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?