Updated: Oct 4, 2021
I wanted to be a country western star. I started taking voice lessons when I was a teen into my twenties. In my desperation to become accomplished, I took lessons from several instructors. My voice was never great. I really didn’t have what it takes to be a star or a vocalist with a strong following. Teachers would help me to stay on key. Teachers would help me to move from my middle voice to my head voice. Teachers did what teachers can do.
What do we mean when we say, “I like her voice?” I suppose it is largely personal preferences and maybe what stage of life we are in. Teens seek to differentiate themselves from their parents, teachers, cultures—hence we have heavy metal and punk rock. Some of these musicians have “good” voices but on first release they don’t resonate with what came before.
For me, I still enjoy Olivia Newton John and Barbara Streisand—both are gifted with phenomenal voices. With my daughter, I listen to Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga, and we sing driving down the road to school, or horseback lessons, or soccer practice.
The artists that I listen to day in, and day out are the ones with the “good” voice but also the ones whose song lyrics and musical compositions radiate with me. I am sure this is largely based on the time and place I was born, what I listened to in my past when my music tastes were developed.
In college, I studied literary voice about the time I finished with taking voice lessons, knowing they were not helping. I thought the concept of literary voice was a bit abstract, versus setting, theme, and characters. I always worried that I wasn’t understanding something correctly, later to be quizzed on, literally in class or publicly, and I’d be made a fool.
Even now, I don’t know if I’d pass this question in a graduate class even though I did finish graduate school, have taught upper division English classes, and have been reading and writing my whole adult life.
Voice to me is the narrator who is often confused with the writer because in my experience the narrator is often the writer. But, on a more complex level, voice is something that follows a writer through her career. We know it is Olivia’s voice in “Sam” and “Physical” even though twenty years had passed. We can sense even if we are not told that Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye has the same deep sonorous voice as Love. I think. I am not sure because I know her work well.
When thinking about my work, my voice, it is the voice you would sit down with over a glass of wine and a cigarette (no not a cigarette that would be Dorothy Parker, and she would wear her heart on her “sleeve like wet, red stain.”) Wine, yes. Cheese, yes. It would be cheese, not a cigarette. This is the voice you hear in my writing. I hide no surprises. I read recently that the narrator is often smarter than the writer, and I do believe this to be true as well. When writing I research. I even take classes at the college. When writing Out of the Shadows I took a film class. When writing the early drafts of SELF PORTRAIT, JULIE AND JULIANA, I took an art history class and a watercolors class. I follow artists on social media. And yet, I sometimes forget what I learned for my books while I am driving my kids here and there, or when I am on the phone for hours trying to get my air conditioning fixed.
A “canned” rejection that I have received from a few agents is “I just didn’t’ resonate with your voice as much as I hoped to.” Clearly this agent wouldn’t want to go on a walk with me or seek me out to sit by me at my daughter’s game. She’d keep walking until she found, who? Kiana Davenport. Sonja Livingston. Probably, Cheryl Strayed or David Baldacci.
I sometimes imagine being friends with Virginia Woolf.
I am listening to The Glass Hotel on audible by Emily St. John Mandel. I saw her about five years ago at a conference in New York and I thought what a beauty she is and was in awe at her financial success at such a young age. I listen to her book while painting my nails, cleaning my bathroom. I am not so much stopped by her “poetry,” but I am impressed by her plotting. I wonder if all her books have this voice of secure, interesting plot, tightly woven together like a mosaic that makes a beautiful scene when placed together. Is this the same as voice? Again, I may be getting it wrong.
When I read a book that I can sit with the sound of the words and sentences and paragraphs and look up as the words create meaning while watching the robins outside my window, then pulled to look back down to read another paragraph –and yes, sometimes it takes me months to read one book, but I love these books. The voice in these books that I feel I am connecting with while I drink my coffee that is always filled with grounds, and I think Kimberly you really need to buy a better grinder and coffee maker after all it is such an important part of your day, indulge in good coffee and watching the pre autumn leaves fall and the wind move in the tree outside your window and cheap wine most days and oh that good bottle some other days. I hear my daughter’s footsteps…she has woken but has not come down. It is Saturday and if I know her, she has gone to retrieve her book and is back in bed reading. Maybe later, she will work on her story about her classmates going to Mars.
Her voice is one I am always attracted to.