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

Open letter to folks who knew me when.

It’s 2014. The last tired days of 2014. I am no longer that soft, biddable girl you knew. I am no longer willing to go along to get along. I will no longer laugh if, when I’m at the water fountain, you tell me I can’t drink there because it’s whites only. I will no longer bite my tongue when you tell me Mick Jagger would be better looking without his nasty nigger lips. I will no longer bow my head at your command as if I owe you the freedom to touch my hair. I will no longer waste my breath educating you when you ask me why, if I wash regularly, my skin is still so dark.

It’s 2014. It’s 2014, and we are all grown up now. And I have grown into a woman who speaks when she has words, who believes in the value of that speech and refuses to clog her throat choking down all the things she’d like to say. I have grown into a woman who won’t let her voice be taken. I will say what is in my mind, what is in my heart, what is burning through the lining of my stomach after so many years of holding my tongue to make nice.

It’s 2014, and I am tired. More tired than 52 years warrants, tired like almost 400 years of rape and murder, like 400 years of holding my tongue, swallowing my truth, waiting my turn, waiting for the society I live in to finally-and-for-all accept that I am here, that I am who this history has made me and who I have made myself, that I am worthy, that I can think, that I have a heart full of love, that I am beautiful, that I’m not going anywhere.

It’s 2014, and I am not going anywhere. I won’t be put down, I won’t be made small. I will take up every inch of the space that I need. And then I will take the inches and feet and miles of space that I want.

Michael Brown is dead, and I can’t change that. Darren Wilson will never have to pay for killing Michael Brown, and I can’t change that. But I can honor Michael Brown, I can honor Tarika Wilson, Eric Garner, Eleanor Bumpurs, Ramarley Graham, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Kimani Gray, Oscar Grant, Yvette Smith, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo. I can honor all of those lost by being here, by opening my mouth, by saying their names, by remembering, by taking up space, by being the truth of the Angry Black Woman. Because I am angry, angrier than I am tired, angrier than I am sad. I am angry, and you don’t know me angry. You only know my smile, my shyness, my willingness to let you be right, to let you go first.

It’s 2014, and that girl doesn’t live here anymore.