Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Discovering Your Unique Voice: Part 2

After writing Monday’s blog, on 5 Ways to Discover Your Unique Voice, all I’ve thought about for the last two days is voice and what a unique voice sounds like.

On my bedside table and spilling onto the floor are forty-eight books, most of them novels, but I can also spot a few devotionals, books on early American history, and two Bibles. The novels fall into every category (almost) from women’s contemporary to romance to suspense to literary. Oh, and my dead Kindle is charging on top of one pile.

Have I read all of them? Most or parts of most. Books are my job, but they’re also my passion. My husband Mike jokes that when we move, one truck is filled with our household goods and the other with boxes of my books.

I give away tons of books, but just as many are given back to me, and I spend way too much money on hardbacks, trade paper, and mass market paperbacks. Not to mention the Kindle books I buy. Abingdon Press bought one of the first Kindles for me so I would stop killing trees by printing out proposals and manuscripts. And I forgot to mention the books filling two massive bookcases in our TV room and two more bookcases in my office.

But what does my collection of books have to do with voice? Everything. If you want to recognize a unique voice, you must read. You must read constantly, even though you are a writer. Writers read, and if they don’t, they miss out on the opportunity to read with a discerning eye. Compare how writers treat the same subject. Romance is romance, but the way the story is told (voice) can make it Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook.

We are original human beings. One of a kind. Individuals. I advised you to remember who you were at the age of five. Your personality was formed then. If I’m going to dish out advice, I thought I should put it into practice too.

At the age of five, I was the youngest of three, laughed a lot, and made silly faces in the mirror to entertain my family. I started first grade that year and was thrown out of the hokey-pokey circle with my “boyfriend” because we put our hips in the circle and shook them all about. I think we shook them a bit hard and giggled a lot. Our teacher Mrs. Sun was not amused and made us sit out the rest of recess in disgrace.

When my turn rolled around for Show and Tell, I told the class that my mommy was going to have a baby. I don’t remember my exact words, but once again, Mrs. Sun was not amused, and I was asked to sit down. Since I talk with my hands, my “show” may have been too graphic for my teacher’s 1953 sensibilities.

Every teacher after that wrote on my report card, “Barbara does not live up to her potential because she talks too much in class.” I’m an extrovert. What can I say?

I loved music. I loved to dance, and in the third grade, I stood up in the cafagymatorium and conducted the orchestra along with the visiting conductor. My teacher called my parents to tell them how talented I was and that they should enroll me in special classes to nurture my abilities. My mom and dad were amused. I think I was a bit of a mimic.

Even now when I listen to a symphony, I either conduct in my head or choreograph whole ballets. I’m amused. However, if Mike drags me to a pro baseball or football game, I always bring a book. A $95 ticket is a total waste of money on me.

Before I left college I had attended twenty-seven different schools. It was not until my poor father was in his 80s that we discovered he was bipolar and that was the reason he couldn’t hold a job for too long. Childhood was a series of ups and downs and walking on eggs to make sure I didn’t cause one of his rages.

Of course, if I had to live with four kids in a 27-foot trailer without a bathroom, it might have made me a little crazy too. No offense to those who are bipolar. Our family is filled with people who suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and drug addiction. But we’re quite creative. According to family history, Mark Twain was my paternal grandmother’s second cousin. Now he had a unique voice.

I could write a serious novel, and I have, but I’ve finally found my voice in that five-year-old girl who loved to laugh.

Please let me know how today’s blog has helped you. This becomes a two-way conversation when you post a comment. Often I jump back on the blog during the day and will answer your questions or respond to your comments. I have both published and unpublished authors who read The Roving Editor, and we’d love to hear from you so that we can learn from your experience. Let’s talk!


  1. Your family sounds like my family. ;)

    And I eat books. Love to read. I feel naked when I don't have a book in my hands.

    I like to stir the mud around with my characters. Sometimes you get the sadness of dirty lives, while other times you get mud pies (I made a mean mud pie as a kid) and hysterical mud fights. I think honesty with a touch of comedy is a powerful approach.

