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 say the writer doesn’t sound like the writer.”
I once said something in conversation with L.L. that she gently broke into lines:
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
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.
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99— Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In April we’re exploring the theme Candy.