My Written Voice

“And when my voice is silenced in death,

My song will speak in your living heart.”  From “My Song,” by Tagore.

For my seventh birthday, my first stepfather, Myron, gave me a large, hard-backed journal with blank pages.  The covers were dark brown and patterned to resemble walnut wood, and the pages were white, empty, and waiting.  I accepted the book solemnly, understanding even then that receiving such a gift was not without obligation—the pages would need to be filled, and it would fall to me to populate them.

Myron didn’t just give me the tools without providing some instructions.  When it suited him, Myron wove long, detailed yarns for me about mythical creatures, enchanted forests, and of course, princesses; my favourite character of Myron’s creation was Princess Luleela, a tomboyish young heroine who rode a flying horse with angel-like wings.  Myron had a wide social circle, and it was through Myron that I met Iris, my very first best friend.  Together Iris and I spent innumerable hours toiling over the creation of our own mythological encyclopaedia; each entry called for a thorough description of the goddess or god in question, accompanied by an illustration.  Our finished reference work—written by two seven-year olds– contained at least forty pages, and left few well-known deities unmentioned.

During my third grade year, when I was eight, my family lived in a rambling white farmhouse on a steep hill.  To get to school, I needed to catch the big yellow school bus that came lumbering down the dirt road early in the morning.  I disliked school, preferring to spend the days up the tree outside our kitchen with a notebook, scribbling away, or with a book, immersed in another reality.  I was ten when my writing was published in ink for the first time.  By that time, Myron had left for greyer pastures—he had driven his VW camper van right out of Vermont and into Brooklyn—and my mom, single again, had moved us into the village, to a teeny house that bordered one of the town cemeteries.  The summer before I entered fifth grade, I indulged my powerful crush on Harrison Ford by seeing “Star Wars” several times during its long tenure at the town movie theatre over the school holidays.  When my fifth grade teacher announced that the local newspaper was holding a writing competition for schoolchildren, and that the best entry of a sequel to “Star Wars” would be published, I set earnestly to work.  My sequel won.  The editor of the newspaper, bless him, cut nothing; my story spanned several columns on one page, and was continued on another page.  To add glory to honour, I received a prize cheque for five dollars.

The year following, I briefly pursued journalism by setting up a newspaper office at home.  The distribution centre—where the finished “newspaper” was placed– was at the foot of the fully-finished staircase that led, paradoxically, to the trap door to the attic.  I assigned features to my brother and sister, and we held several planning meetings on the staircase.  After two or three issues, the staff’s motivation fizzled out, and we returned to playing “War” in the living room.

I started taking flute lessons at twelve, and throughout junior high and high school, music was my primary creative outlet.  Either my flute teacher or my band director must have told me at some point to practice for thirty minutes a day, because I kept to that regime at least three times a week for six years, becoming habituated to a measure of self-discipline.  I continued to write, but mostly for school.  Although I attended a regional state school in a small town in Vermont, many of my teachers were not content with acceptable work and pushed me towards excellence.  One English teacher in particular set the bar, it seemed at the time, ridiculously high; she required that each student read over two hundred pages of non-fiction per week, and she demanded well-written summaries of every book finished.  I grumbled—we all did– but her high standards helped to hone my critical reading and writing skills.

My letter-writing years began at eighteen, the year after my graduation from high school, when I followed my true love to Sweden, but to the wrong side of the country.  My beloved had returned to his home on the west side of Sweden, and I was placed as an exchange student in Stockholm, on the east side.  A mixture of homesickness and lovesickness clobbered me like a piano falling from a third-story window; furious penning of missives to my family and my sweetheart was one of the few pursuits that eased the pain, and it had clear advantages over crying in phone booths.  I wrote to my boyfriend, to my best friend, to my family, to a friend I had made at the two-week Swedish language course that marked the beginning of my year abroad; I didn’t even wait for a response before starting a new letter.  I wrote by hand—imagine—and some of my letters were many pages long.