    ~ Wendy

  2. Your blog helped me today in two ways I'm not sure you intended. 1) I'm SO glad I'm not the only one whose bedside table is covered with books that spill onto the floor! I feel much better thinking of it as research material. 2) It helped me to see what school was like for a natural extrovert (which I'm not). Our culture expends great effort to conform us, it seems, and convince us that we have to look, act, and develop like all the other children in order to live up to our potential. The world may say, "Keep the rules or sit on the sidelines in disgrace," but GOD determines our potential, and He made us all different! When we conduct the music of our life along with Him and learn to dance, that's voice. :)

  3. I'm an extrovert, too. All my report cards said I was a daydreamer. :) And I remember being bored in class, so I'd fall asleep. Everyday. Too bad I didn't have an astute teacher. And I didn't know to say I was bored. I was only in first grade! I was in trouble all the time for reading books in class or being too loud or talking too much. A regular pain-in-the-teacher's-backside. HA!! Too bad no one set me to writing stories back then. I'd have found my voice much earlier than middle age.

    That's very cool about Mark Twain, Barbara! Does Chip know this? He loves Mark Twain.

  4. Oooh, I love this post! How fun to read more about you, though I'm sorry for the tough childhood.
    I'm not sure I want to be who I was at five. I always did great at school. Teachers wrote that I was a joy to have in class. *smirk* Yet at home, I was bossy and moody. LOL Could swing from laughter to tears pretty easily.
    I like being more mellow now, though I hope the intensity I feel inside comes out in my work.

    Wait...I might still be bossy. LOL I just had a flashback of me telling you how to schedule your posts. HEeheee.

    Great post, Barbara! Thanks for the advice. ;-)

  5. I had the SAME comments on my elementary report card. "Katie is a capable student, but she needs to control her talking."

    I have a hard time remembering who I was at five. I know during Grandparent's Day at school, my grandpa wore a cowboy hat and he told everybody (even the teacher) that he was a real-live cowboy. I lived that up for all it was worth. I also remember in second grade, coming back to school after being sick and my teacher asked why I was gone and instead of telling the truth, I made up this whopper of a lie about my mom thinking it was a holiday. Seriously?? I have no idea why I did that or what it says about my personality!

  6. Fun comments!

    Wendy, the more I share my life story, the more I think everyone grew up in a dysfunctional family, some more so than others. Maybe it was God's way of building up our character . . . or turning us into characters. And yes, I loved making mud pies! I'm a middle child, so I wasn't bossy. Middle children want to please everyone, and then we go on our merry way.

    Lynn, my husband and I were talking about government and our school systems this morning. What ever happened to common sense? Children have become experiments in the next education theory blowing through the universities. Teachers are the ones caught between the kids and the administrators.

    Pam, I always had such a competitive streak that I wanted to do well . . . between the talking and the daydreaming. I always felt like a B+ student in an A+ world. Now I know better. And no, I've never said anything to Chip about Mark Twain. We'll have to talk. :)

    Jessica, my mood swings and migraines started in the sixth grade, although I can remember periods of depression when I was about seven or eight. Hormones? I grew six inches taller between the end of sixth grade and the beginning of seventh. Mom kept telling me I was just growing up. Yea, but did I have to do it all at once? Sheesh.

    Katie, I thought I was the only one who got those report cards! People have a hard time believing it, but I have vivid memories of when I was eighteen months old. Even then my writer/editor mind paid attention to the people and places around me. LOL And I love the story about your grandpa. At about the same age, there were two ladies who lived down the street (mother and daughter) who doted on me. They needed to give away a mattress and asked if we needed one. I made up a giant whopper that had them in tears about me sleeping on bare springs because our mattress was too small. What my scheming little mind didn't count on was that the lady would talk to my dad. Boy, oh boy, did I get it. We must have been natural storytellers at that age. :)

  7. You would have to be an extrovert to survive so many moves. I grew up in a dysfunctional home as well, but instead of being an extrovert, I became an introvert and the brunt of many mean pranks by my classmates. I had no idea what "normal" was and my teachers would write on my report card that I acted like a 52 year old adult when Iw as in Kindergarten. I lived in a state of depression for years and it wasn't until about 10 years ago when I sought God that healing occurred. In the time between school and 10 years ago I pursued many alternative religions. I am grateful that God taught me how to raise my children who are wonderfully "normal".. I had one lady on my street - Miss Sophie who turned me on to novels - I spent a summer reading Dumas - my favorite being the Count of Monte Cristo - I wanted to be Haydee. Praying your day is blessed.

