Find Your Voice, Find Your Power

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)

 

 

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About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.

Comments

  1. says

    My writing as never been about telling stories or getting published. I have always written to work things out on paper so that I could stand apart from them and view them with some kind of objectivity. As to whether I wrote because I felt powerless that is an interesting question. I may have been voiceless in that I didn’t have the words to explain what I felt but I was still capable of feeling. Words are really quite inadequate and rarely do justice to what we feel but they’re one of the few ways we have of recording those feelings with any degree of accuracy. I have never considered who my readers might be. I have only ever written for myself and much of the stuff I wrote got stuck in a binder or a drawer and I was done with it. I’m not daft though and I realise that other who have gone though similar life experiences can get something out of my words depending on what they bring to the table. But I have never sat down to entertain. I have managed it but as soon as I start to think about how others might view what I’m working on it puts me off. I define a writer as a person whose natural response to life is to write about it. I never set out to be one. I simply found that writing helped and so I kept it up.

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    • says

      “I define a writer as a person whose natural response to life is to write about it. ”

      I like that definition a LOT, Jim!

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  2. says

    Just love this post. It hit home on so many levels. Embracing your voice is not always easy. My work tends to be on the sadder, darker side and it’s taken me awhile to understand that that’s okay, that’s how I think and see and feel things a lot of the time. It’s sometimes a scary place to dwell in but as long as I can find my way back to the light, I’ll be okay. :)
    Madeline Mora-Summonte´s last blog post ..Hopelessly in Love – Nailpolish Stories

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    • says

      Barbara O’Neal once put my own dark explorations in context for me. She said that we go there to shed a light in those dark corners, and that has really stuck with me.

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  3. says

    Robin,
    What a stunning post about voice and voicelessness. There is one step missing for me, however. I think we need to dare more, risk more. We also need to take this knowledge and courage and move outside ourselves and our own stories; to tell a larger story beyond our own personal story.
    I look for two things in a great book: voice first of all (so difficult to define so instantly recognizable) and a story that lives and resonates beyond the personal.
    Thank you for this post and for the very generous spirit in your writing.
    Laura Harrington´s last blog post ..The unexpected gifts of friendship

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    • says

      Laura,

      I completely agree that we need put our stories in a larger context. I also agree with the taking greater risks part, but I didn’t want to terrify everyone right off the bat and so was taking it in baby steps. :-)

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  4. says

    Great post here!

    “It is my belief that we become writers because at some point in our lives we felt voiceless and powerless.”

    Write on.

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    • says

      Bree,

      Voice is SO key for me, too. And I’d never had an opportunity to sit down with 40 books in one genre like that before. It was a little surprising to find out that I didn’t care *what* the back blurb promised, if the voice didn’t capture me, it was just about impossible to keep reading.

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      • says

        That’s how it is for me too. Sometimes I wonder if I’m dilettantish about reading in general. I’ve also found books where I liked the voice, liked the characters but couldn’t handle the plot: recent case in point – Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn Ward… I still have half more to go but it’s hard – so I put it down for a while.
        Bree´s last blog post ..I’ll have some bacon with that.

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  5. says

    This may be one of my favorite posts on writing EVER. The reasons you listed as being the impetus for us to put pen to paper truly resonate with me, yet I’d never really considered them before.

    Thank you for sharing this powerful observation and for your tips on using this truth to find our most compelling stories.

    Writing is an act of bravery. I have experienced how the bravery that begins quiet and small in the lives of our heroines begins to insert itself into our everyday lives. It often shows itself in very small ways at first. But then our voice and our power continues to grow.

    Thank you so much for sharing.
    Roxanne´s last blog post ..Farewell to Ann Curry

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    • says

      You are so welcome, Roxanne! Feeling that power begin to seep into our lives is such a thrilling yet unexpected experience.

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  6. Irene says

    Hi Robin,
    Yes, Yes, Yes. Thank you for this post. Mine was not a box, it was a cell I didn’t know how to break out of.
    As a psychologist, this is what I have been teaching women for the past twenty years. The path to the self and the Self. The real and true parts of us with all their wonders and their faults. The good and the ‘bad’.
    As a writer I tried to do the same in my first novel about homeless and mentally impaired women in India. It was easy to portray them as women without voices and creative therapies were used for their growth.
    It was a wonderful release for me. I saw myself in the women and in the end learned from them and was able to confront some things in my own life.
    Yeah to voice and its healing powers.
    Thanks again.

