Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What does it mean to have a voice? (11/15/11)

Featured writer: Rebecca Lawton

Contributors this month:
Arlene L. Mandell
B.J. Yudelson
Becky Povich
Catherine Crawford
Claudia Larson
Marilyn Petty
Rodney Merrill
Sara Baker
Susan Bono
Theresa Sanders

Questions and Answers

by Rebecca Lawton

What does it mean to have a voice? I asked the night. It returned the screech of a passing owl. What does it mean to have a voice? The firs whispered wordlessly in windy chorus. What does it mean to have a voice? I asked the flames in my outdoor fireplace—they crackled and snapped as wood became ember. I asked the stars, too, which responded with cold and far-away silence.

I asked my sleeping husband, what does it mean to have a voice? His measured breath urged me to slumber and dream. I asked our cat, who yawned and watched me with night-vision eyes. I consulted my Merriam-Webster's, which noted with authority, vox, sound, power.

I asked the characters in my short story in progress, what does it mean to have a voice? The protagonist, an author, replied, It means to write in your own words, from your singular perspective. Her husband, an outdoorsman, said, It means speak in your own words. Be yourself. Her son, an eight-year-old, said, it means you can talk. Her grandfather, an octogenarian, added, And that you are heard.

I asked the spirits, who I know are overhead, what do you think it means to have a voice? They replied with one word: sing.

Sing the tune you know, the words you are given. Sing in the key that suits your range. Sing with passion, with heart, with soul. Sing what you care about — sing what matters enough to get you out of bed in the morning, or in the middle of the night.

Sing about your losses. Sing your wins. Sing your love, your fear, your joy. Sing as if you could lose your voice tomorrow. Sing high, sing low, sing short, sing long. Sing daily. Sing weekly. Sing by yourself; sing with others. Sing with a harp; sing a capella. Sing out of tune; sing in perfect pitch. Sing about what you really, really care about, and you will bring something uniquely yours to the world.

That's what it means to have a voice. So says my heart. It means to be as true to yourself as you can in your writing, your speech, your song. What emerges will be wholly original, without your even trying to be wholly original. What emerges will be your own special gift to literature, to music, to life.

And you will be heard—by yourself, by others. By the gods.

Rebecca Lawton is an author and natural scientist whose memoir, Reading Water: Lessons from the River, was a San Francisco Chronicle Bay Area Bestseller and ForeWord Nature Book of the Year finalist. Recently she received her third nomination for a Pushcart Prize, for her short story "The Road to Bonanza" (read it at

For many years she was a whitewater guide in the West, guiding ten of her fourteen seasons on the Colorado in Grand Canyon. As a scientist she studies the transport of sediment in water, especially during wet storms.

She is working on a book about the Sacramento River for Heyday Press, and she is often up with the night. Visit her at

Don't Forget the Quirks

  by Arlene L. Mandell

Like a small dog hiding under the bed when she suspects I'm going to bathe her, my voice disappears if I struggle to write a haiku, pantoum, or sestina. It squeaks and groans throughout the 1 2/3 novels I've labored over, though I haven't totally given up on them. And it fades to a whisper when I attempt to write anything based on a prompt.

I can only describe my voice as "quirky." Somewhere in each poem, short story and essay there's usually an odd bit. Here's one of my latest examples, a found poem based on holiday "shopping opportunities" mailers:

Oh Joy!

Cheers to a brilliant season
festive day of gift ideas
wardrobing tips warm up
with hot cider and cookies
chance to win $500 shopping
spree one day only.

Arlene Mandell recently had a poem about a baby rattlesnake published in a Native West Press anthology: What’s Nature Got to Do with Me? Staying Wildly Sane in a Mad World.

Voice Lessons

  by B.J. Yudelson

I've always wondered what it would be like to have a singing voice, the kind people want to hear. Not like mine: flat and off-key. I was the only girl kicked out of the 7th grade glee club, the only one asked by her classmates to "please just mouth the words" at Confirmation.

Perhaps that's why I've sought my voice in words.

I remember sitting at a table in the back of an auditorium while my boss gave the luncheon speech. "That Dan, he really has a way with words," said a tablemate.