  8. Wow! Talk about a post hitting a nerve amongst all of us who grew up in dysfunctional families. My childhood sounds a bit like yours, Barbara, except I was an introvert, and as we moved from pillar to post (ultimately from New Zealand to Canada when I was eleven) I thought I was a freak, a different species, and had no friends to compare notes with. I made up for it all by reading, reading aduly books at age 10. And up until today I thought all those books beside my bed were part of my freakishness (which I've learned is okay, BTW, I was made by God.) I laughed twice, once when I read you collect bedside books, Barbara, and again when I read about yet another bedside book collector in the comments. Thanks for sharing everybody.

  9. That's supposed to read adult books.

  10. Barbara, I loved reading about your childhood. The only thing I remember about being small was that I was always creating something—coloring, drawing, sewing, writing, building, etc. Oh, and my Sunday School teacher told my mother that I absolutely could NOT miss the Christmas program because I sang the loudest and knew all the words! And I was (still am) a middle child. Yes, I still want everyone around me to be happy! :)

  11. Barbara, I love your honesty. I think, if I'm understanding your posts correctly, the word honesty sums up voice.

    I had a panic attack in my early thirties. It paralyzed me. God led me to a gifted counselor who helped me unlock all the thoughts that were never voiced, all the tears that were never shed. It took six months of digging through muck to find the truth--to know me. I'm convinced if I'd never suffered a panic attack, I wouldn't be writing today. I found my voice.

  12. Wow! I so identify with all of you. Books were my best friends, and as many of you, I was reading adult books at a young age. Even though I had friends, I never got too attached because I knew we would move and I'd never see them again.

    And "Wondering04" I went through every alternative religion out there and met my husband at the Eckankar headquarter where we both worked. He proposed to me 13 days later, and I accepted the next day. Three months later we were married at dawn on Wind-'N-Sea Beach in LaJolla with a bowl of fire and a bowl of water and a picture of the "Living Eck Master" nearby.

    When we became Christians and joined the church seven years later, our pastor was so afraid we weren't truly married that our renewal of vows became a full-fledged marriage ceremony. LOL

    Life has certainly been an adventure for us, but Mike and I are more in love now than when we first met as two lost souls. God is good!

  13. Barbara, I'm really enjoying your posts on voice. It's fascinating that through each of the childhood stories here we find, as Carolyn pointed out, honesty is key to voice. Honesty is helping me relate to all of your experiences, whether I've shared similar ones or not.

    I was raised in a lower-middle class family of 7. Summer vacations were spent in "yardsville" (i.e. the backyard). My dad built us a rowboat he rolled around the yard on logs. Very creative guy.

    Books were my escape from the mundane, and trips to the library were the high point of my life. My twin sister and I used to entertain the rest of the family from an early age writing & producing plays, commercials, musicals, etc. We liked to pretend we were orphans off on various adventures. I wrote my 1st novel in third grade b/c my love of books just seemed to naturally overflow in that direction.
    I Liked the idea of creating a book w/all my thoughts and favorite characters contained within.

    Barbara, thanks for giving our voices a voice here. ;)

  14. Oh my goodness, Barbara! That is hysterical! About the remembering things when you were super little, my brother has that same thing! He has memories from when he was two (very vivid also).

  15. Thanks for the reminder that finding our voice is largely just being the person God intended us to be.

    Wow...a relative of Mark Twain! I'm impressed!

  16. I was the shy, quiet mouse who was always placed in the seat between all the extroverts so that they wouldn't talk during class. But I watched them with envy -- I wanted to be the funny one who always had something clever to say. That's what drew me to reading, I think. In a book I could be the sassy, confident character who was everyone's best friend.

    I finally cleaned up my overflowing nightstand a few weeks ago when my husband threatened to take a photo of it and put it on facebook with a silly caption like, "A writer lines her nest with books."

  17. Bookaholics unite!

    Thanks for letting us know more about you, Barbara.