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    • says

      Irene,

      Yes! I didn’t really even touch on how the more we consciously set out to learn about human nature in order to inform our characters can’t help but rub off on us. There are many times in my writing I’ve wished I had a psychology degree! :-)

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  7. says

    Yes. This. Wow. I needed to read this.

    For me, it’s about finding that place of honesty, no matter that I’m writing fantasy or SF. There is an essential truth that underlies everything we write and finding that core is where the story comes alive.

    Thank you for this post.
    LJCohen´s last blog post ..August Poetry Postcard: group 2

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    • says

      LJ,

      YES! As a fellow writer of fantasy I heartily second that honesty comment. In fact, it seems to me doubly important in speculative fiction because that emotional honesty is what makes it most relevant to readers (rather than just cool and entertaining.)

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  8. says

    This is wonderful! This makes so much sense to me, and it’s so well said. I think that the most powerful writing is the writing that frightens you, the stuff that feels too raw and vulnerable, but you share it anyway. That’s where the power is.
    Cathy Yardley´s last blog post ..Star Wars: Plot Points In Action.

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    • says

      “I think that the most powerful writing is the writing that frightens you, the stuff that feels too raw and vulnerable, but you share it anyway. ”

      This is so, SO true, Cathy.

      It applies to blog posts, too, I’ve found. :-)

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  9. says

    Robin-

    This is a rich and meaty post. Flat voices? You bet. I’m writing a piece for Writers Digest (“Why Published Novels Fail”) that get to this very shortcoming.

    Interesting that you wanted to hear the personal stories of authors at RWA. I’ve many times had the experience of meeting writers at a lunch banquet table and hearing extraordinary details of their lives. Later I read their manuscripts, which nine times out of ten (as you found) are weak, flat–“voiceless”.

    “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.”

    So why don’t writers give voice to that? Because it takes courgage, honesty and a willingness to become vulnerable on the page. It’s easier to hide, write safely, fall back on tropes and stereotypes. You’ve got it right.

    In Grave Mercy, your heroine Ismae embodies this very struggle. She’s highly empowered–after all, she’s a trained assasin nun!–yet for much of the novel she’s tremulous and uncertain, especially with respect to the dashing maybe-traitor Gavriel Duval.

    I can see that this topic of empowerment is close to your heart. Thanks for giving voice to it.

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    • says

      Thanks, Don!

      I finally recognized, somewhere after my 9th or 10th book, that empowerment was one of my core themes. I also think it’s what draws me to both fantasy and YA/MG books. (Which perhaps says more about where I am on my own empowerment journey than is comfortable. )

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  10. Cathryn Cade says

    Robin,

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful essay. I’m saving it in my personal ‘writer’s stash’ to bring out when I need to be lifted up and reminded why I write, and why it’s okay to be just me.

    I think for many writers, voice comes out more and more strongly through our writing careers, as we hone our craft and learn how to unleash our voice while urging it along the best paths to find the heart of each story.

    best,
    Cathryn
    http://www.cathryncade.com

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    • says

      Hi Cathryn,

      I’m so glad the essay spoke to you!

      And I absolutely agree that writer’s develop their voice throughout there career–which has always been one of the tragedies of the diminishing mid list, because that provided a good place to do that.

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  11. says

    “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.”

    Wow, Robin, here you are telling me how deep I need to go with my rewrite. I often think of, and have often reread, your ‘crunchy’ post, and this is such a brilliant extension of the concept. Thank you for showing the to the path only I can tread.
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..A Sword By Any Other Name (…Would Still Just Be a Hunk of Sharpened Steel)

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    • says

      Thanks, Vaughn! I was concerned I was going to sound like a one note wonder. Happy to know it came off as an extension of the concept rather than beating a dead horse with it. :-)

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  12. says

    Robin, so much wonderful stuff here–and you really hit a nail on the head for me. I’ve always thought I wrote simply because I read–that it’s all part of the same love affair for me, and because books are the place I know where words and imagination can go/be used.

    But somehow your phrasing of writing because at some time we felt voiceless…well, that hit. Not because I felt shut down or hammered into one spot, but simply because I was so shy–maybe that IS why it started. You’d think I’d have figured that out before now, but, well…thanks! And HUG!

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  13. says

    Wow. So well said, Robin.

    I think you are 100% correct. It is that part of us that we silenced that often carries the strongest voice.

    I always look forward to being enlightened by your posts.