I smiled in agreement. What I didn't tell her was that they were my words. By then, I knew Dan's voice well enough to write so that it sounded like him: more schmaltz and hyperbole than most men would dare. He was warm, effusive, and knew how to make his donors, volunteers, and friends feel like a billion bucks. The solicitation and thank you letters I penned for his signature reflected that.

Later, when I left that organization to freelance as a communications and fundraising writer, I inserted a typically Dan kind of pun into the executive director's column in another agency's newsletter. Bill edited it out. He excised all the words that Dad would have loved most. But it was Bill's column, his organizational newsletter; he had to be comfortable with its tone. Before long I learned to write in his more straightforward voice.

About the time I retired, I was asked to give the "pitch" at a fundraising event. Paddling my canoe the preceding summer, I agonized. What could I write that would be effective -— my professional tagline had been "Results-Oriented Writing" — and that would sound like me. And what did that mean anyway? Less schmaltz yet as much passion as Dan. More lyrical yet as factual as Bill. Somehow when I sat at my computer, my fingers found a tone that was personal, emotional, and effective.

In the memoir group I've written with for the past few years, we often forget to put our names on our work. But it doesn't really matter. Only Dia would call her father "Pa." Elaine's self-deprecating humor shines through even the most serious piece. Dotty's dialogue makes us feel we are eavesdropping on the actual scene. Jo's succinct philosophizing, Suzanne's ability to make history intimate and present…we have each developed a distinctive voice. We each have our own vision, our own stories to tell, and our own way of putting words together.

Whether in major or minor key, my writer's voice expresses the melodies of my life.

B.J. Yudelson's writing voice has recently been "heard" in journals and anthologies, including Colere, Eclectica Magazine, Colere, Flashlight Memories, The Griffin, Jewish Action, The Jewish Georgian, and The Legendary. She keeps her singing voice inside her head, and even there, it's a bit flat.

Do You Recognize Who I Am?

  by Becky Povich

I've heard various explanations about what a writer's voice is, and it seems to mean different things to different people. I see it as immediately recognizing a particular writer's words once you've read something of his/hers.

John Grisham's voice comes through loud and clear; so does David Sedaris, Philip Gulley, and Fannie Flagg. I read as much of their work as I can. I know them. They are my friends.

My first real piece of writing was published in my county's local newspaper. I wasn't trying to write like anyone else. I just wrote from my heart and the words flowed. Because of that essay, I was chosen to be one of several "guest" Opinion Shapers.(Definition: No Payment) To this day, I am grateful I was given that opportunity because it helped me hone my writing. I developed my voice.

Now, if my words would just flow every time I sat down to write, I'd have my memoir completed. I'd be working on my second book and people would definitely know who I am. They would know my voice.

Becky Povich genuinely attempts to writes every day, and if nothing else, at least on her blog.

Animated Engines

  by Catherine Crawford

For a writer, voice is one of those words that belongs in the same bucket as soul. You know when someone's got it. You know when they don't. But defining it is like trying to eat peas with a knife. For years, I confused voice with style because both are personal, like a writer's signature. Rhetorical terms piled up on my plate. But I never quite got those peas to my mouth.

My understanding of voice began in, of all places, the motorcycle world. As my brother grew up, he bought a series of bikes, each with a slightly larger engine. His Honda 50 had a voice that said "tut-tut-tut" like a fussy schoolmarm who'd never get on one of those things in the first place. The next bike, a Honda 450 I think, didn't impress me. But I'll never forget the Norton 750. Its snort of defiance. Its unmuffled roar "I am animal!" Animal!! ANIMAL!!!" set the neighborhood's teeth on edge. And finally, the BMW 1250. Smug as a banker, its modulated voice oozed Bavarian superiority.

So what did this teach me about the written voice? I'm not a machine, and I sure hope my writing is live material. But I think my voice, like those of the bikes, is more about message than it is about style. A sense of knowing why I'm talking on paper. When I let out the clutch and my voice hums along, it's not about noise or doing wheelies. It is about speaking as the person I am and knowing what I'm on the road to do.