I enrolled in university, with no firm idea of what I wanted to study, upon my return to the States.  A small New York state college had offered me a place in their music education course, but after deliberation, I declined; I loved music, and I enjoyed teaching, but “music teacher” felt too confining for me.  During my first semester as an “undeclared” liberal arts major at a university in the Finger Lakes region of New York, I took a required introductory-level English course titled “Personal Essay,” taught by a slight, soft-spoken  professor with gold wire-rimmed glasses who introduced himself as “David” rather than “Professor Homes.”

“Don’t be afraid to choose something that you’re not even sure you can write about,” David encouraged us.  “Maybe you feel it’s too raw—it’s not.  It’s the events that inspire the most emotion that can also lead to the best writing.  You won’t be reading any of your work aloud.  Only I will read it, and I am a poet—we deal in emotion all the time.”

David’s comments on my first essay—a tentative warm-up piece—served as proof of his trustworthiness:  “Good work…  can you delve deeper next time?  I want you to make it all come alive for the reader.”  My second essay was less cautious, and David’s response was again encouraging.  Three papers in, I found my groove.  I chose a memory that still churned, and I wrote my way in to the centre.  I put myself so wholly in the memory that the present fell away, yet when I finished, not only did I return to the present, I came back to a better now, because I had journeyed not merely to the eye of the hurricane, but out the other side.  I discovered what all memoirists must know—once it is written, you can let it go.

I transferred, after only one term in New York, to the University of Vermont (UVM), where I narrowed my major down to English or French.  The English department at UVM emphasized reading over writing, but I did take one high-level English course called “Writing the New Yorker.”  The aim of the course—a seminar for fifteen students—was to produce a piece of writing that mimicked every style represented in that venerable publication: from a short humorous column to an essay, from a piece of poetry to a review.  My best work for the course was a “Talk of the Town”-style column describing my visit to an exhibition of animated dinosaurs that had briefly visited the Burlington Square Mall.  Of all the courses I took to fulfil the English major I finally settled on, only two engaged me so fully that I remember them now, more than twenty years later: “Writing the New Yorker” and “Introduction to Irish Literature.”

I left UVM with a BA in English and a French minor, a degree that qualified me for nothing in particular except graduate studies.  Rather than embark immediately on further education, I moved with my husband to Sweden and took a job as a telex operator with a company that imported shoes.  When my patience for sending faxes to China wore thin, I followed a good friend’s advice, and began teaching English to small groups of adults.  When my husband graduated with a degree in Civil Engineering, we resolved to return to the States.  By this time I was in my mid-twenties, and I felt I should be “making something” of my life, but I wasn’t sure what that something should be or how I should go about making it.  Writing brought me more satisfaction than music, but I knew that very few writers ever made a living writing, and that many more were never published at all.  I concluded that the only way to become a successful writer was to enrol in a graduate program for writers.  In one of the most notable examples of shooting myself in the foot of my adult life, I further reasoned that if my writing was not good enough for me to be accepted into one of the five best schools for writing in the country, then it wasn’t good enough for me to even remotely entertain writing as a future vocation.  That settled, I sent out applications to said five schools, and then waited anxiously.  One by one, the rejection letters arrived; after a few weeks, I had five.  That was it— writing could be a hobby, but it would never pay my bills.  I would need to choose a sensible profession, one that would guarantee me a job with a steady income.

After more deliberation, and a bit of research, I sent out several more graduate school applications, this time to universities offering Master’s degrees in Speech Therapy.  In contrast to the previous batch, the letters that arrived this time were all acceptance letters.  I accepted a place at a university in Boston, and assumed that my future as a professional speech therapist was secured.

