After Maya Angelou’s death a few days ago, I heard the replay of radio interview from 1986. She talked about how she became mute after she was raped as an eight-year-old child. She did not need to say anything else about how the rape traumatized her. To know that she chose to cloak herself in silence for years after the rape tells us how much the rape wounded her spirit. She revealed that as an adult, when something had upset her deeply, she was still drawn to protect herself again with that same silence. In other words, she wanted to hide her vulnerability by silencing her very voice.
After hearing this, I wondered how choosing not to speak helped her. I think that she must have silenced her physical voice as a way to strengthen her inner voice; that as a child she knew instinctively that giving physical voice to the voice within means letting people know you. Your inner voice, after all, is what makes you who you are. When so much had been taken from her already, she was not willing to share that part of herself with anyone. The only way to keep it safe was silence. If one is going to survive in a world where a man will rape an eight-year-old, then one must make sure the inner voice is strong and sure and can not be taken away no matter what.
Angelou explained that she strengthened her inner voice by listening. She took in all the sounds in the world around her – sounds of work and sounds of play, speaking voices and voices raised in prayer, voices making music, instruments making music, sounds of joy and sounds of grief.
She did not just hear these sounds. She absorbed them into her being, resulting in her amazing speaking voice. But she also “listened” to words another way – through reading. She loved poetry. She copied it out of books. She read it as a form of companionship during her long self-imposed silence and she memorized it. But she never spoke it aloud until a beloved teacher convinced her to try when she was about 11 years old. The beauty of the poetry coming from her own lips broke the silence. She began to speak again.
She was strong enough to share her inner voice too, because she had been given access to the innermost thoughts of others through poetry. She had felt the deep connection one can feel to others’ hearts and souls simply by reading the words they wrote. She realized that just as she had been moved to tears of sorrow, and of joy, by other people’s words, they also could grieve and rejoice with her if she shared her words with them. When she freed her voice it grew powerful enough to move and inspire millions.
As a writer, this strikes a chord with me because most writers want to affect readers in the meaningful way that Angelou did. And, of course, writers are often known for their voice. Editors and publishers, we are told, want writers with a distinctive voice. We are advised that to be successful, we must have a strong voice. What does this really mean?
I think that in writing, as in life, the voice within wells up from the subconscious. We can try to develop a certain voice in our writing as if it is the same thing as tone or style. But it is neither of those.
A writer’s voice, I believe, is that same private voice that Angelou protected with her silence. Just as she strengthened hers by listening and reading, writers can strengthen theirs in a variety of ways. But, here’s the tricky part, a lot of that work happens without our really knowing it. In order to write with an authentic voice, writers need to spend some time really getting to really know themselves.
A writer of fiction will not write about herself, but her selfness will always be in the story. It is what makes fiction authentic even though it is not a true story. A poet may write about himself, or about a bird, or a car, but the poet’s selfness is always there in the poem. Your voice as a writer is the part of you that is reflected in the writing even though you are not in the poem, short story, or novel. It is your essence giving heart and soul to whatever you are writing.
Sometime writers work so hard on the craft of writing that they lose their voices. They judge, criticize, refine and revise too soon. Their authentic voices are lost before they have a chance to emerge. Many would-be writers give up because of this.
My advice is to take Ray Bradbury’s advice when it comes to writing: “Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.”
Instead of searching for your voice, trust that it is there. Because it is. It is the ineffable thing that is filling you up inside as your heart beats madly and you hope against hope that your fragile, new found wings wing will keep you from falling.
As you learn to take flight, look around. You might just see me flapping my wings wildy trying to stay air bound yet again. See you in the sky!
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