer’s voice can be more about nourishing those things that give life to it: passions and a sense of place.

The words of a region, a philosophy, a passion for French or French tea, come with their own sounds and rhythms and fragrances. If we read the Palestinian poet Darwish, for instance, we will find ourselves mouthing, jasmine, cloves, olives, veils. Whereas if we read a poet like Marcus Goodyear, we will find ourselves breathing to the staccato of cactus, cattle, tree poker. . . . Our voice will be better developed if we spend time with our passions. Learn the difference between a tangerine and a tangelo. Consider the variation in their blooms, and the place where their nectar beads. (p. 56)

I drove into the hills rolling to the west of my little town today for a visit I have each week with the Benedictine monks. I came back to banter with the Managing Editor about voice and baseball and the brothers and before long I started to remember how it is, most days, I sound.

The Brothers wore
home jerseys, resurrected
for a new Eastertide.
The priest behind the plate
hiked up gold vestments
and signaled
in trinitarian fashion
for a changeup.
The organist shook
off the sign and said
there is nothing new
under the liturgical sun,
delivering a breaking
ball at the knees.


We’re discussing chapters 9-13 of L.L. Barkat’s Rumors of Water today, considering a writer’s voice. What has helped you cultivate your voice? How has this been a challenge for you? How does nourishing your passions help you get a sense of your own voice?

Perhaps we can have fun with our spoken voice today. Did you hear Maureen Doallas read her candy poem last week? L.L. Barkat had her own 20 seconds of fame on NPR yesterday with her short piece for National Poetry Month. Maybe you would record a short piece or poem you’ve written. (You can record at SoundCloud or Vocaroo and share with us by dropping the link in the comments.)

My fame comes in the realm of chimpanzees, beans and monks playing baseball. Here’s my offering from the Brother’s Poem above, in my own voice.

And of course, if you’ve posted on the book this week, please be sure to drop your link in the comments for us as well. Join us again next Wednesday for chapters 14-20 on Habits and Structure.

Photo by Quasic. Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Lyla Lindquist of A Different Story.

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  1. says

    So nice to hear your voice again, Lyla. And your poem is perfect. At the Triduum services, there was such joy, such a “here we go again, and isn’t it grand!”

    As to my writing voice, I discovered it accidentally at Laity several years ago when I was asked to speak. But I don’t like speaking. I had to do it when I read the thing I wrote for Canto, and I was floored when one of my theater friends said, “I’m in love with your voice.” Good heavens, what now?

  2. says

    So cool to hear you read your wonderful poem.

    Recording a Sound Cloud

    A voice isn’t something you can catch
    like a cold virus that leaves you
    achy and sniffling,
    though you could get red-eyed,
    even weepy, seeing the line rise and fall,
    sometimes go flat, like a heart
    being monitored, too anxious to get
    the right words out.

  3. says

    Well this just drips with dry Midwestern humor (does that even make sense?) Lyla, I’d recognize your voice anywhere. So glad you’re using it out here on the internets, and that I found it.

    “I twisted myself into a rice-and-spicy-lentil knot,” Who writes things like that? Sheesh.

  4. says

    This is so you. Just right. I’m glad you found your voice again. Mine goes running from time to time, too. I’ve considered a leash for it, but what fun would that be? I think my voice learns new things about itself when it runs away from time to time.

  5. says

    Thanks Megan. The writing/speaking are so closely interwoven. “Good heavens, what now?” Safe travels, my friend.

    I thought that piece was fascinating, Glynn, and as I said at your place, it’s amazing to me how one retains one’s own voice in the midst of all those others.

    Maureen! I love what you can do in a comment box. Those few lines say just about everything that needs to be said. Thank you!

    Michelle, I love that piece. And yes, custom framing. One of various and sundry career turns. You know, I loved that work. At the end of the day I could see what I had done, with my hands. It was far less abstract than some of the things I’ve done, and it was very satisfying.

