Throughout my life, I've been told to "keep writing" because I have a strong voice. But for the longest time, I didn't know what that meant.
Does a strong voice mean "bossy"? (My immediate family members are nodding yes right now.)
Does a strong voice mean "direct"? (My friends and colleagues will surely say I've crossed that line -- more than once -- but always with the best of intentions.)
It's taken me forty-seven years of living (and those last seven spent writing full-time) to understand my voice. And what I've learned is that true voice is louder than any hesitation or reservation: it just speaks. True voice comes through no matter what, whether it's been invited or not. If it flows, that's your true voice. And if it doesn't, you're still looking for it.
To illustrate my point about cutting out hesitation, let me tell you a little story about my grandmother.
My nana, Edna, worked hard to project an air of dignity and refinement, and she stressed those values to all her grandchildren. But I also saw the woman she truly was: a widow who lived for WGN talk radio and grocery store fried chicken and costume jewelry and instant coffee; a woman who snored louder than anyone I'd ever heard, couldn't eat soup unless you microwaved it to the point of scalding, put Fannie May candies out for guests and kept a supply of Russell Stover in the cabinet for herself, slathered her face in Pond's cold cream at night and wore a bit too much Estee Lauder White Linen perfume by day. My nana cackled like a witch and snorted when she laughed, preferred her toast burnt to a charcoal black, and never drove her maroon hatchback more than 35 mph. This was the grandmother I knew and loved, someone far more complicated and imperfect than the stately, coiffed and regal-looking woman she appeared to be. I knew her authentic self and I didn't hesitate telling her about it.
"You're a loud snorer," I'd tell her when I was little girl.
"Oh, Chrissy! You're so EARTHY!" she'd laugh.
I didn't understand. After all, it was the truth. Then I'd add, "Something's burning in the kitchen. What's that smell?"
"Oh, Dolly," she'd say, shaking her head. "That's our toast." She'd drag a knife-ful of margarine across the toast's charred, scratchy surface, leaving tiny black flecks all over the plate. Passing the dish to me, I'd slide it right back with a scrunched up nose.
"You have it," I'd say. "You like the icky things."
"Chrissy!" she'd laugh, trying to cover up the cackle. "Is that what you think?"
"You DO!" I'd insist, confused and dead-serious. "You eat the smelly fish and hamburgers with the sauce and the coffee that makes your breath smell funny." Even after she used her amazing and jewel-like, transparent red toothpaste, her breath still smelled like the coffee in her cup.
Growing up, I came to realize that my "honest" take on the "real" nana delighted her in a decidedly caught-off-guard way, as if I'd held up a mirror she hadn't known was there. As I got older, I learned the boundaries of how to speak honestly without hurting someone's feelings, but I never lost the impulse to speak my mind. Good or bad, it came out, and when it did, it always seemed to surprise people.
Eventually, my honest observations found a home in my journals. They were tiny little books at first, with room only for the necessary details. Like tweets today, there was no mincing words.
"Ate with Maura. She's a jerk."
"Nancy threw up. I painted my nails red."
"I love Shawn Cassidy."
Why beat around the bush when there's important stuff to cover?
That cut-to-the-chase voice stuck with me all through high school, but as my journals got bigger... I'd add more detail to fill the space. While it's hilarious to look back on those passages, I can see how I swapped my true voice for one I "thought" I should have. My teenage journals illustrate how much pressure I felt to be someone before I even knew who I was. My writing was forced and fluffy, not my authentic voice at all, and I grew tired of working so hard just to fill the pages.
And so, I barely journaled in college. Then, one year after graduation, I married my college sweetheart and started working in advertising. Hours of dry, business writing by day left little time (or desire) for journaling. My writing voice completely disappeared.
But...a funny thing happened after 17 years of marriage, three kids and several careers: that honest little girl inside me began to stir. I thought back to what it felt like to speak without hesitation, observing everything around me with honesty and clarity. I remembered what it felt like to feel unique without trying. And on my 40th birthday, I decided I'd go back to writing, because if there was ever a time I needed an ego boost, this was it. I started writing again, always with honesty, and I haven't looked back.
And thinking back, my grandmother never corrected me or discouraged my honest observations. Instead, she encouraged them. "You've got a funny take on the world," she'd say, always, always laughing.
"I do? Why's that?" I'd ask. I never felt funny, though she always looked at me like she wanted to figure out my thought process.
"You're just not afraid to say things," she'd say.
And to this day, I'm still not sure why so many people are.
If you want to find your voice, I have a strong feeling you're on your way. And whatever you do, promise me three things:
1. Don't overthink it.
2. Just write.
3. Let me know how it goes in the comments below.
You can do this. You really can.
Type your email address in the box and click the "create subscription" button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.