Finding Voice: Part One

Once, when I was a young professor asked to speak in the Goshen College Afternoon Sabbatical lecture series, I was helped by an unexpected source–my five-year-old son Anthony. We had just returned from nine months in Haiti, where our family had led two groups of college students in a wonderful deep learning experience–an international service-learning program called the Study Service Term.

Anthony and I look over the denuded mountains of Haiti, 1981.

I talked to Anthony about the speech, something I did with both children after this experience, because I could count on them to say something I would not have thought of.

“Put your head closer, Mommie,” said Anthony, “and I can tell you what your imagination looks like.” Totally enchanted, I locked heads with my little sage. “It’s a farm,” he said. “It’s got cows and chickens in it.”

Yes, Anthony, you were right. Now, as you prepare to become a father to your own little boy, and I prepare to write a childhood memoir, this is the landscape that has called me.

View of farms and cattle from our backyard, 2011.

Some day, I hope to take a set of pictures. One of Anthony and me looking at the mountains in our backyard (duplicating the first image above with a different set of mountains, almost 30 years later). One of Anthony and his son, whom we now call BBS (Baby Boy Showalter), due to arrive in this world in 24 days. One of BBS and his mother Chelsea. One of three generations of our whole family, looking at the mountains. Looking at farms. Looking at cows as they graze.

Yes, my imagination is populated with farms and cows and chickens. To find my writing voice, I have surrounded myself with icons of my youth:

The sign that hung across from our house, 1960-1990

This sign is now hanging in the alcove that leads from our first floor to the basement. It’s waiting for another icon to arrive–a mural-sized photo of cows under the Weeping Willow trees in our farm’s meadow–that will fill the far wall of the family room. The photographer of the large black-and-white photo was Grant Heilman, one of the foremost agricultural photographers in the world, whose business is centered in my hometown of Lititz, PA.

What do all these images have to do with the idea of voice, a writer’s voice, and especially a memoir writer’s voice? I’ll attempt to answer this question in subsequent posts.

In the meantime, what about you and your voice? If a little child put his or her head next to yours, what would your imagination look like? What images link to the sound of your own truest voice? Do you see a connection between the images that formed you in your youth and the “sound” of your voice on the page?


About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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19 Responses to Finding Voice: Part One

  1. Nice. The information that comes out of the mouths of babes, just amazing. Good luck on writing your memoir. My writing voice fills the page with the chank-a-chank sounds of Cajun music, the spicy smell of crawfish boils on a Saturday night, the taste of file in my gumbo, the look of dark hair and light eyes and the feel of cool morning air, zipping through the Atchafalya Basin. Best wishes to you. I love your blog.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Oh, Patricia, I hear the lilt in your voice! Love it. Thank you so much for offering your own French-Cajun ancestry and traditions to this Pa. Dutch girl’s reveries.
      I spent two weeks as a volunteer in Slidell and New Orleans, LA, after Katrina. So I can hear that saxaphone wail and taste that etouffee.

  2. Nice. My writing voice fills the page with the chank-a-chank sounds of Cajun music, the spicy smell of crawfish boils on a Saturday night, the taste of file in my gumbo, the look of dark hair and light eyes and the feel of cool morning air, zipping through the Atchafalya Basin. Best wishes on writing your memoir.

  3. According to my 13 year old son, my imagination is a zen monk on Mt. Hiei surrounded by vibrant pulsating colors…He knows me well. My theme music is a jangling Far East drum beat that quickens with excitement. What in my youth could have produced this truest me? Excluding the possibility that I am Tibetan monk reborn to unsuspecting Midwestern parents, it could have been extreme boredom. The dominating theme of my childhood was the Soap Opera. I have a vivid image of myself at eight lying belly down on a ragged couch in the water bug infested dungeon of our home staring blankly at a black and white version of “The Edge of Night.” Things didn’t improve much until I escaped at 17 when the real adventure began.

    -Excellent exercise, thank you so much.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Such vivid images, Jennifer. I want to come right over to your blog to see what your story is. How does a midwestern girl living in a soap opera develop a voice of a Tibetan monk??!!

      Glad you found the questions useful. I am meditating (you should like this :-))
      on the connection between voice and image. If the meditation can entice new and talented friends such as Patricia, Amber, and you, it deserves to go deeper. Thanks for your visit here, and come back again soon.