    Shelley

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  14. says

    I can only repeat what has gone before. Wow and thank you for reminding me why I sat down one day and started to write.

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  15. says

    This isn’t just a post about writing, it’s a manifesto, and one I needed to hear. That’s the first time I’ve read something on WU through a haze of tears — one of the most powerful and inspiring pieces about writing I’ve ever read. Thank you.
    Natalie´s last blog post ..Anybody Else Need a Hand Slap?

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  16. says

    Thank you, Therese! I am very happy you still feel that way after I’ve spent *the entire flippin’ morning* trying to decode the captcha thing–only to find out I was making it too hard.

    I really am enjoying being a part of this wonderful community.

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  17. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    There is so much truth and beauty in your post, I cannot just pull up a small bit to quote it. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. This is a piece to be cherished, to read over, and over again.

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  18. says

    For me, finding my voice took trusting myself. Not only in my story, but in the way in which it need to be told. It also took reading A LOT. I never would have found my voice without the benefit of the works by amazing authors such as Meg Cabot, Ally Carter, and Richard Peck to name just a few.

    And oh, yeah. What everyone else said too. Great insights by everyone on this terrific post!

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  19. says

    What a beautiful, compelling and TRUE post, Robin!

    I think, for me, one of the things that was the hardest to learn about voice is that it has to come from that place vulnerability. That part of me where I’m convinced that what I know is true myself is often true for others…but, sometimes, we just don’t want to say it aloud.

    I keep the Anais Nin quote by my computer as a reminder: “The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.”

    Thanks so much for sharing your wise thoughts with us!
    Marilyn Brant´s last blog post ..Let the Games Begin!

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  20. Linda Covella says

    This is a beautiful post, Robin! I’m also one of those “shy writers” who never considered that may be at the core as to why I started writing. Like Barbara O’Neal, I loved loved loved hearing that chant I want, I tried, I have, I will, I want, I hope.
    One thing I thought about when I read “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?”
    For me, I could handle even the laugh. The worst would be if someone simply didn’t care!
    Thanks again for this, Robin.

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  21. Jan Wagner says

    Powerful, powerful post, Robin! Thank you for reminding us why we wanted to become writers in the first place – to give wings to our voices.

    Write on!

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  22. says

    About five years ago I sat down on a gray day and what was to become my novel Forever One started to pour itself into the computer. I have always enjoyed writing, but I admit I was unsure where this story line came from or was heading.

    The biggest blessing for me was discovering a heretofore unknown sense of humor. I delighted in giggling at the humorous comments pouring forth from my characters mouths.

    I am unsure what will become of Forever One, but it most definitely has been a vehicle of delight and self discovery and, if for only that, I am forever grateful.

    “Laughter is the best medicine” is truth to be sure in a world that so often is filled with dark news.

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  23. says

    this is an interesting post –

    “I finally recognized, somewhere after my 9th or 10th book, that empowerment was one of my core themes…”

    writing that, i think, is living your talk about writing to enable oneself to speak the same words in one’s outward life – (“By learning to speak our truth in our stories, we can also begin speaking our truth in our real lives…”)

    “We read to see how others cope, how they struggle, how they survive, or how they found joy among the rubble…”

    and i think, for me, it’s what’s inside that last quote that means the most to me, as it encompasses such a range of our experience

    so thank you much ;-) first time i’ve been to this site, enjoyed it

    but i do have to say, assassin nuns? seriously? how am i not going to want to read that ;-) best wishes!

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  24. ML Swift says

    Robin,

    Thank you for this encouraging article on how we can find voice and write without fear. Although you wrote from a woman’s perspective, we men aren’t innately fearless. Nope. It’s all for show. We appear strong, but if you look closely, you’ll find subtle hints of panic in a twitching eyelid, a sweat-beaded lip, or at worst, a last-ditch suicide leap off the Brooklyn Bridge.

    I often handle discord, pain, and stress with humor. It’s been my coping mechanism from enduring years and years of…well, discord, pain, and stress. To some, it’s charming (it helps to be southern); to others, I’m a pain-in-the-ass.

    So I appreciate your acknowledgement that “broken…also encompasses the quirky and the off-kilter, the often charming way we compensate for the things we have suffered or endured.” A lot of deep dark comes with the funny.

    Thanks again for your great insights and commitment (and courage) to share with us.

    :)

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  25. says

    This is a brilliant, brilliant post and so true. Immediately when I read those questions tons of subjects popped into my head. I needed to read something like this today. Thank you!

