Learning to trust your own voice, and even to hear it, is just as important as learning the technical skills of writing. Maybe even more important. A piece of writing can be well crafted and even eloquent and still ring hollow.
Theo Pauline Nestor
When I am not teaching Writing Women’s Lives™ classes, I can be found at Randolph College teaching undergraduate students creative writing. One of my students dropped by my office recently. She wanted input on revisions for a work in progress. After we discussed strategies for teasing out the emotional center of her protagonist’s inner conflict, she shoved her folder into her oversized striped tote, shook her head, and commented about how many “good” writers were in her classes. I sensed a whiff of doubt about her own writing, so I asked her what she meant.
“They have such strong voices,” she said, leaning back in her chair.
“What about your unique voice?” I mentioned her knack for word play, her mind’s delightful, associative leaps.
“But they have such big vocabularies,” she said. “Shouldn’t I try to find better words?”
This student is smart and inquisitive. She possesses an infectious love of language, a dazzling way with coining unlikely rhymes.
“No!” She drew back at the force of my answer as I plowed an invisible pile of “big vocabulary” aside with both my hands.
When I was this student’s age, nearly three decades ago, I was in an undergraduate creative writing class taught by a famous novelist professor who wore tweed jackets and a trim red beard. He told me in front of the entire class that my fledging story did not have a voice. You could have all the energy of Tolstoy, he said, flapping my manuscript, but if you don’t have a voice—he shook his head—you’re not a writer.
“Your voice is unique,” I said to the student in my office, her eyes now wide. “No one else on the planet thinks like you think or perceives experience the way you do. No one else writes the way you write. No one else has your voice.”
I left that tweed professor’s classroom all those years ago convinced that I did not have a voice. Thus began my quest to “find my voice,” which led me to the work of Carol Gilligan, a professor at Harvard whose book In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Harvard University Press, 1982) draws direct correlations between adolescent girls’ physical development and the silencing of their voices. Gilligan discovered that at the same time that an adolescent girl is developing breasts and beginning to menstruate, she begins to lose her sense of self, which is to say, her voice. Twenty years later Gilligan illustrated this phenomenon with an anecdote she refers to as “The Pizza Story”:
Ask an 11-year-old girl what she wants on her pizza and she’ll say, ‘Peppers and onions.’ Ask a 13-year-old girl what she wants on her pizza and she’ll say, ‘I don’t know.’ Ask a 15-year-old girl what she wants on her pizza and she’ll say, ‘Whatever you want.’ (You can see Carol Gilligan tell “The Pizza Story” in a short clip from the documentary Tomboys! in the video below.)
When I share “The Pizza Story” with my Writing Women’s Lives™ students and clients, they grow eerily quiet. It doesn’t matter if they are in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, or seventies, whether they are aspiring writers or published authors, academic scholars or recent MFA graduates—we women recognize our adolescent selves in “The Pizza Story.”
Of course I recognized my younger self in my creative writing student, who stared at me with fixed eyes, clutching her striped tote, as I pleaded with her to trust her voice. Perhaps pleaded is the wrong word. Perhaps I only felt like I was pleading, desperate to protect her from the emotional pain and the attendant writing struggle that comes from doubting your voice. The debilitating silence—not to mention hollow writing—that ensues.
I explained, in a nutshell, how we girls go through a very real conditioning of silence at adolescence, and that our job as writers is to free ourselves from the self-doubt and criticism that keeps our writing small and tentative. “The more you write and revise your writing, the stronger your voice will get.” She narrowed her eyes. “It’s not about vocabulary,” I said. “It’s about learning your craft on the one hand and about becoming conscious of who you are on the other. Your voice is who you are on the page.”
Behind my composed exterior—a hint of mascara, a dash of powdered blush—my heart was hurting. This young woman was a generation younger than me. Yet here she was facing the same doubts about writing—not trusting her voice—that generations of women have faced before her.
“No more comparing your work to others,” I said, “Okay?”
She curled her lips and nodded. I could see her thinking. She cocked her head and said, “I’m gonna come back here soon.”
“Good,” I said.
She stood and flung her tote over her shoulder.
“Keep writing,” I said, as she headed out the door. “And trust your voice,” I yelled after her as she rounded the corner.
She yelled back, “I will!” Her voice echoed in the cavernous, high-ceilinged hallway.
Every woman who writes has her own “voice” story to tell, that crossroad in time when she became aware of her writing as her means of rescuing herself from silence. It occurred to me later that my young student walked out of my office that day with a different voice story than the one I’d left the tweed professor’s classroom with a generation earlier. Are our voice stories related? Inextricably. But I like the way hers echoes off the walls of what was once a women’s college: “I will!”
As for pizza? Make mine a gluten-free white pizza with organic ricotta, mozzarella, and fresh basil.
And, for all our sakes, trust your voice.
P.S. What’s your voice story? Please share it in the comments below. And, while you’re at it, how do you take your pizza?