Finding Your Own Voice

Guest blog by T. J. Banks

If you write -- seriously write, with all your soul and with all your heart -- you can't avoid what writer Mary Kay Blakely calls the "treks into the white space of solitude." Writing forces me to sit at my desk for a number of hours in the morning, trying to rough out that tricky scene in the latest novel or story, that idea that's still taking shape for a new column or essay. There are a lot of times when my muse is talking in my good ear and the writing just flows; and there are a lot of times when I find myself staring out the window at my herbs and flowers and nothing comes together, no matter how I try to force it. Indeed, the more I do that, the less I come up with -- unless, of course, you want to count all the cross-outs and the little penned arrows that end up pointing nowhere on the page.

But during these often frustrating sessions with self, I've learned how important silence is if, as Brenda Ueland puts it in her spirited book If You Want to Write, my characters are to "come fully to life in [my] imagination" and if I am to "objectively and accurately, tell just how they looked and what they did....[so]it will be believed." Writing with that kind of honesty and feeling, writing so that my true self comes out in my work, forces me to keep making those treks into the white space of my solitude.

The same holds true in a different way in our day-to-day lives, in all our dealings with the non-fictional characters who wander in and out of those lives. All of us, but women in particular, tend to get lost in our various roles. We tangle ourselves up in our work and personal relationships and forget who we are, what we're striving for, and how much of ourselves we're willing to give away piecemeal.

Like Halo Spear, the intelligent, vibrant young woman who is writer Vance Weston's mentor and lover in Edith Wharton's novels Hudson River Bracketed and The Gods Arrive, we become dependent on people without meaning to, subsumed into their lives. And, like Halo, we have to force ourselves to break free: it's so much easier when we let other people tell us what we want or what we're feeling, play passive (which is, come to think of it, a lot like playing possum), and keep repeating like some mindless litany, "I am So-and-so's wife/lover/mother/daughter." And it's what "They" want, anyhow, right? But to make that break -- that soul- and life-saving break -- we need, in the words of Barbara Lazear Ascher, "to find and sing our own song, to stretch our limbs and shake them in a dance so wild that nothing can roost there that stirs the yearning for solitary discover that we are capable of solitary joy and having experienced it, know that we have touched the core of self." To do all this, we have to fight the inner and outer forces that pull us in every posssible direction and away from -- I love this metaphor that Martha Beck uses in her latest book -- finding our own North Stars. "You cannot find your own true path by locking on to someone else's North Star, " she observes. "No one but you has the ability to find your own North Star, and no one but you has the power to keep you from finding it."

"Finding" is the key word here. I like finding things -- people, animals, a book or a piece of music that speaks to me, a wobbly-legged toy lab that I cherished as a child. They have an unexpected magic about them. And if they're things I've lost and found again, they're doubly precious for that reason. The same is true when we shake off the cobwebs of other people's beliefs about us and our lives and find ourselves again. Re-discovering our own voices in writing or in anything else is a long often painful process. It requires a lot of listening to ourselves. It also requires a lot of honesty. Ueland argues that "by writing, you will learn more and more to be free, to say all you think; and at the same time you will learn never to lie to yourself, never to pretend and attitudinize." Each of us needs to free that true self, she reminds us, because it is her "immortal soul and the life of the Spirit."

As a writer, I find those words reinforcing, energizing. They remind me of the need to write what I believe in and to write about it as I honestly see it, not as someone else tells me I should see it. They remind me not to be afriad of solitude or of looking inward. They remind me to listen to that inner voice and to be my own writer and woman, well at ease, not a person who lives as though she is merely an extension of someone else, a shadowy presence who ceases to exist when alone.

And even when I'm not trying to work out a story or a column in my head or on paper-- even when I'm just going about the business of living -- those are good things to be reminded of. I like keeping sight of my own North Star.