Catherine’s riding iron today is a computer system with all its hardware. Just hanging on to that gives her plenty to think about. Email:greenwriter

What does it mean to have a voice?

  by Claudia Larson

When I was a voice teacher, students often sought to emulate another, usually well-known, singer. They were dubious when they learned that I was interested in each person's individual voice. It was tempting for them to listen to themselves, shaping sound to match what they thought sounded like a favorite folk, rock, classical, blues or musical theater, heavy metal, country, jazz singer. The effect of listening to themselves as they sang tightened their jaws, stiffened their tongues, and collapsed the backs of their necks. Once they learned to not listen to themselves, to feel their feet and bellies, to find an emotional connection to the words and melodies, each one discovered a voice that was buoyed by curiosity and self compassion, colored by whatever was affecting their human experience at that moment. It always delighted me that each body, with the same human structure of bone, blood, brain, muscles and skin as another human being, could produce a voice completely different than another simply by being present. I've found that writing is no different for me when I bring the same curiosity and self compassion, paying attention to the moment.

Claudia Larson sings with her grandchildren in Sebastopol, CA.

A Cry in the Wilderness

  by Marilyn Petty

If I hadn't just spent an hour and a half trying to order a blanket on line from Costco, I could have written a brilliant piece about what it means to have a voice — to sound like myself, say what I mean. But a voice to communicate with was meaningless. I couldn't tell them I didn't know my membership number. I tried every number I could find - on my membership card, on paid bills, in files, even on the receipt of my original application from 1987. The computer would have none of them. I called the help number for help but all the bodiless voice wanted me to do was punch a number to find out about my account, except for my membership number. My computer was no help - it locked up several times, told me the page was not responding. I already knew that. I couldn't even get rid of the locked up page because it was locked. Rather than bash my fist into the monitor, I turned everything off at the risk of dire consequences for not following prescribed procedures to Turn Off. Then I gave voice to my frustration, said what I meant to say, which I won't repeat here.

But, wait. Why don't I get the phone book out, look up Costco's local number and call them! I did. "Push 1 for Administrative Assistance." I did. A pleasant young lady with a real voice asked how she could help. I told her. In a moment I had my membership number. I turned my computer back on (no dire consequences), opened the Costco page, typed in my number, the appropriate page came up and to my horror it said I ordered not one blanket but five - several hundred dollars. I wanted to weep, I wanted to lay my head down, heave great sobs of desperation. But I persevered. "My voice shall be heard!"I cried, even when no one was there to listen. I clicked the "edit" button, reduced my blanket cache to one, hit Finish and received a big computerized Thank You from Costco. "You're welcome," I said, and meant it.

Marilyn Petty lives in Santa Rosa, CA. She gives meaningful or meaningless voice on numerous occasions and for a variety of reasons.

Sounding Like Me

  by Rodney Merrill

What does it mean to have a voice? That's a good question. According to The Free Dictionary, voice means "The distinctive style or manner of expression of an author or of a character in a book."

When speaking aloud, our voices have many qualities: pitch and timbre and tone, nasality, toothiness, breathiness, cadence and regional accent are among them. The combination of these qualities makes it possible for people to recognize me on the phone by me simply saying, "Hey, it's me!"

A writing voice is like that. If you know a writer well, you can read an extracted page, even a paragraph, and know who wrote it. I have noticed that when I am speed-reading, words are just words; but when I read for enjoyment, I tend to subvocalize or echo back what I have read. After a period of immersion, I can notice that this ethereal speech begins to take on a stable character and I "hear" what I take to be the writer's voice. It has a certain tone and range of pitch, cadence and rhythm, a predictability that "real" people have. That's why I also can hear it falter or fail.

I find it harder to pin down my own. I've admitted to a distinctive audible voice, yet it isn't easy to capture it in my writing. Maybe I just don't have the scaffolding to break it down and hang it out to dry for closer inspection. Alternatively, maybe overriding ideas I hold about myself give me a tin ear for my own words—that, and ideas about how good writing ought to sound. When I look through my old college papers, I can spot my Chaucer period, my Thomas Hardy period, Mark Twain, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway …. In those days, I figured "good writing" was writing that sounded like other good writing. While emulating features of these exemplary writers indeed did dramatically improve my writing skills, I found that readers really are not starving for writing that sort of sounds like Oscar Wilde.

My voice, your voice, a writer's voice, should reflect who we are in the moment. I am not suggesting that we render our souls on the page because I'm not sure we have them. Likewise, I don't mean you can't do that. Voice, I think, is about something else.