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  26. says

    Superb post . . . just excellent. Voice is everything to me, as a writer and a reader. If I can’t feel my heart race as I struggle with a scene, then how can my reader? I am also someone who prefers to be an introvert and remain in my study, writing, but there’s something so empowering about pouring my passion onto a page into my writing voice. It’s practically orgasmic to get it right.

    Thanks for this.

    Hope Clark
    http://www.chopeclark.com
    http://www.fundsforwriters.com

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  27. says

    Robin – this is good, good, good, good!

    So good I hand copied many paragraphs to share with a group of book lovers tomorrow (Don’t worry – I’ll give you the credit! :) )

    Going to go Tweet it now!

    Best to you and your message of empowerment!

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  28. J Thibodeau says

    Robin,

    I want to thank you SO much for this post. It came at the perfect time–when my main character was feeling so flat–and now I know what I have to do. Praying now for the courage to learn “to speak our truth in our stories, [so] we can also begin speaking our truth in our real lives.” Thank you for such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post! I am saving this one!

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  29. says

    “Scar tissue is stronger than ordinary tissue, and our truest voice comes from that broken, scarred place.”

    I love this statement. So much is written about making our protagonists strong. However, we must remember that underneath our character’s pain lies an action or a moment they may not be proud of. This is fertile ground to garden. thanks for the reminder.
    Jocosa´s last blog post ..No Excuses, Just Do It

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  30. says

    Beautifully written, Robin. It is certainly something everyone – especially writers who doubt their story is anything special – needs to hear.

    It did raise another couple of thoughts for me though and I read all the responses (so many!) to see if anyone else expressed them. I think the closest was Laura’s: “We also need to take this knowledge and courage and move outside ourselves and our own stories; to tell a larger story beyond our own personal story.”

    I believe the mistake some writers make is to think their entire story is interesting to others. Some of it is, some of it is mundane and some has no relevance to the novel at hand. On one level, it is important to sift through our experiences and be able to distill them into writing that will best serve our story and our characters. And on a larger scale, to take the essence of events, our responses and the consequences and use that to channel a character’s authentic response to something entirely different. Our experiences do matter and they enrich our novels, but they can be viewed through a broader lens.

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  31. says

    Very powerful post

    Voice is so important, not just for the story itself, but like you say, for the writer. I feel once we fgiure it out, things will become so much easier.

    I’m still searching for mine. I’m closer than I was this time last year, but feel I still have a way to go. I suppose that makes the journey mor einteresting

    Great great post. Love it :)

    Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

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  32. says

    Brilliant! I’ll come back to this post again, I know.

    I agree that we write from our fractures, and that our scars — proof that we were stronger than whatever tried to best us — are worthy inspiration.

    I’d just add that our moments of joy or simplicity or faith can be equally inspiring, and important to voice. Voice gains authenticity from the pain we’ve been through, but also from our laughter, I think. And genuine laughter, not just the stuff that covers up the scars. I like a writer’s voice that has all of those dimensions.
    Lisa Ahn´s last blog post ..Wing-Feather Fables: Frozen

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  33. Ceejae says

    Robin,

    I am new to the circle of writers/authors and I am enjoying the journey of finding out about people who are willing to stand on that ledge and dive into the places of fear. Your post is one of the best I have read so far, and I agree with Laura and Deborah, our stories need to be bigger than we are.

    No more pretend. That has been so huge for me but it’s also an oxymoron. We “are pretending” as we create stories to share our truths, unless we write essays, which is part of what I am doing.

    I am close to finishing a collection of essays and stories and now sitting on that ledge, close to sending for first reviews to a couple of agencies that agreed to review my work from a recent conference. The fear completely envelopes us, but we have to learn to accept its presence and keep taking one step at a time….

    CeeJae

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  34. says

    Bravo, Robin. What a beautifully written post! A manifesto as someone put it. Our minds do crave stories and we’re magnetically drawn to someone’s authenticity, their vulnerability. And writing gives us the opportunity to heal the wound of being silenced. Thank you, thank you.

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  35. says

    Robin,
    This post is a gift of inspiration. Thank you! While it’s intended for writers, I believe it also applies to audiobook narrators, as we strive to lift authors’ words off the page and into the ears of listeners. I’ve mentioned this post on my website (heidipaek.com) with links back to your full text. Hope to send more readers your way. May we all find courage and power in our unique stories and voices. Carry on!

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