Voice Matters

Pop Art Retro Woman by Karen Arnold

For forty years, I wrapped myself in worry. I fretted my way through high school and college and a PhD. I stewed over grades, and whether teachers liked me, and if I’d get a job or end up in a cardboard box. It was the same in the early years of marriage, parenting, and writing. Did my husband really love me? Would I scar my kids forever if my temper snapped? Would I accumulate boxes full of unsold words? I am really good at calling up catastrophe. It’s a frightening talent.

All that worry, though? It made me quiet — intent on blending in, quelling any ripples. I cringed a lot, both physically and emotionally. I avoided full exposure. I kept myself locked tight.

Something changed when I hit forty. My kids were six and four. I’d been married for nine years. I was (finally) writing a novel. For all those reasons, voice began to matter. Forty felt like a Grown Up Year. Finally, I was an adult — don’t ask me why that never occurred to me at, say, twenty-five or thirty-seven. Forty was the year. Suddenly, I was old enough to step away from what other people thought, to care less about opinions. To take a chance. To speak my voice.

It’s liberating to find your own voice as a person, as a mother. Confrontations don’t melt me into puddles now. I’m not fearless, but I’m closer, especially with my kids. More important still, I’m teaching both my daughters to speak their minds, to never swallow silence, choking down the words.

Sometimes, though, voice still stumps me as a writer. Recently, Nina Badzin wrote a compelling guest post for The Hatchery. In it, she spoke about her love of simplicity in language. She sparked a marvelous conversation about the relationships readers have with words, what people embrace in language and what makes them turn away.

I’ve been practicing this type of balance since the fabulous Roxane Gay said my short story “Blown” was overwritten. Ouch. After I put some balm on that, I realized she was completely right. I re-wrote the story and she accepted it for PANK. Since then, I’ve been trimming, hacking off those extra clauses. Sometimes I pile words in teetering towers. I have to work on being spare.

Voice, in writing, isn’t easy. I’m a literary writer. I don’t see that changing — it’s how I read and see and hear. It’s wired in the pathways of my brain. I am and always have been enraptured by the sound of words, by their flow and cadence. But, I am learning that voice can be modulated, shifted into different registers. I can yell, sure, but I can also whisper. And there’s a place for both.

My current goal is to adjust my voice to suit my audience. How is this different from being the people-pleaser I once was? All the stories are still mine, and it’s still up to me to ring them true. I can put as much power in a whisper as a shout.

Variety gives strength, and the more confident I am with my own voice, the more I can listen to other voices too — my kids, my husband, other writers, editors, and friends. When I don’t feel threatened, I can open up. I can recognize the many ways and places where voice truly matters.

Have you ever struggled with your own voice, in person or in writing?

17 thoughts on “Voice Matters

  1. Wow, what a great post. Although not a writer in the same sense I related so much to this. I think I’m still searching for mine and am easily silenced but I did turn 40 last October so there’s hope for me yet!

    • I remember you writing about your 40th — I’m tell you, it’s a good year!
      And I think the pieces you posted recently, the self-portrait pieces, show a lot of voice!

  2. This is wonderful, Lisa. I’m so happy for you. I love how you say fret made you quiet. And how you’ve reclaimed your voice by recognizing yourself as a mature and experienced individual. My wife and I were just talking about this. I’d read a writer’s work and offered advice, and I felt good about it. I think this year, for the first time, I feel like a real writer, with a real and unique perspective that others might want to hear. I’m not just scrawling stories, hoping someone will read them. I have a voice.

    I am blessed to have a couple of wonderful mentors. One of them recently read my manuscript and said my dialog was: “often ponderous.” Ouch… but true. I’m owning it, and reclaiming my story in my new (hopefully non-ponderous) voice. Your success with the short gives me hope that things can come out well on the other end. So thanks.

    • Thanks Vaughn — though I must admit to still feeling like I’m “just scrawling stories, hoping someone will read them.”
      Doesn’t feedback bite sometimes, with real teeth? Good luck with the dialogue. I am always so fascinated by the richness of the epic you are telling. I’m sure you’ll get where you want, and need, to be.

  3. Such a great post, Lisa. Interesting, we both have in common that we’re “wrapped in worry,” boy do I still struggle with that one. It did get slightly better at 40, I agree… and 50, but I still struggle. (I’ve kind of accepted it’s who I am.) That said, my writing has always tended toward the spare. A journalist then technical writer, I always assumed it was training. Still, my fiction is spare. And I need to work in the opposite direction that you do… toward variety to include more clauses and “teetering words.” Perhaps if we were to co-write…

    • I still struggle too. Recently, I told Pat that I must have adopted these three cats so I’d have more to worry about. Lovely, isn’t it? I think it would be fun to co-write sometime 🙂

    • Thank you! I just read your post on welcoming, returning, releasing, and blessing. It made me think a lot about how I get into steady patterns of thought that sometimes need . . . breaking. Thanks!

  4. Fantastic post! Congrats on the PANK story and for the chance to work with R. Gay who is maybe my favorite essayist these days. Love her short stories too. And her tweets! I’m kind of a Roxane Gay super fan.

    • Thanks Nina. I am definitely a Roxane Gay super fan. Meeting her in person was a highlight of AWP last spring — and I acted like a total groupie!!

  5. All. The. Time. I worry that my voice is wordy and verbose, and I also fret mightily about point of view whenever I dip my toe into fiction. Very, very, VERY hard for me. Fun fact: Roxane and I were high school classmates! I adore her work. xox

  6. Thanks Lindsey — I’m glad I’m not the only one who goes through these debates. 🙂
    I can’t believe you went to school with Roxane Gay. Small world, and I’m starting to believe that everyone has a link to Boston, one way or another.

  7. It seems easy for a writer to hate his or her own voice. It’s a touchy balance, because disliking my natural voice can push me to mix it up sometimes, which I think is a good thing, but mixing it up for its own sake just makes you write crap. Good topic

    • Thanks Lucas — you touch on a great point here. Sometimes I get good results when I play around with voice, but when I’m so focused on voice that I forget story, I end up with muck.

  8. I love your thinking here, Lisa. you are brave and authentic in a world known for just about everything that is not brave or authentic.

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