While at graduate school, I carried on writing letters, but less and less frequently, as the internet was gradually making hand-written letters obsolete.  A good friend from the course solved the problem of my idle hand by presenting me with a compact black cardboard box, striped with gold, filled with eight striped blank books of handmade paper, for my birthday.  I had stopped keeping a diary long ago, as it seemed far too dangerous a pursuit, but the pages of these books demanded to be filled, just like the journal Myron had given me so long ago.  I puzzled out a method—I would write my diary entries in Swedish.  The foreign language, combined with my unique (and occasionally illegible) handwriting, would serve to deter any prospective readers should my diary be lost or untended.  And I set myself a goal—I would maintain a journal until all the pages in all eight books contained an entry.  I called on the discipline I had become accustomed to during my years playing the flute, and began to write again, penning an entry nearly every day, even if the entry was no more than a sentence.  Each book was small enough to carry with me, and I took to writing whenever I found myself with time and motivation: while waiting for public transportation or while eating lunch at a cafe, as well as the usual, in bed just before turning out the lights.  Even with frequent writing, the pages filled slowly, but after several months I was able to return the first book to the black and gold box and commence writing in the second book.

By the time I had reached the third book, my diary writing habit was firmly established, and days without entries felt incomplete.  Gradually I wrote my way through seven of the eight little books—the rose book with fuchsia stripes, the apple-green book with grass-green stripes, the sky-blue book with midnight-blue stripes, and so on—until, several years after I had received the box, I finally opened the last diminutive volume to its first blank page.  Only then did I start to wonder what would happen when I came to the last page of this last book.  Would I pat myself on the back for reaching my goal, and then wash my hands of journaling?  No; I recognized that the seed had taken root, but I worried that the size and beauty of my tiny journals may be essential to the growth of my identity as a diarist.  How would I find a suitable replacement for my now-beloved stripy books?

I needn’t have worried.  For Christmas, my sister in Brooklyn gave me a worthy successor, from the Chinese department store she occasionally visited: a small hardcover book, wrapped in beige silk fabric printed with images of women in kimonos, with detailing in maroon leather.  On each delicate page a spray of cherry blossoms whispered in the corner.  When the day came for me to put my eighth little diary in the black and gold box, I felt a fine sense of accomplishment, but there was no longer any question of abandoning the practice.

When our first child was born, in Sweden, my circle of readers expanded.  Today, a would-be blogger is spoilt for choice by free blogging sites, but at the time, blogs were still called web logs, and my husband spent hours building one for me so that I could easily share pictures and diary entries with my family and friends in the States.  The more public platform did not noticeably improve my writing (the first two years of online diary entries are monotonous at best, tedious at worst), but it served to accustom me to writing for a wider audience, rather than writing only for myself, as in my hand-written journals, or for one chosen reader, as in letters.  After our daughter was born, the kids’ blog developed more of a voice and became more readable, but it remained clearly a diary, rather than a crafted work.

Enter Facebook.  I joined the social networking site in 2007, and before long, I had connected, or re-connected, with scores of friends.  Facebook suited me.  I have often wondered if I would place somewhere on the autistic spectrum, were I to be tested; my lack of social graces indicates that the answer may well be yes.  Online socialization appealed to me as it both flattened and slowed down interaction; I could, and did, spend the length of my morning shower composing exactly the status update I wished to share.  A live conversation would fail miserably if the conversants insisted on twenty-minute pauses to crystallize their thoughts into words.  Facebook offered me the sensation of connection, but in a controlled environment.  I soon noted that what I wanted to say sometimes exceeded the status update character limit, and I started to write longer “notes”.  Friends read my miniature essays, and commented, and their encouragement spurred me to write more.  Slowly, my essays lengthened, until even the “note” format seemed confining.

I created a writing blog for myself, outside of Facebook, in 2009.  A few months later, I met my friend Brenda for coffee.  I knew Brenda wrote—I had read, and been moved by, several of her pieces.  Although Brenda was not a full-time author, writing was an integral element of her profession; when Brenda asked me, halfway through her latte, “So, Beth, what’s up with the writing?”  I blushed, and nearly choked on my tea.

“Oh… you mean my blog?  Well, um, I’m not really sure…” I stammered.

“Have you written in the past?”  Brenda continued.  “Is this what you want to do?”

