What is a Voiceprint?

Posted on 22/06/2018
By Commonwealth Foundation

The Barbados-based June workshop for Caribbean writers, organised and sponsored by Commonwealth Writers, was a success. Just ask the participating writers from Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda Grenada and Saint Lucia. Already active on our own creative islands in our writing and literary arts development, we were asking for more of this type of engagement by the end of the workshop.

As one of the participating writers, when I arrived in Barbados from Antigua I wasn’t sure what to expect. My only mantra: ‘be present’, which served me well (ask my legs, which were very present during our hike through Coco Hill Forest. Mahmoud Patel, owner of both this property and Ocean Spray, the site of the workshop, and a storyteller with a different canvas in his own right, delighted in talking us through his beautiful botanical experimentation).

The advance reading – the works of other participating writers, specifically writing previously submitted to the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and additional reading recommended by facilitators Jacob Ross and Karen Lord – prepared us for the fact that this workshop would be of a very high quality.

The workshop – from the chats over breakfast, to the in-session lectures and interactions under a gazebo just off the shore, and from the afternoon one-on-ones for critiques of our individual works, to our public reading and the dancing afterwards – was at once relaxing and invigorating. It was a daily engagement with a community of writers, and with ourselves as writers who typically work in a world potholed with obstacles, a world which at the same time provides the very air our writing breathes. The workshop was an opportunity for growth and at the same time an affirmation of our ongoing journey as writers.

That said, this workshop was indeed about the work. It dug into the particulars of writing and publishing, and submitting to contests like the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I was also fortunate to receive specific feedback on four of my stories. I left one Lord session with a clearer picture of specific avenues to explore in strengthening one story, and came away from sessions with Jacob with a sense of the strength of the writing and the areas that needed fixing – because something always needs fixing – and a challenge that has given me more focus than I had going into the workshop.

As with other workshops I’ve been involved in (whether as a participant or a facilitator), this one provided an opportunity to listen to and engage with the work of writers beyond the immediate space and comfort zone of all participants; a reminder that art is not comfortable – sometimes a cat will be killed as a gesture of love.

It’s remarkable how much material was covered in less than a week – including tricks for ‘turning your story’ (Ross), character arcs and characterisation, the Ps of writing ‘premise’ to ‘persistence’, the Caribbean way of storytelling (our own way of turning story), re-writing (i.e. editing and revision) to excise what isn’t necessary (a short story cannot waste any time” [Lord]), story structure, plotting, dialoguing, perspective versus point of view, reasons stories fail (and conversely how to create stories that succeed), right up to practical publishing matters like how to be strategic about submitting to contests and journals. And this from Ross: ‘My job is not to teach you anything new but so that it (the not-new thing) becomes more than just an instinct’. So it was a space to re-learn and reinforce, but I think we would all agree that, with the considerable amount of ground covered, we also learned much that was new: concepts to move our stories beyond engaging and full of potential to stories that matter; ‘are you brave enough to take it on?” Ross asked, ‘all the things in society that you think you can take on with your unique voiceprint’.

What is voiceprint? you ask. Think of it like your literary fingerprint, the thing that makes your writing unique. A reminder to us, as we wander familiar and unfamiliar literary paths – as we interrogate what we’ve been fed and surprise ourselves and by extension our reader – to tell our stories in our own particular way.

Joanne C. Hillhouse

Joanne C. Hillhouse is the author of the novellas The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight; the children’s picture books Fish Outta Water and With Grace; the novel Oh Gad!; and the teen/young adult novel Musical Youth, a finalist for the Burt Award for teen/young adult Caribbean literature. Her writing has appeared in several Caribbean and international journals and anthologies. She freelances as a writer, editor, writing coach and workshop facilitator; and founded and coordinates the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize to nurture and showcase the literary arts in Antigua and Barbuda.
Visit her website here: jhohadli.wordpress.com