Finding My Voice

The expression “finding your voice” baffled me most of my early writing life. It sounded so pretentious, like a teenager who wanted to skip college for a year to go find himself. Well, I was one of those pretentious teenagers (only I skipped 8 years), but I still thought my voice was anything I put on the page, which is to say, the expression had no meaning.

Most writers I met back then, and many I meet now, talk about Writer’s Block. That’s something that still baffles me. There are times when I don’t want to write, but there isn’t a mechanism that kicks in under poor conditions where I am unable to do so. I hate to sound unsympathetic, but I’m already on record that I think Writer’s Block is bullshit.

No writer is ever unable to write. Writers become afraid to write poorly, choose not to write, and hide behind the idea of “Writer’s Block” because it bestows on them the title of writer without them having to do any work.

Before I met my mentor, Carey Harrison, I was one of those writers who stopped writing when everything that came out felt awful. It’s a shame I didn’t meet him earlier in my life because he taught me that I wouldn’t find my voice in my best writing. I wouldn’t even grasp the meaning of what my voice was in my best early writing. I found the thing that was unique to my voice in what I perceived to be my worst writing, the writing that when I mustered the bravery to offer it up for criticism to other professors was told, “It’s fine to experiment. So long as you don’t want to be rich.”

My best early writing was familiar to me, but not because it was written in my voice. The writing I was the least afraid to show others resembled what I’d read and admired, what I thought others would recognize as “as good” as something they’ve already read. Prior to finding my voice, my best work was a byproduct of reading more than invention.

Other than Carey, the second most influential writer in my life was a fellow student in my BFA program. Over the last decade I’ve tried to contact him via old information I find online and come up empty. I want to publish the piece he wrote for a workshop that was met with the same lack of enthusiasm as the “so long as you don’t want to be rich” crowd. I hope he’s still writing. I hope he realizes how brave and ingenious his piece is.

It’s written in Jamaican patois. I’d never seen English manipulated like that before. While listening the first time, as far as I knew this writer invented a way of talking that matched how he thought. It reminded me instantly of the shorthand I used when fleshing out stories, a language that made sense to me, but was translated into “writing” before I showed it to anyone. That one piece and the mentorship of Carey helped me realize that my voice was that shorthand, not the clumsy attempt to translate the shorthand into something that sounded like some other published author.

Québec is a personal piece, taken from my life but resembling it only in the emotions evoked in me. It resulted in something Carey dubbed wrightspeak, but I always thought of as menglish. Most of my efforts since graduating have been to domesticate my work so that it’s marketable, because although I don’t need my novels to make me rich, I would like to see them published. I still love this piece, and still remember what it was like to write the first draft, when the shorthand was allowed to be the story. For the first time in my writing what I saw on the page matched what I felt. That singular experience finally gave the expression “finding your voice” meaning.

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