    Nancy, you just made my day. But you knew you would. And Jennifer, I now have this image of you out walking a dog…. But seriously I think you’re right. Interesting things can develop if we get out and explore a little bit, don’t you think?

  6. L. L. Barkat says

    I think it might be interesting to discuss why the first piece was absent of voice. Not to put Lyla on the spot (hi, Lyla! :) but because it’s a really important issue for a writer.

    As you know, Lyla, I love this piece. I can just see that 7-year-old child and my own Sara with a fork in your daydream. Very deep images there, of a feeling that many writers deal with, that stops them short when they hit the page.

  7. says

    Well, if I’m not on the spot yet, I’m not sure how much else I could be. 😉

    This whole section tripped me up in a big way, in large part because I don’t understand voice. At all. So combine the usual irrational angst of writing about Laura’s book in this space, along with my deathly fear of looking like I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I walked right out of the piece. In the words of the Managing Editor, who’s really not so scary in her sunset yellow dining room, “My sense is that this post worried you. So rather than talk about the worry with images, you intellectualized it.”

    Thankfully, that botched piece actually gave me the images to go back and do it better, with the right kind of story.

    I think.

    I still don’t know what I’m talking about and we may as well just get that out in the open.

  8. says

    Lyla, I just *loved* this.

    It seems that some magic formula involving both self-acceptance and unselfconsciousness is key here. Anyone want to wave that magic wand in my direction?

  9. L. L. Barkat says

    Lol, Lyla! You don’t think you know what you are talking about, but in the talking comes the wisdom. :)

    Later today, Sara’s next ‘The Poet’ will go live. She has been going round and round about it for a few weeks, because she doesn’t know what to talk about.

    So I finally said, why don’t you talk about what you are struggling with? Our most powerful work is always from our center, even if that center is feeling unsettled. I believe you totally hit it here, Lyla. We feel your pain 😉

  10. says

    Laura, I’m learning as I age that there is wisdom also (often more) in the not talking. 😉 Curiously, I’m not so good at applying that wisdom.

    Sandy, I have to tell you. Yesterday was not a road I’ve been down before. But it was very, very good for me. No fork to the throat. 😉 Just a lot of love and care and helping me figure out what had happened to the piece and where it needed to go instead. Or how. There’s no small measure of vulnerability in that for me who wants to already know what I’m talking about, but in the right hands it was well tended. 😉 I

    I’m not sure how much baseball I’m ready to talk about, Sandy. Minnesota, as you know, is unrecognizable this season. And it appears they have all forgotten how the game works. So far I’ve been unable to look.

    Spider guts, Monica. Spider guts. 😉 Thanks for your comment, and your post up there. :)

  11. Paul Willingham says

    Last week it was chimps. This week it’s arachnids and rodents, including the airborne ones.. You need to tell them the bat story sometime.

    A small voice (I think it came from my Starkeys) suggested the following:

    The Voice in the Closet

    They hang there on the closet rod,
    neat and ready-to-wear,
    the morning light arouses them
    and their many voices whisper,
    pick me, pick me

    Lo what voice to wear today,
    my inner voice,
    or perchance the introverted, passive one
    I slip the garish ego on,
    but again today it doesn’t fit,
    it’s just not me

    Maybe the designer voice,
    from the House of Jung,
    but his anima is not mine,
    my persona doesn’t fit id

    something from Mel Blanc perhaps,
    crafty Bugs or sneaky Wile E
    Elmer’s pressed and creased,
    and Tweety’s media savvy

    out of season knock offs abound,
    a Robinson from Rich’s Little Boutique
    there’s the Cagney from Gorshin
    but folks will think I’m geeky

    My Sunday best, the stained glass voice,
    fits me like well worn jeans
    so many voices, so many choices
    methinks today I’ll just be me


  12. L. L. Barkat says

    Oh, Dad, I do like that :)

    And you are the second person to put the Id in a poem this week. The other was my 14-y-o Sara, who seems to know stuff like that, though I didn’t teach her.

