Mind and Voice: Writing Experiments

The mind and the voice are important aspects to consider when creating literary characters. Read on for discussion resources in relation to this.


Many writers have attempted to explore the workings of the human mind through language. You might want to think about how the mind is commonly associated with reason whilst the heart is linked with emotion. The theme of isolation might also be a productive way into texts which explore the mind; notice how this is a running theme through the recommended reading below.

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

Recommended reading:

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock – T. S. Eliot

  • T. S. Eliot succeeds in capturing the mind’s wandering in this poem. Think about the techniques he uses to do this.
  • Does prose more closely resemble the workings of the mind than poetry?
  • How does rhyme work in the following extract?
    • ‘I grow old … I grow old …/ I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled./ Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?/ I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach./ I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each./ I do not think that they will sing to me.’

Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

  • Consider how associative leaps and sensory impressions work in the following example of stream of consciousness writing.
  • How does Woolf use punctuation to create an effective stream of consciousness?
  • How can third person be used to enter an individual’s mind?
  • Clarissa’s observation of the taxi cabs makes her feel alone and outside of the world; have you ever experienced loneliness as an observer?
    • ‘She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. Not that she thought herself clever, or much out of the ordinary. How she had got through life on the few twigs of knowledge Fraulein Daniels gave them she could not think. She knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed; and yet to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing; and she would not say of Peter, she would not say of herself, I am this, I am that.’

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey

  • Think about the theme of mental illness in relation to Kesey’s novel.
  • Consider the subjectivity of Bromden’s narrative below.
  • Think about the way institutions can view people as inhuman machines.
  • Consider the experience of alienation and being ignored like a fly on the wall.
    • ‘I been silent so long now it’s gonna roar out of me like floodwaters and you think the guy telling this is ranting and raving my God; you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.’
    • ‘Except the sun, on these three strangers, is all of a sudden way the hell brighter than usual and I can see the . . . seams where they’re put together. And, almost, see the apparatus inside them take the words I just said and try to fit the words in here and there, this place and that, and when they find the words don’t have any place ready-made where they’ll fit, the machinery disposes of the words like they weren’t even spoken.’

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

  • Think about the isolating experience of Esther’s mental illness and how Plath explores her psychology in the novel.
  • Sometimes people’s lives seem perfect, but this is actually an illusion; can you think of any examples of this?
  • Think about the way similes and metaphors dramatise Esther’s depressing perception of herself in the extracts below:
    • ‘Wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.’
    • ‘Look what can happen in this country, they’d say. A girl lives in some out-of-the-way town for nineteen years, so poor she can’t afford a magazine, and then she gets a scholarship to college and wins a prize here and a prize there and ends up steering New York like her own private car. Only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself. I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus. I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.’
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Writing challenges:

  • Write a piece in stream of consciousness style
  • Write a piece focusing on the psychology of someone’s mind.

In addition to exploring the mind, creative writers are often interested in the voice – how we translate our mind’s thoughts into language within the real world. It is interesting to think about different ways we can create distinctive and memorable voices for our characters.

Photo by Pressmaster from Pexels

Recommended reading:

Pygmalion – Bernard Shaw

  • Think about the interrelationship between voice and identity; consider dialect and accent. You might also want to think about class in relation to this.
  • Think about how language is used to exploit people; it is a tool for power.
  • Have you ever noticed someone being mocked for the way they speak or forcing themselves to speak in a different way in a certain situation?
  • Think about the poignant opening to the extract below:
    • ‘I can’t. I could have done it once; but now I can’t go back to it. Last night, when I was wandering about, a girl spoke to me; and I tried to get back into the old way with her; but it was no use. You told me, you know, that when a child is brought to a foreign country, it picks up the language in a few weeks, and forgets its own. Well, I am a child in your country. I have forgotten my own language, and can speak nothing but yours. That’s the real break-off with the corner of Tottenham Court Road. Leaving Wimpole Street finishes it.’

I have a Dream – Martin Luther King

  • Listen to the recording of King’s famous speech at the link below; think about his effective use of repetition and listing.
  • What popular ideas and relatable topics does King mention and how does this make his speech more successful?

Othello – William Shakespeare

  • Read the two scenes from Shakespeare’s tragedy below. Consider the contrast between them.
  • How does the voice convey emotion?
  • Think about how Othello becomes the racial stereotype in the second extract.
    • OTHELLO ACT ONE
      Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors,
      My very noble and approved good masters,
      That I have ta’en away this old man’s daughter,
      It is most true. True, I have married her.
      The very head and front of my offending
      Hath this extent, no more. Rude am I in my speech,
      And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace,
      For since these arms of mine had seven years’ pith
      Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
      Their dearest action in the tented field,
      And little of this great world can I speak,
      More than pertains to feats of broils and battle,
      And therefore little shall I grace my cause
      In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,
      I will a round unvarnished tale deliver
      Of my whole course of love. What drugs, what charms,
      What conjuration and what mighty magic—
      For such proceeding I am charged withal—
      I won his daughter.
    • OTHELLO ACT 3
    • Oh, that the slave had forty thousand lives!
    • One is too poor, too weak for my revenge.
    • Now do I see ’tis true. Look here, Iago,
    • All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven.
    • ‘Tis gone.
    • Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell!
    • Yield up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne
    • To tyrannous hate! Swell, bosom, with thy fraught,
    • For ’tis of aspics’ tongues!

Loud – Carol Ann Duffy

  • Read this poem about a voice exploding into being at the following link.
  • Think about why it is so important to have a voice and consider issues of representation.
  • Consider how certain voices have been excluded within historical contexts. Perhaps you could think about women’s voices being left out of literary canons.
  • Do victims ever truly get a voice, or does someone always represent them and thereby mediate the telling of their experience?
Photo by Polina Kovaleva from Pexels

Writing challenge:

  • Use one of the ideas stimulated by the texts above to explore the theme of voice within your own writing.

We would love to read your works inspired by this resource. Comment in the chat if you would like to submit work.

Amber Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *