Hearing Voices

Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.

Writers who are developing their craft are frequently encouraged to find their voice. This can be confusing. Many of us write in many different forms — poems, personal essays, fiction, screeds, and so on — and different forms, even from the same writer, can require different voices.

So how might we learn the nuances of voice?

One of my favorite methods is to copy. And I mean this literally: open up a book by a writer whose voice you like or find interesting, and copy out (long hand or with your computer) a page or two. Then, continue the scene or start a new scene trying to emulate that voice. Repeat with two other writers.

This helps you to find your own voice in several ways. First, it immerses you in writing that has a distinct voice, in a way that’s different than just reading it. If you can find the cadence and choices of, say, Anne Patchett, you are on your way to understanding voice more deeply. Second, it should help you to better understand that your voice is not something that springs forth naturally and without effort. You choose your voice; you cultivate it over time. At Charlotte Lit, we like to remind writers that the finished product is not the result of magic, not of luck, not just of talent. Rather, “it’s a made thing.” You make it what it is. And so too do you make your voice what it is.

Surviving a Difficult Time

Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.

Many of us are experiencing a difficult period of life, and, no doubt, we have gone through difficult periods in the past. Read “On Dumpster Diving” by Lars Eighner and consider another, earlier difficult period in your or your character’s life and how you or they survived. Now, in the vein of Eighner’s piece, write a ‘how to’ on surviving a difficult period. What advice would you (or your character) give your reader, specifically and generally? What strength and quirks might it reveal about yourself or your character?

Be Here Now

Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.

If you were alive and awake during the 1970s or have practiced much yoga or meditation during the last two decades, you’ve probably heard the refrain Be Here Now, which also happens to be the title of a best-selling book by author and one-time Harvard University professor Ram Dass.

Ram Dass was a psychologist and researcher in the field of consciousness studies. He participated in Timothy Leary’s research on psychedelics in the 60s and eventually journeyed to India in pursuit of higher levels of consciousness, the highest of which in eastern religions is called enlightenment.

He became a serious student of Hindu yoga and meditation and began to understand enlightenment not as an earned place or a spiritual goal, but as a state of perception that can be achieved only when we are willing to accept the reality of our current circumstances and to maintain a fully conscious attitude toward them.

The phrase popped into my head while I was walking yesterday. I happen to get a lot of my best ideas when I’m walking. I think it’s because the activity grounds me in the Here and Now better than most of the other things I do each day. Let’s face it, sitting in front of a computer isn’t particularly conducive to living in the present moment.

What does it mean to be here now? To live in the present moment? To me, it means slowing down, paying attention to what is, dealing with what is rather than trying to escape, ignore, or reject it.

I think the reason the phrase popped into my head is that this is what all of us are being asked to do in our lives right now. We’re being asked to stop, slow down, stay put, tolerate the uncomfortable tension of not going, not doing.

Suddenly, we need to be more aware of our bodies and the way we interact with others. We’ve also become more aware of essential services and workers we’ve too often taken for granted in the past.

Of course, even if we’re not going to work, out to dinner, or to the movies, there are still plenty of ways to distract ourselves. We can binge on tv and news shows. We can clean closets and tend other tasks on our to-do lists. We can escape down the Google rabbit hole. We can anesthetize ourselves with alcohol and sleeping pills. As benign as it seems, sometimes even maintaining our commitment to work as usual is a way to escape being in the current situation.

The internet, of course, provides us with a kind of space in which to be, whether a Zoom room or a website. But the internet can also feel fragmenting because it quite literally asks us to be in at leasttwo spaces at once––the physical world in which we sit and the virtual world(s) we’re visiting.

Prompt 1:

a) Write a scene from your current personal life. What is it like for you to Be Here Now in these days of covid? Describe your quarantine space and the people in your pod using good sensory detail. How do you get through your days? What do you like about being here now? What do you hate? How do you try to get around current restrictions? Does this experience bring up some episode from your personal past? If so, consider option b.

b) Write about a time in which you patently refused to Be Here Now. What were you resisting? What tactics did you use to avoid what was being asked of you? What awareness arose from the experience?

Prompt 2:

Put one or more fictional characters into a situation in which they are forced to Be Here Now, that is, they are pushed into accepting something or someone they hadn’t expected. Using rich sensory detail, show your character(s) develop some new awareness about themselves or the world.

Writing as Ritual

Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.

Sometimes writers come to the page with an idea, a character, or an event in mind. But what if you sit down to write and your head is suddenly blank as your page? Poet CA Conrad has a helpful practice in using ritual to spark ideas for a poem. Many writers use some form of ritual to aide the writing process, whether lighting a candle or favoring a specific pen or notebook. Conrad has formalized ritual in a more structured way to coax notes for a poem. For a period of seven days, they contemplate the same brief filmed scene and then write about what they’ve seen for the 15 minutes that follow. Conrad’s website offers a variety of video scenes like water rushing down a mountain stream, insects visiting a blooming tree, or sunrise over the Golden Gate Bridge. The scenes are meant to be contemplative. You can find an archive of Conrad’s prompts here. Watch the scene, write your notes, and at the end of the seven days, go back over your pages to see what you’ve come up with. This is the raw material from which to build your poem.

I was surprised by the unexpected leaps and connections that showed up for me in this writing exercise. It is for the most part an exercise in paying attention and being acutely present to the details before you. Each day, I realized subtleties I’d missed the day before—a cloud crossing the sky, the sound made by a sudden breeze. This exercise can be adapted if you’re working on a memoir or a novel. Instead of watching Conrad’s films, choose one item central to your story or your character and give that item your full attention for ten minutes a day and then write about what you discover. Remember this is a kind of meditation and as such it’s normal to lose your focus. As with any meditation, bring your attention back to the item and try again.

Recalling the particular details of the world brings our writing to life, but we can’t write about what we don’t notice. Ritual attention strengthens that muscle and makes us better writers.