The Sounds Our Living Makes: A Tonal Approach

Sundays in my childhood home were usually days of quiet and peace. The sounds of such surrounded us. In the summer, I listened to the whirr of an oscillating fan that took its time pivoting back and forth. Its breeze lifted the corner of the pages of a Life magazine on the coffee table. My father napped, the Philco radio by his bed tuned to the broadcast of a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. The voice of play-by-play man, Harry Carey, rose and fell with the outcomes of each at bat. The crowd was a gentle murmur in the background. My mother read the Sunday Evansville Courier, its pages rustling from time to time. On occasion, a child would pedal by, a playing card wedged into the spokes of his bicycle wheel. The click-click, which could be so annoying at high speed, barely made a sound, for on Sundays, even kids were in no hurry.

Each time I write, I try to make a sound, one that arises from details filtered through a particular consciousness. The way I present those details depends on the state of mind of my point of view character at the time, or my own consciousness if I happen to be writing creative nonfiction. My pieces of flash creative nonfiction tend to be particularly tonally driven. I hear a sound, and I try with my arrangement of details and my attention to language to make a reader hear it, too. If I find the proper tone, it makes it easier for me to express what I’ve come to the page to explore—even when I’m not quite sure what that is. Different tones take us to different places. I start out by paying attention to the details, and I let them take me to a specific sound. Maybe it’s the sound of those summer Sundays, maybe it’s the sound of an institution like a church or a political rally or a baseball game, or maybe it’s the sound a particular character’s way of living makes. Whatever the sound might be, I trust it to take me somewhere I didn’t know I needed to go when the writing began.

So here’s a writing activity for you, one designed for creative nonfiction, but one that you’ll also be able to adapt to suit a piece of fiction or a poem.


  1. Start by letting your instincts take you to a specific place. Your childhood home on a summer Sunday, the church of your youth, your neighborhood on a Saturday night, your high school gymnasium on prom night, whatever speaks to you. Spend a few minutes writing, limiting yourself to the details. Don’t comment on them. Don’t try to make them add up to anything. Just document them and see what sort of sound they start to make. Think about the atmosphere you’re creating with that sound.


  1. Then recall the intrusion of an anomalous sound, a noise that contradicts what we’ve been hearing in that opening passage. Maybe it’s the slamming of a door, a body falling to the floor, a horn honking, a whispered apology. Find  a sound that modifies in some way the tone of your opening details.


  1. Follow that anomalous sound as it competes with the sound of your opening. Where does it take you? How does it announce the thing you’ve really come to the page to explore? Where does it take your characters in their words and actions? How does it finally bring you to a moment of surprise—a deepening of your understanding of a character or a situation, a place you didn’t know you’d arrive at when the writing began.


My essay, “Bastards,” began with my curiosity of why my father had rented a post office box when we moved into a small town in downstate Illinois rather than relying on free delivery to the house. The essay opens with the details of our new home—my mother’s lush flowerbeds, our neatly mowed lawn, my father’s fruit trees—all of them making a sound of a fresh start after some ugly years spent in a suburb of Chicago. As the essay unfolds, other details start to compete with those from the opening—our garage broken into and my father’s tools stolen; footprints a voyeur left in the snow at our windows; a television broadcast of the movie, In Cold Blood. I try in this personal narrative to maintain the serene opening when we believed in a new life away from the anger and violence my father brought into our home near Chicago, but the contradictory details make it impossible.

The essay climaxes on a night when a young boy opens our back door and steps into our kitchen. He has an injured hand, and my mother wants to help him. “The rest of my life was out there waiting for me,” I say in the essay. “I wanted it to be a life of goodness. And I think I wanted to be able to look back at that moment someday and say it made all the difference.”

Here the essay tries so hard to find the serene sound of its opening. My mother saying, “Are you hurt? Let me see.” The boy looking at my mother, wanting to offer his cut hand to her. Then, just as he was about to reach out, my father banged his hooks together (as many of you know he suffered a farming accident that cost him both of his hands when I was a baby) and the boy got spooked and ran from our house.

That banging of steel, that intrusive noise, the sound of my father’s bluster, his hook scraping the knobs of our back and front doors as he locked them, his prideful, “You won’t have to worry now.” Those competing sounds brought me to a place I didn’t know I needed to go, a deeper understanding of what it must have been like to have my father’s life: “He was proud. He was watching out for us. This was his secret. His world was always tilting. He was on guard. Let the bastards come. He’d be ready. Wounded as he was, he knew no other way to speak of love.”

The complicated layers of the sounds our living makes. Find them. Trust them. Listen to what they have to say to you.


  1. Denise Wilkinson on March 5, 2018 at 12:37 pm

    Thank you! My Creative Writing class and I are writing flash nonfic so this is perfect timing. I love how you use sound to immerse your reader in the moment.

    • Lee Martin on March 6, 2018 at 12:26 pm

      Thanks, Denise! I’d love to hear how things go with your class.

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