Our writer's voice should reflect our life experiences, the shaping of our attitudes, feelings and beliefs by persons, places and things. What would I really say in the situation I am describing? What would I think about it? Would the two be the same? Before we can find a clarion writing voice, I think, we must master the skill of being fully present to the writing moment, in the existential buff so to speak; sentence structure, words, tonality, the persona autentica will step forth to support it.

Now, I know this isn't this least bit helpful … but, there it is.

Rodney Merrill lives in Astoria, Oregon with wife Kate and Three Muttsketeers Iggy, Toby and Wally who have taught him many valuable lessons simply by being dogs. Rodney recently earned his Doctor of Philosophy in Social Science from Tilburg University in The Netherlands. He is a Certified Life Coach, NLP Master Practitioner and Master Hypnotist. Contact him at

The Holy Grail

  by Sara Baker

We writers talk a lot about voice. We understand that a manuscript—without voice—is a lifeless combination of syntax, diction, punctuation, dialogue, etc., in which characters are flat and ineffective; the setting is useless; the conflict is lost; the mood is virtually nonexistent; and point of view is—at best—ambiguous.

Voice, therefore, is the lifeblood of our craft and something we seem to intuitively understand but have difficulty describing. In that sense, voice reminds me of the elusive yet powerful Holy Grail.

Like most writers, I searched for my voice much like one of King Arthur's knights searched for the Holy Grail—not really knowing what the Holy Grail was or where to find it. My quest, though, eventually lead me to an understanding of voice.

Initially, I discovered that voice is my personality manifested in a unique signature of details such as an identifiable rhythm, distinctive patterns of phrases, and unusual expressions.

However, having a voice is something quite different and more wonderful—it is who I am and what I've experienced in life. All the living I've done comes into play, and I weave those collective experiences into the voice of a manuscript. Furthermore, having a voice is releasing that volatile force that dwells deep in my heart and mind thirsting for authentic expression.

Having a voice, therefore, is about honesty, originality, and having the courage to express it. I am left to ponder, then, why is having a voice so hard? My search for the Holy Grail soon led me on a journey of introspection in which I realized—like everyone else—I spent a great deal of my life presenting to the world anything except who I really was. I either presented an image of who I wanted to be or gave the world what it wanted to see; I spent a lot of time and energy upholding those facades until I lost touch with myself—my true voice that now yearns for expression.

Sara Baker is a contented retiree who joyfully works part-time as an editor/proofreader and freelance writer. Her favorite past time, however, is spending time with her soul mate, Bill, with whom she has been married for 28 years.

Singing Lesson

  by Susan Bono

My spine slumps these days. My neck and shoulders feel like cement, and there's a collar of tightness strangling my throat. These complaints make it hard to think, and even harder to force myself to work at my computer. I'm falling behind. The acupuncturist says it's low spleen energy. A couple of weeks ago, she stuck needles in my ears, among other places, to bring me some relief.

I wasn't miraculously cured; the process continues, but as I lay there, I was enveloped in what felt like a cool, swirling cloud that I breathed in with excitement bordering on bliss. When I got off the table, I was holding myself with greater ease, but what I really noticed was how I could almost feel my thoughts bubbling up my throat on their way out of my mouth.

I usually try to curb any impulses to talk to myself in public, but that evening as I walked to my car, I actually began to sing. It didn't matter that I have good reason to hate the sound of my singing voice. Some old melody of my mother's rose out of me and fed my heart all the way home.

The world had not changed in that single hour. True, the light was different. Twilight had turned the sky to glass and each tree and post stood up black and sharp against it, but I was aware of this loveliness because something in me had shifted.

The voice that flew free that evening is always in me, just as the sky and the trees are always present, even if I am unaware of them. So it's not a question of having a voice, but of unblocking the channels that carry its resonance. Our work is like a song that can only be sung from the core of our being. When our instrument is tuned and ready, the music can begin.

Susan Bono is tuning up in Petaluma, CA.

Bit of Magic

  by Theresa Sanders

Every time I visit Nikki, my hair stylist, she greets me with the same question: "So what are we doing today, the same thing, or different?"

