What is Voice?

I used to ask my students all the time: what is voice?

They would stare back at me in silence. The smarty pants and those trying to impress me would attempt to answer but would fall short, their voices trailing off into awkward silences. I would pace the front of the classroom, twirling my expo marker between my fingers, and listen.

No one really ever came close to the definition. Not even me. It's a question I'm still trying to answer.

What I know: a writer's voice cannot be contained.

It's different than style. I may try on a style that's separate from one I've exhibited before: technical writing, poetic verse, creative nonfiction. Speak too long on style and you'll begin to test the waters of genre. Style is born out of preference.

Voice is born out of our stories.

I found mine in between the lines of a well-worn journal and in the blinking cursor of a blog post draft. For years, I couldn't even journal. Too afraid of others finding the source and reading my truth, I never really desired to go there. Words are heavy, though. I finally gave in and scribbled everything down: the good, the bad, the ugly, the secret.

In discovering who I was beneath all of these protective masks, words and memories appeared out of thin air. Almost as if they were waiting for the moment I would take myself seriously enough to hear. In her book When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams mentions that her handwritten journals confirmed for her that she experiences each event in her life twice — once in the world and once again on the page. By writing everything down, I was letting my psyche know: even though no one else is listening to you, I am. I will bear witness to these stories.

This changed everything. 

My voice comes from those pen-filled pages. Read my stories, my blog posts, my novels, my poetry and will you hear me. 

This is something we often don't speak about in writing: in order to find your voice, you have to find yourself.

Not everyone is born a writer. But, for those of us who hold words deep in our bones, we know the sharpness of swallowing them. The act of silencing ourselves marks us, and most often, serves as a closure to the pattern of silencing we experienced our entire lives.

1. What would happen if you made the decision to not swallow any more of your words? What if you opened that journal or that blog post and wrote it all out?

Word by word, the language of women so often begins with a whisper. - Terry Tempest Williams

2. Find an old journal. Read your words. Are they a whisper? How do these entries reveal your voice? If you don't have old journals, think of a moment in which you used your voice for the first time. How did it feel? Write about it. 

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Posted on July 7, 2016 and filed under Building Your Craft.