Finding My Voice, Finding My Place

Growing up, people told me I had a nice voice.

I joined a traveling choir and sang solos at church on the weekends. When I was a junior, I was asked to sing at graduation. I had always liked singing, but was actually kind of surprised at the compliments.

Along the way, though, my voice became an object of shame.

One evening during my senior year, I was waiting in the stands for the girls volleyball game to start. I had been cut from the team, but I stayed on to be the manager. As the team was warming up, a friend leaned over to me and said, “The coach wants you to sing the National Anthem.”

“Really?” I was suspicious. No one ever sang the National Anthem before volleyball games.

“Yeah, she told me to ask you,” he said.

“Oh, well ok,” I said. I was the girl with the nice voice, afterall.

Only I had never sang the National Anthem as a solo. And I didn’t actually know what note to start on in order to be able to hit the high notes at the end.

So, I started singing, realizing right away what would eventually happen. The coach looked at me, surprised. Even as my voice crackled and screeched through the “land of the free,” I realized I had been set up.

When the song was over, I was humiliated.

::

It wasn’t just my singing voice that shamed me. In college, when I found myself with friends from around the country, my voice revealed things about me I didn’t want people to know.

Every “crick” and “hollar” I let out told my friends I was a girl from the sticks. When I “warshed” my hands or carried my stuff in a “sack” instead of bag, I was nothing more than a farm hick from the country.

So, I changed my voice. It started by calling melons “canteloupe” instead of “mush melon” and by saying “green pepper” instead of “mango,” but it extended to the way I say “aunt” and “orange,” creating an “ah” instead of an “oh” with my mouth. “Pop” became “soda,” and I was careful never to end a question with “at.”
I’m sure I’m not the first rural Hoosier to change a few vowel sounds to quiet down the ridicule. And now, it’s too late to go back to “warshing.”

But when people try to figure out where I’m from by the sound of my voice, they can’t do it anymore. 
Now, I sound like I’m from nowhere.

::

It could be that these issues with the voice I spoke with and sang with were part of the reason it took me so long to uncover the voice I write with.

Having also been told from an early age that I could write well, perhaps I was fearful of the kind of set up that would leave me screeching through the proverbial “land of the free” in my writing. Or maybe, I just didn’t want to sound like I was from a county so small that I couldn’t throw a rock without hitting one of my relatives.

When I tried my hand at journalism, writing in my best AP style, people would thank me for just writing “like I talk.” I was offended.

When I tried my hand at academic writing in graduate school, more than one professor took me aside to find out why I was really there.

“I want to write,” I would tell them.

“Then go write,” they would say. “You don’t belong here; you’re already a writer.”

Ironically, during that same time of my life, as I was preparing a lesson on voice for the freshman composition class I was teaching to 18 and 19 year olds, it hit me.

I don’t want to write like I’m from nowhere. I want a voice.

::

“Try to remember and write it yourself,” I say. “So it’ll be in your voice.”

So, LL Barkat instructs her young daughter as she writes a story about a girl named Joy. In her book, Rumors of Water, Barkat spends several chapters on developing one’s voice as a writer. On the one hand, she says, the writer’s voice is “best heard by listening to oneself speak.”

Maybe those newspaper readers of mine heard what I couldn’t?

But Barkat also says “our voices are not entirely unique. The voices of others fill our minds.”

At the Laity Lodge Writer’s Retreat, David Dark called these other voices our “ancestors.” They are the voices we give full access to fill our minds, to shape our thoughts, even to speak through the voice we are developing for ourselves.

Sometimes, an “ancestor” might even be a place.

Barkat says that “to have a voice, a writer must have passions and a sense of place.”

These passions and their places infuse the writing with silvery leaves and orange peels, versus say, ocotillo and pequins. The words of a region, a philosophy, a passion for French or French tea, come with their own sounds and rhythm and fragrances. If we read the Palestinian poet Darwish, for instance, we will find ourselves mouthing, jasmine, doves, olives, veils. Whereas if we read a poet like Marcus Goodyear, we will find ourselves breathing to the staccato of cactus, cattle, tree poker.

Farmer-poet-philosopher Wendell Berry has developed his writing voice by embracing his rural Kentucky roots into all his fiction, poetry and prose. His recent collection of essays, Imagination in Place, speaks widely to this concept of voice and place among various writers known for their regionalisms.

In his essay “Speech after Long Silence,” he discusses the writing of poet John Haines, whose voice so encapsulates the place he is writing about that Berry considers “how little ‘originality’ has mattered to him” and wonders “if the voice of the poems is in fact his.” He includes these thoughts from Haines himself:

What counts finally in a work are not novel and interesting things, though these can be important, but the absolutely authentic. I think that there is a spirit of place, a presence asking to be expressed; and sometimes when we are lucky as writers, and quiet in a way few of us want to be anymore, a voice enters our own . . .

Or, to say it another way, you can take the girl out of the “hollar,” but at the risk of taking the “hollar” out of the girl. Leave the girl in the “hollar,” and you might just hear the “hollar” speak.

::

I am continuing on my master writer journey, considering what it means to become masterful with words. Want to join me? Here are some ideas:

Photo by by urbanshoregirl, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License.

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Charity Singleton Craig

Charity Singleton Craig is a writer, author, and speaker, helping readers grow in their faith and experience true hope in the middle of life’s joys and sorrows. She is the author of My Year in Words: what I learned from choosing one word a week for one year and coauthor of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts.


  • Sheri L. Swift ,

    I know exactly what you mean when you say that the way you speak is different. I used to live in CA where we had to be very proper sounding. I’ve lived in VA for nearly sixteen years, but it only took a few to lose the *g* on the end of my words; cookin, cleanin, huntin, etc. My daughters all speak southern except for my youngest which still baffles my husband and I! ; )

    • Carolyn Counterman ,

      L.L.’s book finally came in the mail, so I need to get reading. I’m soaking this in, Charity – everything you are saying. Your voice – whatever the accent is – is touching me. Thank you for that.

