Euphonious Exhortations

My voice is having one of its moments. These come around from time to time. This week I’ve been told not once, not twice, but five times that my voice … “has something.” This morning, I gave a family directions on the subway and both the mom and a random person who overheard me commented on how pretty and comforting my voice is. The homeless man I gave my half sandwich to in Grand Central Market yesterday said I sounded like a fairy godmother. A friend who wants to work with me on a film project hopes I’ll do some narration because I have a good voice. And the young woman who sells me my iced chai every morning told me on Monday that I talk like I’m singing.

I’ve had that last before. A woman once asked if I was a jazz singer because she said my voice sounded like I should be. A coworker once told me I should record bedtime stories because my voice is soothing. A friend’s baby sister told me I could scold her and it wouldn’t feel like scolding because I said everything “in a warm tone.”

It’s not always cute and sweet, however, the reactions to my voice. A man who was trying to date me (quite unsuccessfully, as this will illustrate) insisted I had to be faking my voice, that there was no way I could look like me and have this voice. Clearly, I have a face and figure made for radio! Another man said I should do audio porn, that my “Snow White sound” would make sexy text that much more titillating. Yup.

My voice is fine. It has probably gotten better with time. It certainly used to be glass-shatteringly high. My students used to tease me by repeating my instructions to one another in squeaky mouse voices. I don’t know that I really sounded that awful, but my voice is high. My dream of a Lauren Bacall or Kathleen Turner deep sexiness will never come true, but my voice is fine. Like I said, better with time. I’ve come to terms with it. I think of it the way I think of my face, thoughts perfectly articulated by this limerick:

As a beauty I’m not a star,
There are others more handsome by far.
But my face, I don’t mind it
For I am behind it.
It’s the people in front that I jar.*

I don’t think anyone is particularly horrified by the sight of my face. Certainly, the whole of me has elicited startled responses, but that’s generally about racism, and those folks can’t actually see my face. I’m not always aware of the reactions people have to my face, but reactions to my voice are much more noticeable. I can hear the change in other people’s voices when I’m on the phone, can see people turn and look when I’m out and about. And, of course, there are the folks who just tell me.

I like to say it doesn’t matter, that it’s just how I talk. I know I’m lying, however. I know how I respond to certain voices. And there would be no way to count the number of times I’ve successfully used my voice to impact a situation. It matters. And that seems so unfair. We can’t help the voices we wind up with. Yes, there are classes that teach people to sound different, but why should anyone have to take those classes when they already come equipped with perfectly serviceable voices?

I can’t change that random inequity. But I suppose I can try to use my gift for good, right? What does that mean? Well, maybe it means my friend with the film project is on the right track. That baby who told me that my scolding her didn’t feel like scolding because of my dreamy, “warm tone,” was the clue. Instead of only writing my anger, maybe it’s time to put my voice to it, time to start telling people all the ways they need to step up, just how they can straighten up and fly right, just how fiercely they can work at being anti-racist, at dismantling the structures of racism that are destroying us all.

Let me just clear my throat.

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* This limerick credited both to Woodrow Wilson and a poet I never heard of named Anthony Euwer. I have no idea whose poem it actually is, but I am choosing to believe it is Euwer’s poem and that Wilson was known to recite it (I’ve seen two different stories of people saying Wilson recited it for them).


Sending a warm thank you to my friend Lisa at satsumabug.com. Her decision to start making space for short-but-with-a-whole-arc musings was a good push for me. My essays of late have been getting longer and longer and longer … so long that I cannot find my way to the end and so have nothing to post on this blog. So I’m going to try writing shorter pieces, no more than 1,000 words, and see if I can’t get through some of the topics on my pages-long list of essay ideas! If this works, I may catch up with my #52essays challenge by year’s end!

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In My Own Voice

Many years ago, a friend gave me a copy of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. I love this book. I read it and was so delighted, I had to immediately read it again. The friend who gave me the book told me she liked it because Jerome wrote the way I told stories. That was definitely one of the greatest compliments I’d ever been given, but it also got me thinking.

She said he wrote the way I spoke, not the way I wrote. Important distinction. Because at that time I most definitely didn’t write in my voice. I don’t know whose voice I was using, but it definitely wasn’t mine. I read through my old journals and read my old stories, and sometimes I really have to cringe. Oh, in this one I’m clearly heavily influenced by James Simon Kunen (The Strawberry Statement). In this one I’m trying to be Norton Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth). And here I’m trying on a little Toni Cade Bambara (Gorilla, My Love). Anyone’s voice had to be better than mine, right? I was just plain old me. Those other voices belonged to “real” writers. So, if I could write like them, I would sound like a real writer, too.

