on·o·mat·o·poe·ia

Billie Holiday, using her voice

on·o·mat·o·poe·ia (ä-nə-ˌmä-tə-ˈpē-ə, -ˌma-) [Late Latin, from Greek onomatopoia, from onomat-, onoma name + poiein to make]  n. 1 : the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (as buzz, hiss) 2: the use of words whose sound suggests the sense

A poet friend of mine said recently that he writes by sound. He hears the sound a poem in his head before he knows the actual words and content. He can hear the rhythm, the progression, the qualities of consonants and vowels.

It makes sense to me because his poetry has a real resonance on several levels. It is about the actual words, but it is also about their arrangement and about the ways they clash and clang up against one other. Or the way they rush together like running water, the way they cull and stand, like a still pool.

This week in my creative writing class, we have been talking about voice. Some students expressed frustration at the chapter in our book that discussed voice, because, they said, it was too abstract. It felt as if the book’s authors were speaking in generalizations: you know it when you know it, you have to experiment but you have to work to find what feels true to you. I can see how these proclamations can feel frustrating as they do not provide a road map to finding your voice. Then again, while not the most practical information, at least it is information that is true. I think of how often over the course of my life, I have been given instructions as guidance to things that really are uninstructionable. Yes, I said uninstructionable. The truth is, in art, in life, in our physical bodies, we have to find our own voice.

About a year and a half into my MFA program and into writing my first book-length manuscript, language began to break down for me. I was writing narratives and somehow these narratives were not sufficient to do what I wanted to do, to explore the territory I was navigating. One day, in the midst of a good deal of psychic anxiety over how the hell this thing was going to come together, I sat down to write about the landscape of Louisiana. I began to type descriptors—colors and geographic features and events—the words that made me think readily and instantly of the place. The words just rushed out, but they were story in the way I had been telling stories, they were words connected to, reacting to other words. In ten minutes, I wrote and finished and what came out was a prose poem about Louisiana. In the words and the space between them, I was finally able to articulate the struggle I have with this complicated place that is so incredibly powerful and beautiful and also full of tremendous sorrow. Opening myself up to the option of focusing on this lyrical relationship of words allowed me to perceive what I had already written in new, exciting ways, and this process resulted in the creation of many more lyrical pieces that securely anchor the pages in between chapters. These pieces also help to explore ideas and emotions that cannot be experienced using a straightforward narrative. Without paying attention to my intuition, these pieces would have never emerged. These poetic sections also helped me to revision the rest of my manuscript in a way that allowed me to open up room and keep writing.

I guess this is one of the keys to voice: being able to see outside the parameters of what one has done with language before. To use your voice, on some level, is to follow your intuition and instincts and allow the necessary sounds to surface.

I think this is always the greatest challenge as a writer: to not merely get the story down but to reveal the story using the right words for a given narrative or piece of information. This is why we agonize. This is also why, when we get it right, the words resonate in our bodies and in our mouths. We know we have said something true.

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