An eye, an ear, a voice, a heart: the journey to find

(This post originally titled A voice, an ear, an eye, a heart, but I resequenced it.)

Writers talk about the importance of finding your voice. That’s been the premise of this blog, to see what I sound like as a writer — a kind of open mic.

And while it’s true, the voice is important: to be distinct, to sound fresh and honest and real, there’s other parts that make up the voice, that provide it with depth and range.

Speaking strictly about voices, the singing kind, I think about Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Calvin Johnson, Chan Marshall, Mark Lanegan…not all of them ‘good voices,’ but each come from a place deeply rooted in the singer, a place that seems otherworldly even, calling us to join.

You need to know what your voice sounds like, and that comes from developing your ear, your sense of taste for what you like, how you work with words.

In the corporate world, I’m keenly aware of how people talk in meetings. It’s true, if your breath is constricted and your tone is stressed, you will have that same effect on others around you. We tap into frequencies we’re not conscious of: as a writer, you can have that same effect on readers by your pacing, structure, use of punctuation. We forget that punctuating is supposed to accent what we’re saying, not just prove we understand rules.

And then there is the eye, my favorite. I haven’t studied eastern faiths, but there is something to the notion of a third eye, if you imagine all the wacky shit your brain concocts in sleep, when the mind is left to ramble.

Your ability to see beyond the surface, to see in a different way, gives you more to work with when it comes time to make up wacky shit for your readers. Check this first line from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius:

Through the small tall bathroom window the December yard is gray and scratchy, the trees calligraphic.

I had to re-read that and think about calligraphic. I’ve never used that word as an adjective, fuck! But as I thought about it, I imagined scant trees etched in a wintry landscape. In the opening line, the author’s created a feeling about what’s to come, with just 16 words and a comma. Poetry! He was able to make me see something, through his eyes.

This is not The Wizard of Oz, but there is something to the heart in all this, the heart that is an organ like the eyes, and functions for biological purposes but also something more.

And you could say the same about the sum of us and who we are as people, a collection of organs and parts that’s also something more, implied when it’s said “She really has heart,” or “What a beautiful mind.” The heart is why you do what you do and what you hope to gain by it, to gain by giving, to change the world.

Of the singers I named earlier you may not know all of them or like any of them, but to me, they’ve all learned to put their hearts in their voice, and perhaps that’s what we really hear when we like someone. It’s more than what they’re saying, it’s what’s behind the voice. And to find that in yourself is the real journey.

Mustard-colored moss and dew-dappled cobwebs, near Connemara, Ireland 2009

Mustard-colored moss and dew-dappled cobwebs, near Connemara, Ireland 2009




Categories: writing

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6 replies

  1. very well said, and from the heart, clearly.


  2. I like the idea of voice and your use of mundane work life as a comparison. I know exactly what you mean. I hate my (vocal) voice when I get angry — pinched, whiny — and it’s probably not a coincidence that I hate that voice in my writing as well.


    • Thank you Ross! I’ve been thinking about your voice as I’m reading Dave Eggers for the first time, and hear some similarities. And I recall you were included in a compilation of theirs recently (mcSweeneys). Very cool! Now get back to work as I need to do the same. Enjoy the week.


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