Developing a Voice

What does it mean to have a voice, other than in strictly physiological terms? In counseling, we use this phrase, or a near cousin, quite often in abuse recovery work. We speak of finding your voice, using your voice.

In writing, we talk about voice in the sense of having a unique tone or style that distinguishes it from other writers or one project from another. If everyone had to write in a flippant, smart-alecky voice or a somber, morose tone then soon all books would merge into one indistinguishable blob, and the art of the writing would be lost. It would be like every painter being forced to use only shades of blue.

I’ve pondered this idea of voice a great deal since I started thinking about constructing a blog. Developing a voice, and a unique one at that, is about learning to express yourself, finding what it is you want to/need to say, and speaking it as authentically as you can. Part of the process is getting over the fear of speaking and/or writing.

So what is the fear—or more accurately, what is MY fear? (Or fears…mine are numerous.) The biggest fear is that there is nothing inside me worth saying or that others would find worth listening to. I think for those of us raised in abusive homes or who have been tormented or tortured, we come to believe this is the truth because we are told it is so—if not in direct terms then in indirect ways. Our words, our objections, our cries are ignored as if we weren’t even speaking. Or we are told we are stupid or worthless. If I am stupid or worthless, then my thoughts are stupid or worthless, so what would be the point of speaking them except to prove it?

Another fear is making a mistake or lots of them. There is a Jewish proverb that says, “In a multitude of words, transgression is unavoidable.” So if I write, it’s going to happen, but making mistakes is a frightening thing to those raised in abuse. A wrong word, a wrong look can bring punishment, swift and painful. So why risk it? Because it is one way of taking back control of our lives, something we lose in abuse. For me, a way of safely flipping off my abusers. I can make mistakes now, and it won’t end me. In fact, every mistake I make is one more piece of evidence that I have my life back. I can screw up and survive. I can say stupid things and correct them later or apologize. I can learn from mistakes and grow.

The third fear is breaking the rule of “Don’t tell.” Or else. I’m still a little shaky on this one. This is the “irrational” fear I mentioned a few blogs ago. It seems to me almost all abuse carries this edict. If the threats are not explicit, they are there in the body language, the brute force, the hiding behind closed doors, “this is our secret”. Abuse thrives in such secrecy, “telling” exposes it. I’m taking the risk and standing up to this fear, partly to prove to myself that the oppression has ended. I am free. As free as I will allow myself to be.

The last fear I’ll mention is the vulnerability of using my voice. It’s vulnerable because it exposes my inner self, and what if I lay my true self out there and I get rejected? Having a persona rejected is not nearly so painful because, well, it’s not really me. Ironically, I’m writing under a pseudonym, which is kind of like hiding behind a false self, but the truth is, I’m more honest here than in most of my life where people can see my face.

In writing novels or stories, vulnerability is essential. I’ve had to push myself in my novels not to use the “safe” terms or edge around an issue. If I’m going to write, I want to write honestly, authentically. I don’t expose everything, that would be unwise, but I push myself as close to the edge as I can. This is another part of taking my life back.

One last thing. Part of using my voice is speaking for those who do not yet have one or who are not in a safe place to use it. When I wrote my Azora’s Castle novella, it really connected with some people in Egypt. The story is about a little girl’s isolation. I had no idea when I wrote it that it would speak to a culture where many live in fear and isolation due to an oppressive social structure. In exposing my feelings through this character, it exposed the feelings in others, and then offered hope as Azora overcame her fears and learned to connect. My writing is not only life-giving and cathartic for me, it can be for others as well. At least, that is my hope.

So I’m testing my voice here, strengthening those vocal chords. And I invite you, if it is safe for you to do so, to join me. If it is not yet safe, I pray I may speak words on your behalf that bring life to your soul.

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