      • Michelle DeRusha ,

        I think this may be one of your best posts ever, Charity. It really spoke to me and got me thinking about my voice. I’ve definitely fallen prey to imitating other writers I admire in my own writing. I’m not an entirely confident writer, so sometimes I try to imitate when I am feeling especially insecure.

        • Megan Willome ,

          Oh, thanks Charity!

          So much of this post kills me. I want your authentic voice–you. I wonder if recording yourself talking might help you to rediscover those “ancestors.”

          • Nancy ,

            My daughter gave me a t-shirt printed with a number of Pittsburgh-isms. I remember, in college, being so embarrassed by the way my people talked. Now, when I go home and hear those quirky phrases and weird pronunciations, I know I’m truly home. Glad you developed your thoughts from our workshop into this piece. You keep writing, Charity. It’s what you’re good at. 😉

            • Laura ,

              I’m so glad you came back around. Funny how others see what we can’t. Even in dialect (I was surprised in Texas last year when Marcus said something about my “southern accent”. Really?) It’s such a personal journey, and you capture it so well, here, Charity.

              Just lovely.

              • Stacey ,

                Please tell me that what you thought was a “mango” was a green pepper? My granddad called it that, and yes I am a Hoosier just like Him!

                I am struggling to call myself a writer. I communicate. I talk. I’m listening for my voice to emerge.

                As blogging, has pulled more of the writer in me forward, I notice when my voice is truer. And I love the way it sounds.

                Baby steps on the bus, right?

                • Joy ,

                  Charity…

                  I am ever thankful for the blogging world, because sometimes, someone puts voice to unknown thoughts swirling in your head that you’ve been wrestling with so long- which is why this post left me in tears. You named this voiceless feeling I’ve had for so long (but didn’t know what to call it)(or even why I was feeling it).

                  I have moved so much (military brat) that I have no place for people to find in my voice- it’s left me with such an incredible homeless feeling as I’ve gotten older. I have no ‘mush melon’, no ties to home. I’m foreign everywhere I go.

                  Thank you, so much. You’ve given me much to think on.

                  • Kelly Sauer ,

                    Oh, and that National Anthem thing? TOTALLY know what you’re talking about there… I’ve squeaked it out a few times myself. 😉

                    • Kelly Sauer ,

                      “Now, I sound like I’m from nowhere.”

                      So strange. People have said the same about me, but I never tried to change my voice. We moved so much, and my parents and grandparents spoke from an educated background – I suppose at most, I have a reader’s accent.

                      Even in my head.

                      Which makes my writing voice ever so interesting.

                      This post is fabulous, Charity.

                      • Ann Kroeker ,

                        Hey, look how I left that sentence fragment in there. I think my parenthetical comment got too long and I thought I finished my thought.

                        Looks like my voice is a bit jerky and incomplete. 🙂

                        • Ann Kroeker ,

                          I love your writing voice and your speaking voice. As a fellow Hoosier, familiar with mush melons (my family also called them musk melons) and the mango (boy, was I confused when I encountered the exotic mango imported from some tropical climate). It was your mention of “hollars” that first caught my eye and made me realize, “I think she’s lived in Indiana at some point in her life.”

                          Anyway.

                          This is gorgeous, written in your style, your voice, your brilliant flow that brings things together at the end.

                          • Kathy S. ,

                            Oh my! I really like your voice! 🙂 I was interested in Rumors of Water from a link from another blog.

                            What is so amazing about y(our) loss of voice in the past is that it becomes part of y(our) expression of finding the truth and conveying it to those still lost.

                            I love that you have journeyed through that place to express it here. How many of us in our human-worship culture lose our voice from fear of man, and fear of the pain that men can bring, and then find it as we encounter the perfect love…the trust in the Safe King.

                            Glad Jennifer shared this on her facebook wall…
                            God bless you!

                            • Marilyn Yocum ,

                              I loved this (and am honored to have been mentioned – thank you). This post triggers so many thoughts in me that if we sat down for tea, we might have to go through several cups to exhaust all the give-and-take.

                              I’m going to bed now, but am going to read this again tomorrow, I know. Thank you, Charity!

                              • Lyla Lindquist ,

                                I wouldn’t say this to so many folks, but Charity, I’d be disappointed if you’d not found this voice of yours. This piece you’ve written here seems so very important somehow.

                                Thank you for it.

                                • Jean Wise ,

                                  Just got the book and can’t wait to begin to read. The voice is something so elusive yet important. Your post captured that quite well. Thanks for the great words

                                  • Jennifer @ GettingDownWithJesus.com ,

                                    What to say? This is just … so incredible.

                                    I may have to send a private email later. I don’t know what to say right there, right now. Just taking this all in …

                                    Really, really grateful for *your* voice. Reminds me about the value of my own.

                                    • Linda ,

                                      I just “devoured” L.L.’s book and now need to go back read it slowly and carefully.
                                      You’ve helped me with this concept of “voice” so much Charity. I’m one of those people who can take the simplest of concepts and make something confusing out of it. The more I think about voice the more confused I get about the way mine truly sounds. I am so easily influenced by other writers I admire.
                                      I am so happy to be on this journey with you. I am trying to just write – I seem to have lost my voice altogether these days 😉

                                      • L.L. Barkat ,

                                        Oh, this is really good, Charity. I got choked up in the section about the singing, and how you stripped your country past from your speech.

                                        I guess we do these things to fit in. But that thought about being from nowhere? Wow, I’m thinking hard now.