I just got back from attending the RWA National Conference in Anaheim. Every time I had to walk across the lobby, I would brace myself in preparation for the voices of two thousand women as they enthusiastically talked about books and writing, publishing and life. The din was intense, but not nearly as intense as the waves of power rolling around in the room as these same women’s voices proclaimed their power. They opened their mouths and uttered I want, I tried, I have, I will, I want, I hope—daring to speak their dreams aloud.
One night, after hearing so many editors say it was voice that grabbed them every single time, my roommate and I randomly picked up forty different books and read the first page, curious to see what grabbed us and what didn’t. The editor was right; it was voice that caught our attention. But the sad truth was that only four out of all those first pages made us sit up and go, Hello! Can’t wait to read you! (And that was forty published books!) The rest seemed generally flat. (To us. Clearly different voices work for different people, so your voice preferences may vary.)
The next morning as I passed through the lobby once again, I was struck anew by all the women talking—by how different they all were, how unique their personalities and stories. And I realized I would love to sit down with just about any woman in that room and hear their story. Not the shiny PR version of their lives, but the true story of their struggles and hardships, fears and joys. But in my experience, so little of this actually makes it into books or manuscripts.
It is my belief that we become writers because at some point in our lives we felt voiceless and powerless. For many of us, writing isn’t only about telling stories or getting published, it is a long hard journey toward reclaiming our voiceless selves, those parts of us dismissed or belittled by others. Those parts of us shut down by circumstances or familial restraints or our own fears.
So finding our voice is about having the strength and courage to proclaim that what we have to say matters, that what we feel is relevant, that what fascinates us is worthy of fascination.
When we first feel the urge to tell our stories, it is often because the voiceless part simply can’t stay silent any longer.
I have gone to emotional places on behalf of my writing that I would otherwise have happily lived my entire life not visiting. This doesn’t only apply to dark, dramatic, or heart wrenching stories, for humor or whimsy or uplifting stories to truly resonate, they too must touch on the deepest of human emotions.
The human brain is wired for story. We read in order to understand how to better survive life’s bumps and bruises. We hoard stories of hope and triumph and survival like nuts for the winter, storing away those messages for the day when we will need them most. We read to see how others cope, how they struggle, how they survive, or how they found joy among the rubble. So as writers, we owe it to our readers to put that in our books.
The broken pieces of ourselves are often the most interesting, but the least comfortable to share. And again, by broken I don’t mean only melodramatic or hand wringing. It also encompasses the quirky and the off-kilter, the often charming way we compensate for the things we have suffered or endured.
Scar tissue is stronger than ordinary tissue, and our truest voice comes from that broken, scarred place. It is one of the biggest gifts writers have to give readers. If I can see how you clung to your values or dreams in times of adversity or emotional upheaval, then it may well give me courage to cling to mine.
And as it is with all giving, the giver receives a gift as well—as scary as it is to share those scars, it is also empowering and freeing. By learning to speak our truth in our stories, we can also begin speaking our truth in our real lives.
As you struggle to give your heroine courage, you will find some as well.
As you dig deep to move your heroine to a place of compassion, forgiveness, or redemption you will likely find your own path to those places.
Every no you find the courage to utter will give you the strength to say a bigger, more important no when the time is needed. Every I want, I think, I hope that springs forth will begin building a strong retaining wall that those who would leech your power from you cannot breach.
The act of writing is an act of courage, not because of all the industry rejection that awaits, but because we are daring to step more fully into the very essence of who we are as people, and that is a scary, scary thing. No more masks, no more pretend, no more façade. Just us and those things we find of vital importance.
The first few hesitant, wobbly times we speak our truth and begin to reclaim our power are the hardest, but we must be willing to share our broken selves. We need to wear those scars proudly, to proclaim, as Clarissa Pinkola Estes says, that we are members of the Scar Clan, and that we welcome other members into that clan by giving them our honesty.
- What box have you allowed yourself to be squished into?
- What ways do you accede power on a daily basis?
- If you cling—HARD—to rigid beliefs, what might they be protecting you from?
- What area of your life have you had power taken away—or gave it away in exchange for a bad bargain?
- What things do you refuse to talk about—with anybody—or if you do talk about them, you do so from a safe, intellectual cerebral place?
Look there for your best, most compelling stories—the ones the rest of us long to hear.
And yes, it is scary to give voice to your deepest thoughts and feelings. What if people get angry? Or hurt? Or don’t care? Or even worse, laugh?
The truth is, when we set out to be a writer, those people, the ones who get angry or hurt or laugh, are no longer our concern, even if they are close friends and family. As a writer, our concern is finding our truest voice not only to empower ourselves, but to connect with those readers who need to hear precisely what we have to say, to hear how we coped or struggled or survived, so they can then use that to begin their own quest toward living courageously.
(photo courtesy of Flickr’s cambiodefractal)