In truth, I don’t think I speak or write anything like Jerome K. Jerome. But I still love the compliment. And I love it not only because I love Jerome’s book, but because being pushed to see and acknowledge the extreme disconnect between the way I spoke and the way I chose to put words on the page was so important for me.

Realizing that I wasn’t myself on the page was eye-opening, but wasn’t easy to fix. I had to learn to hear myself, had to learn what tools I like to use for writing, had to learn to be still and quiet and let the words come. And I had to accept — and had to believe — that other writers’ voices weren’t the ticket to my becoming a “real” writer.

I still fall in love with the voices of writers who move me … but I don’t assume them, don’t suddenly find my stories sounding suspiciously like whatever book I’ve just finished.

Today, I write like myself. So much so that sometimes it’s hard to shut up long enough to hear the way my characters need to express themselves. I like that my voice is so very much mine, that it is clear and distinctive enough that people can recognize me on the page. It’s taken me a long time to get here. And , as much as I’ve enjoyed the ride, I’m so glad to have arrived.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

SOL image 2014

Silence Broken

Tonight I went to the New York launch of Lisa Factora-Borchers’ anthology, Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence. There was a great introduction/process description and reading — including a recording sent from Belgium — and a Q&A.  My time and my calendar said I shouldn’t go, couldn’t go, but I had to ignore them.  And I’m so very glad I did.   I haven’t read this book yet, but I’m going to say that all of us should.  This is a conversation we need to be having, work we need to be doing.  I’m so grateful to Lisa and all of the writers in the anthology who were brave enough to share their stories, and I’m grateful to the women in the audience who stepped up with the same bravery during the discussion afterward.

Tonight’s Arun.  It didn’t quite do what I wanted, but I felt less hampered that single-syllable line tonight.  Not sure why that might have been true. The Poetic Asides writing prompt for the day is to write a message poem. And so:

Girl,
your voice —
broken-glass
nails on chalkboard —
needles through my brain.
You
have words
no one wants.
Words that open
doors, that open wounds,
fly
in faces,
tell the truth:
lifting all boats
from pain to praisesong.

natpoetrymonth1

__________

An Arun is a 15-line poem with the syllable count 1/2/3/4/5 — 3x.  It may be a new thing in the world, made up by me last year.  “Arun” means “five” in Yoruba.

What do we want? A blog post! When do we want it? NOW!

You know.  Or something.

So Thursday was the big day, the rally in City Hall Park to protest the Mayor’s proposal to eliminate all city funding for adult education programming.  Students and staff from my program pleased and impressed the mess out of me by showing up in force to show their opposition to the cut.  We had close to a hundred people attend the rally, and students had worked hard on making lots and lots of posters and practicing chants.

One of my favorite signs was thought up by Jie, one of the teens in my class:

One Cut, Many Scars

 He struggled to get the idea of slogans for rally posters.  We brainstormed as a class, and Jie couldn’t see it, couldn’t understand why we didn’t just write the same things on the posters that we’d written in our letters to the City Council.  Finally, after saying again and again that he didn’t get it, he sat and wrote for about five minutes … and produced five of our strongest slogans!

Here are some of the photos from the rally¹:

 

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Now we just have to hope the City Council comes through for us and restores adult education funding!  We might not know until the end of the month, and that’s just a really long time to be holding our breath.

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¹   Photo credits to me and NP, one of our teachers

SOL: This Is It

Oh come on, you know you want to be singing the song.

I went and stood in line this morning, trying hard to keep the big ol’ face-splitting smile on low.  How lovely was it to be voting in a predominantly black neighborhood today?

  • To see all those shades of the Diasporan rainbow coming out to cast their ballots.
  • To walk up to the school with a little group of elderly ladies who were glowing with the pleasure of getting to vote today.
  • To see everyone in such a great mood, chatting and laughing and, in one funny case, dancing in their joy of this day.
  • To see people taking their children into the booths.
  • To see one girl give her mother a big, exuberant hug when they came through the curtain.
  • To hear a little girl announce as she and her mom walked away from the booth, “I pulled it all by myself!”
  • To see so many very young, very new voters standing tall in line.
  • To see so many elderly African Americans making their way into the booths with canes, with walkers, with caregivers’ supporting arms.  “I wouldn’t have missed this for anything,” one woman told me.
  • My favorite was seeing a black man, maybe in his early 50s, step into the booth.  We heard that big lever slide over, heard the clicks of the small levers, and then we heard him shout “WooHoo!” as he pulled the big lever back and stepped out of the booth with a smile.

This has been a beautiful, emotional, ecstatic day.  I teared up many times, but my joy held the crying at bay.

Dig this:

vote

I haven’t cried yet, but I can feel it coming.  When this thing is called …