By Lilly Moore
Kiese Laymon, professor in English and creative writing at the University of Mississippi, has returned to Sewanee to act as writer-in-residence the week of September 5-10. Along with readings from his latest novel, Heavy: An American Memoir, participation in a panel in “Southern Writing in the 21st Century,” and his first DJing gig at the Social Lodge, Laymon offered his services in a workshop to help students understand voice in writing.
Laymon began the workshop by stating his intentions: he didn’t want to keep the students sitting silently in their seats while he lectured up at the board; he wanted a conversation. This broke from the typical experience with traveling professors, where students sit and wait to hear a professor’s expertise.
Adorned in a hoodie and sneakers, Laymon’s alternative style of teaching and of demonstrating how a professor can present himself encouraged the participants of the workshop to be actively involved. No question posed by Laymon went without several willing and excited answers.
Laymon covered many topics within his workshop involving the use of voice. He began in a more academic sense, covering more basic topics to ensure the class was able to understand the content of the workshop. He and the participants discussed differences between point of view and perspective and the vital nature of secondary characters.
As the workshop progressed, Laymon began to challenge the students more. As his own passion in writing deals largely with growing up as a black boy in Jackson, Mississippi, he encouraged the participants of the workshop to discuss topics such as race, gender, and sexual orientation, within their own writing.
He questioned their anxieties in using a voice that does not necessarily belong to them. “Why are you afraid?” he asked. “Do you feel anxiety when thinking about writing people of color and LGBT characters?” Many students agreed that they did.
“Everyone is comprised of different voices,” Laymon told the class. He discussed with his students how and why they change their voice in certain circumstances, and what these modulations had to do with identity and power. Students brought in their own experiences of this effect in their day-to-day life, relating it back to the their gender, race, and feeling of power in those situations.
“I think there’s a way to discover the voices we have via writing,” he explained. Laymon encouraged his students to utilize their writing to deal with these modulations which they make. He challenged them to take risks, to go outside of themselves and write experimentally. Laymon also encouraged them to maintain respect and accuracy, but to not feel anxious in their ambitions to understand others through voice.
After the workshop, Laymon had time to briefly speak with The Sewanee Purple. When asked whether he thought finding one’s voice comes through the creative process or real life, he replied, “I think the root of finding your voice is in real life, but I think the creative process can help you hone that voice which you’ve found in real life.”
On the subject of whether attention to voice in real life can affect power and identity in society, Laymon said, “I think that if you pay attention to the ways that we talk to people and the ways which people talk to us, and the ways that we’re encouraged to talk to people in particular situations, if we pay a lot of attention to it, I think hopefully we can interact with people in less violent ways in real life and hopefully in our art.”
Laymon also offered advice for those who wish to pursue creative writing but feel nervous about finding a voice.
“One: I think you honor all of your voices, like you really think about all of the different voices you use in different social situations, and I think you think about the voices you’re discouraged to use,” he said. “And if it was me, what I would try to do is think about the voice we’re discouraged to use and try to write a story from that particular voice, that’s the smallest voice we might have. I think sometimes you can do some interesting things by sitting in the smallest part of you.”