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.