For the longest while, my reply was to keep everything the same, but lately I've felt adventurous. "Remember that style in the '90s, ‘the Rachel'?" I asked at a recent appointment, referring to Jennifer Aniston's hair on the sitcom, Friends. "How about something like that, only updated?"

As Nikki set about snipping, I settled back in her chair, confident of her expertise. That's when I saw a quote on the counter of her station: "I'm a beautician, not a magician." I had to smile. Yes, it probably would take a bit of magic for me to look like Jennifer Aniston.

By the end of the session, Nikki had come up with what we called a ‘modified Rachel,' a cute little flip that didn't accommodate my usual bangs across the forehead, but pushed them over to one side. I loved the new 'do…until I didn't. Somehow, over time, it didn't feel quite right. I could never make it look the way that Nikki did, and somehow too, ever so suspiciously, my bangs had sneaked back in place. This is certainly no reflection on Nikki's talent. She is an artist, a virtuoso wielding scissors and a blow dryer. It's just that, well, I'm never gonna look like Jennifer Aniston. Plus I've always had bangs.

In the ensuing months, Nikki and I continued to experiment with hairstyles, appropriating a pageboy, a bob, a flipped bob, and a modernized Dorothy Hamill. Each time afterward, my pesky bangs resurfaced. I couldn't seem to exile them. Oh, they bored me some days, but I still felt naked without them.

I'd venture that, for most writers, the concept of voice is hard to define. It isn't just the rhythm of keystrokes, the flow of words on the page. It isn't just a matter of background, how our individual histories influence our craft. It isn't even how a piece takes on a life of its own, because somehow, if we're writing true, our authorial voice just can't help sneaking in, coming alive amid the prose. There's an instant in any project when I hear a mental "click," when I can say "yes, that sounds like me." That, to me, is voice. It is ingrained…kind of like my bangs.

"It's just a simple shag haircut," Nikki told me at my last appointment, in response to my question about the woman's style the next station over.

"Sold," I said. "Let's go with that. I like simple."

Which, I guess, in the end, is the best way to think about it: keep it simple, let the magic happen. But take my advice with a dollop of mousse. It's coming from someone sporting a modified Rachel, flipped bob, Dorothy Hamill, shag hairstyle. With bangs.

Theresa Sanders lives with her husband near St. Louis, and has four grown children. She admires all of the talented voices here at Tiny Lights. Theresa welcomes email

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


C. Larson, B. Povich, M. Petty, C. Crawford, T. Sanders

Columnists Emeriti: Christine Falcone, David S. Johnson, Betty Rodgers, Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Betty Winslow

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer living in Petaluma, CA. She has published Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at She conducts creative writing classes in Petaluma and Santa Rosa and co-hosts the quarterly Speakeasy Literary Saloon at the Aqus Café in Petaluma. She's on the boards of Petaluma Readers Theatre and the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is still writing a postcard a day. Her most recent publishing credits include Petaluma Readers Theatre, KRCB’s Mouthful, Milk and Ink, and Passager Magazine.

Marilyn Petty is a dyed-in-the wool Midwesterner, a long-ago émigré to California and a fortunate resident of Sonoma County, CA. She taught weaving through the SRJC for 8 years and was the reporter, essayist, editor and publisher of the Redwood Empire Handweavers and Spinners Guild for 10 years. When not tangling with yarns, she is unknotting words, writing poetry and personal essays. She putters in the garden when words fail her.

Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, published two award winning chapbooks of poetry, and written articles for, a Portland, Oregon online travel magazine. She works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington. Her email:

Claudia Larson, in her childhood, wrote long letters to her best-friend cousin and enthralled herself by writing a heart-rending story of two orphans. She writes fewer letters nowadays and prefers writing poetry and memoirs of her North Dakotan farm girl days. She is not yet an orphan, has six siblings and lives in Sebastopol, CA.

Becky Povich lives near St. Louis, Missouri. Although not young in "people years," she's only been writing for ten of those. Getting her first book completed, a memoir, is her current short-term goal. She can be reached at, or visit her blog at

Theresa Sanders lives in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, where she is completing a novel. A former award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a Documentation and Training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. Her stories appear regularly in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Theresa welcomes email and would love to hear from you. Contact her at:

Back to Searchlights & Signal Flares