Monday, July 18, 2016

Voices of Our Pasts That Show Up in Stories

photo courtesy of Firefly Experience
"If you don't know what voice is, it's tough to define, but here's my definition: 'A writer with voice has the ability to illuminate the ordinary.'"--Kim T. Griswell, Boyds Mills Press Senior Editor

I've been thinking lately of summer nights--those nights as a child when we visited my uncle's place and played with cousins in the darkened backyard. There were the lightning bugs we raced to collect in mason jars, the games of hide-and-seek behind trees at the edge of the woods. "Ollie-ollie-in-free. Come out, come out where ever you are!"

Besides my cousins, I see grandparents and parents chatting away the evening in lawn chairs. I see the home I grew up in and how it eventually expanded from a four-room cottage to a four-bedroom sprawl. I see brothers when they were little, my sister and the room we shared.

History of Reynoldsburg
Some of this comes back as I go through a treasure that was just recently passed down to me--History of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, a compiled history of the town in which I grew up, written by a home-town gal Cornelia Parkinson. The book was originally a gift for my dad who had a stake in the history of the town based on his work with the school district. And now, with the responsibility of sorting through our parents' things falling upon my brother, he has passed it on to me.

And my, what treasures I find between its pages. For example, I didn't know that in the late 1800s (certainly way before my time!), a prestigious horse breeding farm existed just two backyards away from mine. And then there's a picture of a young and beautiful Miss Berry, my first grade teacher in 1955, when she was a beginning teacher in 1939! There are also previously unknown facts about the first Civic Club, formed in 1922, that not only established the first kindergarten in town but also the local library--both institutions I benefited from some thirty-plus years later. Club members even furnished the first teachers' lounge. Many years later, my junior high home economics class helped redecorate the teachers' lounge of its era.

Oh, so many memories, so many faces that march by in the mind. Long-forgotten voices speak.

Newbery Award winner Lois Lowry once said, "I wanted to say something about listening because...each of us has our own voice, and it is not only our own voice but it is made up of all the voices we've heard and been influenced by all our lives. For most of us these will be family voices or people to whom we are, or were once, married. I can hear these other voices in all my books.

"They're not consciously put in by me, but they come forward in various ways. I can hear the voice of my grandmother. Just sitting over there, a few minutes ago, I suddenly thought of her and the place in one of my books where she appears. And the voice of my older sister: a voice, long, long still from a premature death, that has become part of my own voice.

"The absence of my father has become part of my voice. He was a real Army officer who spent years of World War II in the Pacific. I find that that I have wonderful fathers in my books, and I think that's because my own wonderful father was a long time coming back to me. All of those things combine in your subconscious and are part of the voice that will emerge from you."

And so a book highlighting my hometown is helping me listen for voices that might whisper to me as I write my books. Home. Family. Faces. Memories. The life of a writer, although often spent alone in thoughts and words, is never lonely, is it? The voices of our past keep us company and revisit us in our stories.

I'm enjoying the process. Are you? What voices of your past have influenced your writing? Do they come to you easily, or do you have to sit quietly and listen for them?


  1. Many of my memories are similar to yours. Family, some still with us, some gone. Home, too.

    I do sometimes visualize people I know (or knew) when I am writing. I guess characters are based on them whether I meant it to happen or not.

    1. Hi, Peggy--glad to know you have had similar experiences :-) Visualizing people we know as we develop characters does happen, for sure. One other thing I'm also doing is going through some of the old photos that were passed on to me. Seeing images of people as children that I knew as the older generation in my time fascinates me. Will they show up in my children's stories? Time will tell! Thanks again for stopping by :-)