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What does it really mean to find your voice? I use this word “voice” all the time when I talk about writing. Often I get met with looks of confusion or even terror. “I don’t have a voice,” so many people say. “Someone already said it better than I ever could, anyway.”
To me, that’s like being mad at God and saying that God doesn’t exist in the same breath. If you’re mad at God, then you must think God exists. If you simultaneously say that you don’t have a voice and that it isn’t unique, then you believe your voice exists! And that’s where the writing comes in.
In my formative years, I had what my teachers called verbal diarrhea. What’s the symbolism of the fish in “Old Man in the Sea?” Oh oh oh! Pick me! Pick me! I was THAT kid whose arm was raised so long that she had to prop it up with the other hand at the elbow until her fingers tingled, and still they only called on me when all the quiet people had been given a shot. I screamed my lungs out at lacrosse and soccer and hockey games. I was the president of the choir. I spoke at chapel services. I was in every musical, usually the brazen alto hussy. Adelaide in Guys and Dolls is still one of the shining moments of my life. In other words, all the world was a stage. And that was before answering machines. If there were answering machines in those days, I would have been cut off every time. Beep. Redial. “Part Two…so anyway…”
And then, junior year in high school, I went mute. I got vocal nodules. I couldn’t talk without a severe rasp. I couldn’t sing at all. And I certainly couldn’t cheer. The doctors told me that I could undergo an operation to remove the nodules, or I had to stop talking, including whispering, for three months. Smack dab in the middle of my glory days.
No talking? Who was I without talking? If I didn’t answer hard questions in the classroom, was I smart? If I didn’t cheer at the game, did I have school spirit? If I didn’t stay up late night with friends solving the problems of the universe, was I loving and loyal and deep? If I didn’t join the throngs that converged between classes, in the dining hall, in assemblies and social gatherings with my stab at quick wit or charm or whatever it was that I was trying to prove in the weight of words…then who was I?
Everything changed that year. In the classroom, my hand remained on my pen, taking copious notes where I would otherwise be thinking about what I was going to say next. In conversation, I did the same. I listened. At sports games, I learned how to whistle loudly. And to communicate what I had to say, I carried around a notebook. High school girls talk fast, and writing takes a while. So I learned to only chime in when I really had something important to add to the conversation.
But I felt left out. So I fashioned a tool that changed my life. I started asking questions. Questions were the way to go. People had opinions and answers and I loved writing them down and turning them into essays for the school newspaper, like Erma Bombeck. I wanted to be Erma Bombeck. But how was she so sharp and funny and real and deep? How did she have that unique Erma Bombeck voice? It dawned on me that it had to grow from a deep curiosity. She had questions, and she wrote into the answers. Questions held the key. It would be years before I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: “…love the questions themselves…”
A question, especially a powerful one, begs an answer. And no answer is ever the same. It’s only as good as the person of whom you ask the question. Of course we all fear that we are ripping off something that we heard someone else say, or parroting the collective bombast. But even if we try with all our puny might to opine the way Uncle Henry did last Thanksgiving…we really can’t. I see it over and over at my writing retreats. I put out a writing prompt, and ten minds go in ten directions. Sometimes there are parallels, but even those are unique to the author. It’s just not possible for me to think or speak or write like you, or vice the verse.
So how do you find your voice? Maybe go mute. Or mute-ish for a few days. Make a conscious effort to take a beat before you speak. If you’re not a big talker, let yourself off the hook and just listen. The world will go on without our commentary. We’re not going to lose our job or a loved one over a few lost words. Tell them you’re on vocal rest, if you must. Don’t tell them why. And use this time very intentionally to write down your observations. Then, turn them into powerful questions that you answer on the page for your eyes only. Notice what you have to say and how you have to say it, without any pressure. You might be surprised. Now bring this back into your interactions with people (and if you’re a writer, in your work), and see if you feel more empowered. See what your voice sounds like now.
Take away: if you think you don’t have a voice, start with a powerful question. (Notice that I began this essay with one.) Answer it for yourself, in a journal, or on a walk when no one’s listening. You have a voice. No one can say what you have to say in the way that only you can say it. Your job is to give yourself permission to believe that this is so.