Speak Up. I Can’t Hear You.

During a figure skating competition, an announcer said that
one of the skaters had finally found her voice on the ice. That resonated with me. I talk to my writing students about finding their voice on the page, the thing that distinguishes each of them from other writers. But accepting that voice is something else altogether.

I was ghostwriting a celebrity memoir for a British Royal
and she was distressed when I submitted some pages to her. I’d listened carefully to her voice on tape and I thought I’d done a good job of recreating it on the page.

“What don’t you like?” I asked.

“It sounds just like me,” she said.

“Is that a problem?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said, “because I don’t like how I sound.”

If we want to feel safe and good about ourselves, we have to find the courage and commitment to accept who we are and how we sound. A friend was talking to me in confidence about how someone was treating her. She started with, “I’m not going to say this to her, but. . .  

“Why not?” I asked her. Why not speak up to the woman who hurt her and tell her how she felt? As women, we’ve been programmed since we were little girls to keep our mouths shut and swallow our feelings. I was blessed to spend time with the late actress, Olympia Dukakis, who dedicated her later life to helping women find their voices and break the silence that had plagued us for eons. She  ran workshops and used herself as the model to laugh, cry, scream and claim her space in a world that had tried to silence women for eons.  

It takes courage and the commitment to stand up for our opinions and ideas, but if we don’t speak for ourselves, no one else will. There is a classic letter written by modern dance innovator Martha Graham to a young Agnes De Mille who was just beginning her career in choreography. I paraphrase:

“There is only one of you and your expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist. The world will not have it. It isn’t your business to determine how good it is. You just need to keep the channel open.
No artist is pleased but there is a blessed unrest that keep us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

When I was in my early twenties, I had an acting career and I remember the first movie I made. We had just finished filming an important scene and I felt pretty good about it – until I heard the sound playback. I didn’t recognize my voice and I didn’t like it. In fact, I expected to get fired but nobody else had a negative reaction. I had to learn to accept my voice the way it sounded, in the same way we have to accept our bodies. These bodies take us where we want to go and they give us the energy to get there.
Our voices are the same. When we find a way to accept what we have to say instead of judging how we sound, we’ll feel grateful to be able to speak at all.

When I began to stand up for myself, I was afraid people
wouldn’t like me. It seemed like the unpopular route to take and often it was. At first I was harsh and demanding. I didn’t know how to speak up in a kind and compassionate way. But when I got used to being there for myself, the pendulum swung back into what Buddhists call “the middle way,” I learned to say my piece
without causing distress to other people but it was worth it as I became more comfortable in my own skin. Sometimes you just have to take a risk and put it all out there.

When I tell the truth to my students in a loving and encouraging way, they feel inspired by my suggestions and they trust me when I
give them praise. So sing your song, play your instrument, paint your picture, write from your heart and tell the truth when you speak. Strengthen that muscle. Be there for yourself and become a truth teller. When I stopped ghostwriting, I had picked up some bad
habits. I was writing too fast and I was using unfamiliar phrases. I thought I didn’t like my writing, but what I really didn’t like was that it didn’t sound like me. When I slowed down and thought about who I was and how I actually spoke, when I let it flow and didn’t judge or compare myself to anyone else, I reclaimed my voice and I loved it, simply because it was mine.