    Wait a minute… 😉

  13. says

    I’m late to the party but I always like to arrive when the fun is in full swing! I love your voice, Lyla, and I’m so glad Laura helped you find it again (she’s had to do that for others, you know, erm…not mentioning names :)). I agree with Jennifer–it’s a learning process. And this poem? Wonderful.

  14. says

    I love how T.S. Poetry offer writers a sense of place to spend time with their passions, to learn the difference between a tangerine and a tangelo. Voices show up here. And we’re all in possession of a philanthropic twig.

  15. says

    Sometime over a cup of coffee perhaps, Sandy. 😉

    It’s hard to know when to show up to these things, Laura. And she’s good at that, as I’m sure you know. (Or, um, have heard from others? 😉 I really love when I see your face pop up.

  16. says

    Like Laura, I always show up late. But I love reading all the comments. So much to learn and ponder. So I think it’s better to be late :)

    The chapter you quote, Lyla, (“French and Spanish Tea”) is probably my favorite chapter in the whole book. Partly because of the tea. I love tea. :) And your poem about the monks: fabulous images.

    And that you had that anxious daydream about L.L. and her daughter in the yellow dining room discussing your piece on voice…and then it sort of happened! Priceless! And courageous: thanks for being willing to share that and let us in on the joke :)

    I, for one, look forward to these posts/discussions each week. I hope you will start to enjoy them more, too!

  17. says

    That little twig, Matthew. I think that’s all I’m going to say. :)

    Kimberlee, that chapter turned out in the end to be the one I needed most. If I had to pick a favorite, though, it might be the firefly. And don’t worry, I’m enjoying. Immensely. (Right along with the associated angst. But absolutely enjoying.) I’m glad you’re able to slip into the conversation in the wee hours. Well, they’re wee for us on this side of the continental divide, anyway. 😉

  18. says

    I love that Glynn has mentioned the importance of place. This is something I really struggle with having never (yet) lived in any town or city for more than 61/2 years. If place is an essential part of voice, then as someone who is from no-place, how do I find my voice? Or is being from nowhere and many-wheres part of my voice?

  19. says

    Feel like I have been to a mini-conference after reading your story, comments and posts. Some helpful gems here. And I wish I could have joined the party earlier, life was too full of the unexpected. I love your voice Lyla, puts a smile on my face every time I read it.

  20. says

    Yay, Pat! Thank you for your overnight persistence!

    Tony, that’s a great question. I’m guessing one can pick the rural culture in my voice — it’s where I live now — but I still see myself as being metro-suburban because that’s where I grew up and most of my family remains. I’m something of a misfit in both places now, but both influence me heavily. I’m hoping Laura and some others will chime in here — we established my limitations on this already — but it seems to me that “place” is both more and less than geography. It could be the weathered library table I’m sitting at in my basement, in the small space lit by one soft lamp to make the room feel smaller, and the picture of my kids in the corner next to the bills I need to pay.

    Bueller? Anyone?

  21. says

    Shelly, I’m glad you came over — we’ll keep the party going for you, my friend. 😉 It is so helpful to me to hear the thoughts of other “voices” on these subjects. I like to slip down the hall and listen from a big leather chair in the den while the rest keep going in the living room. 😉

  22. says

    I really appreciated the chapter on passion, and I also strongly agreed with Bradley Moore’s April 10 piece at The High Calling. Trying to reconcile why I can like both… I think it has to do with the part about making a living. :)

  23. L. L. Barkat says

    When we think of the lasting writers, I believe we think of place. Faulkner’s South. Dickens’ England. Frost’s New England.

    Voice probably has a spectrum. But the more it comes from place, the more we remember it, the more depth and nuance it probably has.

    That said, if we move from place to place, then we need to delve into our interior in a way that really anchors it.


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