Voices in the Crowd

It was an engaging conversation at the Bixby Library writing workshop last night. Starting with some comments about the effectiveness of workshops relative to the diversity of voices involved, we ranged to memory and the body as landscape, and discussed briefly the ways word choice, syntax, and grammar can express character.


We used the four-minute diary exercise (see a description in my post from two weeks ago) as a warm up. Listing concrete details like this can help to prime your mind to retain more of this vital writing ammunition. You never know when one of these details might be the perfect addition to a piece of your writing.


We listen to the work that had been done based on last week’s prompt and assignment. One observation concerned the strength of the writing which incorporated elements of the memories that emerged during last week’s freewrites. As you write in response to prompt, nearly all of your writing is what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.” Some of the real work of writing comes after this moment of drafting, when you figure out where to use raw material and how to shape it into a more final form.


Our writing prompt last night was rather simple. We set out timer for eight minutes and started with the words “I’ve always wanted to….” Let the words take you where they will. Don’t stop writing, don’t think, don’t correct or crossout. As Natalie Goldberg says, “Go for the jugular.”


As an example of how voice can express character, I brough to the group the first six poems of Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler. This poetry collection imagines the time leading up to, during, and after Hurricane Katrina in and around New Orleans. One series of poems in the collection directly personifies the storm itself as she grows and matures. The language we use to describe hurricanes lends itself to thinking of a woman’s body, which informs some of the content of those poems spoken in the voice of the storm: “every woman begins as weather, / sips slow thunder, knows her hips.”

Our collective memory of Katrina is likely intense and rife with conflict to begin, and Smith’s collection seems to have distilled this conflict into an even more swirling, destructive intensity than the storm itself. In each of the poems, she creates a distinct, clear voice for each speaker. The centerpiece is undoubtedly the series which personify the storm, though, and this informs the assignment this week.


Spend some time this week watching people in public. Go to a coffeeshop, sit in a park, read in library. Observe for a while, records notes, if that would help you. See the way people move and act, think about why they are acting and moving in that way. What past experiences are informing their current activities? What is their backstory?

Pick a person that is particularly interesting to you and write a piece–poem, story, etc–that is written in their unique voice. This voice will be a product of your creation. Likely you will not hear them actually speaking, and it will be helpful if you do not hear their words. Write a monologue that narrates and explicates the actions they have take in front of you as Smith has done with the voice of Katrina: “I pull in / a bored breath. The brine shivers.” We’ll share these next week.

Good luck!