When I was 12, I wanted to be Elizabeth Taylor. Glamorous, talented, worshipped from afar. Champagne and diamonds and Rock Hudson. Even that revolving-door marriage thing sounded like fun. I typed up witty interviews of myself and pasted them inside magazine covers. (Yes, typed. On my manual typewriter. It was 1972.)
At 18, I was lost in dark, Heathcliff-on-the-moors fantasies, and I wrote by candlelight, pretending to be a scandalous Victorian courtesan.
By 30, with children of my own, I yearned to be both “cool hippie Mom” and Angela Davis. I wrote boldly and furiously of the revolution and free love and the meaning of life.
For the next 20-plus years, I wrote funding proposals, newspaper columns, press releases, and presentations. I ghosted memoirs and business histories and sketchy romances. I wrote speeches for politicians and email campaigns for salespeople.
“Can you make me sound stronger/softer/nicer/angrier?” my clients would ask. Yes. Yes, I can.
“Can you sound more/less ethnic? Can you sound more/less feminist? Can you sound smarter/not so smart?” Sure.
When ghosting fiction, I grew accustomed to asking at the outset, “Who do you want me to sound like?” After a bit, I could sound like almost anyone. Except myself.
Silence both heals and reveals my writer’s voice.
When I took an online writing course, the first thing my instructor said was, “Now you’re going to hone your voice.” They might as well have been telling me to write in Klingon. What voice? Which one?
For the first time in my life, I couldn’t write anything. Everything sounded off-key. Discordant. Seriously, it was embarrassing.
So, how did I find my writing voice?
I reread books I loved and looked for similar threads.
What do Dr. Seuss and Margaret Mitchell and Richard Wright have in common? How could I compare James Baldwin and Erma Bombeck? I heard the answer while I journaled: They are all rhythmic writers. They are storytellers in the oral tradition, using call-and-response cadences, often speaking directly to the reader. They write worlds precariously balanced between order and chaos (Seuss and Bombeck) or between civility and cruelty (Mitchell, Wright, Baldwin). I am an oral storyteller too. I hear my words first. And I need a thread of danger to stay engaged.
I also started journaling again—longhand.
Reams of white legal pads and purple ink pens. The keyboard and the screen made it far too easy to distance myself from my words. To sink into sales mode or trope mode or campaign mode. When I write by hand, I lead with my body, not my brain. As any massage therapist can tell you, our bodies are far wiser than we realize. With a pen, I feel the weight of every word. I can’t backspace. I can’t hit delete. I can only keep moving forward.
I reclaimed my sacred space. For me, this meant long hikes in the woods or up the coast, cliff climbs, and night sailing. It meant hours spent alone in nature with only my voice for company. The deer don’t care if you talk to yourself—they really don’t. Some artists meditate (yawn), or pray, or do tai chi, or listen to soothing music. Anything that unplugs you will probably work. In my case, silence both heals and reveals my writer’s voice.
I tasked myself with writing one horrible paragraph per day.
I called it the Invasion of the Adverbs or the Little Cliches on the Prairie. After I wrote one stinky, obnoxious paragraph, everything else was an improvement. I pushed myself to be mawkish and histrionic and illogical. I started dreaming up ridiculous sentences the night before. My bad paragraphs started to make me laugh and then, finally, to make me smile in recognition.
I could hear my own voice in there. A whisper at first, but getting louder.
Admittedly, when I’m struggling, I revert to old habits. I pretend to be someone stronger or better or more successful. I stare fondly at the autographed photo of Elizabeth Taylor on my desk. (Okay, so I autographed it myself. I was 12. It was my creative process at the time.)
Asked how she got over her heartbreaks and disappointments, Elizabeth apparently smiled that secret little smile she was famous for and said, “Listen. You pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together.”
Not a bad blueprint for this writer’s life.