  4. Shirley, I just love your son’s quote. Oh, what children would teach us if we would only listen and remember!

    The concept of linking images to writing voice is interesting. I wonder if redwoods and mountain lakes are reflected in mine?

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. shirleyhs says:

    Amber, with your name, your hints of place, and your love of children’s imaginations, you have much to offer the world as a writer. I go off to see what you are up to in your own blog.

  6. Crawling under the pew on Wednesday evenings to play with the only other two kids whose parents think prayer meeting should be for everyone. Sitting on yet another front church bench, listening to the sermon and the illustrations again, hearing until I know it as well as my Father the preacher. (There are a few of his sermons that I can still recite.) Sunday noon dinner, eating pot roast with the visiting preacher telling stories that I now tell my niece and nephews.

    Summer evenings spent on the screened in porch at the next door house of the maiden ladies, with a swing and chair sizes just right for small people and grownups, hearing the stories of how our small town was founded and their experiences with the adventures of Al Capone running the train routes out of Chicago to hide in northern Indiana.

    In the dark, laying snuggled, warm in bed, hearing the adults laughing and telling stories around the table. Feeling safe and loved, surrounded by the sound of their voices.

    Thank you for helping me to discover the storytelling memories that frame my childhood.

  7. shirleyhs says:


    I could relate to all your stories and “see” you as a child. Your voice has been rooted in safety and spirituality and yet seeks adventure, strangeness, difference. Does that sound right? We have much in common! Thank you so much for your generous comments here and on FB.

  8. Zusa says:

    Shirley, I must tell you about a truly unique farm in Swoope, VA, very near to you! It’s owned by the Salatins and named Polyface Farm. It’s always open to visitors. I live far away or I would be one of their best customers. I’ve read Joel Salatin’s book, The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer. I hope you visit — you will love this place!!!

    • shirleyhs says:

      You know, Zusa, I have another blogging friend who mentioned Joel Salatin’s name to me, and now I have visited the Polyface Farm website. I’m totally intrigued by what I see. You’re right. I have to visit.

      Many thanks for your visit and for this suggestion. I am totally resonating with this new place, and, thanks to people like you, I am discovering why I was called here.

  9. doradueck says:

    Shirley, you’ve given me a question I’m going to put to my three children, to see what they might have said if we’d done this when they were young, and suggest too that they imagine their little ones doing the same to them. I’ll see how it matches what I think my imagination looks like. Great post!

    • shirleyhs says:

      Glad you liked this one. It was fun to write. If you get some interesting answers to this question, Dora, come back and share them. Inquiring minds want to know!

  10. GutsyWriter says:

    First congratulations on being a Grandma soon. Isn’t this your first grandchild? What an inspiration for your memoir. This is a new project. Am I right.

  11. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Sonia. We are very excited as each Saturday in this month rolls around and we do our weekly phone call with Anthony and Chelsea. Just three weeks until the due date now.

    Do you mean is my memoir a new project? Not exactly, since I have about five childhood memoir essays in print and others drafted. What is new is having time to write and thinking about the whole book.

    I also expect to write about the adventure Stuart and I are taking this summer, if all goes as planned with BBS. We will be the daytime childcare people for our grandson. I am sure I will write about this year. I have purchased the domain name!

  12. Loved this, Shirley. Voice is one of the most difficult part of writing, I think. You have provided a wonderful image for doing just that. Our roots hold the key, right? Our younger days before we were “socialized” according to “proper thought and behavior.”
    The dictates of our conventional society, if you will. Alas, writers find a way to reconnect w/their core values and in that … a unique voice arises from the very depths of our souls. What a treasure, when finally discovered. For me, my prairie roots bring me closest to my voice … along with my grandmother’s apple trees. But that’s yet another story! Looking forward to your next posts on this subject, will be great! –Daisy

    • shirleyhs says:

      Thanks, Daisy, for affirming the topic and the approach. Yes, voices have roots and grow stronger when the writer is aware of those roots, whether or not the subject content is about the roots.

      Your encouragement spurs me to continue this topic. I think it could go on a very long time! I feel like I just am beginning to understand it. But that’s what makes social media so wonderful. We can pool our wisdom, confirm that this is a subject we want to explore and learn from each other.

  13. Pingback: Connecting Voice to Touch: What I Learned About Writing from Max DePree | 100 Memoirs –

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