“I… yes, I’ve written a bit, but not, you know, not seriously.  I mean, I’d like to write more, but I don’t think I would ever make any money doing it.”

“Are you sending any of your work out?”

The flush rose higher and intensified.  “Oh, no, no, I’m just writing for myself.  I don’t think my writing would really be published in print anywhere.”

“You could self-publish.  Some people do that.  I’ve been considering self-publishing… There are sites online; you can actually have a batch of twenty to thirty good-quality books bound for not too much money.”

“Really?  I’ve never heard of that…  Maybe, I don’t know, maybe when I have a more robust body of work.  But what about you,” I said, attempting to steer the conversation back to safer waters, “Were you thinking about pulling together some of your essays into a book?”

My discomfort subsided as we chatted about the book Brenda hoped to collaborate on with her brother, a keen photographer.  But after we said goodbye, Brenda’s questions—questions that I had been studiously avoiding asking myself— simmered in my mind.  Well before they reached the boiling point and demanded answers, however, I slammed the lid down, turned the heat off, and declared to myself, “What matters is not why I am writing, what matters is that I am writing at all.”

Several months and a few blog posts later, I was talking to my friend Joanna about a phone call I had made to another friend to iron out a disagreement.

“You actually called her?” Joanna said incredulously.  “I would not have called.”

“Well, I just couldn’t leave it like that.  I felt it was the best thing for me to say my piece, and for her to have a chance to tell her side of the story,” I explained.

“That was very brave.”

“Thank you, but I don’t think so… It was better than not calling, because now we know where we stand, and I prefer it that way.”

“I can see that.  As a writer, you probably needed a sense of closure,” Joanna mused.

As a writer.  Joanna, a well-read, intelligent, professional woman, had referred to me as “a writer.”  I was so taken aback, and so elated, that the rest of the conversation blurred.  If someone that I respected could label me a writer, then maybe writing was more than a lark for me; maybe writing had legs.

Joanna’s casual comment led me to ask myself how I could possibly transform writing from a well-loved hobby to a vocation.  My daughter had begged for, and received, a boxed set of fifteen books by a well-known children’s author for her birthday; her appetite for books far outpaced our supply.  Many of the books my daughter brought home from school were formulaic and simplistic.  I had a friend who had just finished a degree in illustration; she had produced a children’s picture book as her final project.  Eureka—I would write a children’s book, and my friend could illustrate it.

I picked dogs as my topic, and set about writing, blending personal anecdote with folklore and fact.  While the mix sounds good on paper, the writing was dry, and the factual bits hovered precariously close to plagiarism.  After a couple of months, I reached the word count recommended for books aimed at my chosen age group, nine to eleven year olds.  With trepidation, I sent the finished first draft to my mom.  My mom, who had spent most of her working life as an English teacher, had been reading my blog regularly, and she was my most vocal and consistent supporter.  But my mom calls a spade a spade, and when I asked for her opinion of my children’s book attempt, her hesitation gave the game away before she had even spoken.

“To be honest,” she started, and I smiled from the other side of the ocean, thinking that I had never harboured any suspicion that she would be anything but, “I don’t like it as much as I like your other essays.”

My “children’s books” soap bubble of hope popped instantly, and vanished as if it had never existed, leaving not even a shimmery film behind.  But I knew Mom was right, and one little sliver of me was glad that she had told me she didn’t like the dog book, because that meant that her belief in the quality of some of my other work was genuine.

“I mean, some of it was engaging, mostly the stories, but Beth, I don’t think that’s the kind of writing you’re meant to be doing.  Why did you write it again?”

“I wanted to write something that could maybe be published,” I said forlornly.  “And I know an illustrator, so I thought with pictures, it might stand a chance…”

“That’s right, you mentioned the artist, I remember now.  But you haven’t even tried to send out any other pieces from your blog…  Some of them would be much better candidates for publication.  You’ll never know until you try.”

“I don’t really have the time to try,” I said.

“So how were you going to send out the children’s book?” Mom asked.

“I was going to leave that to my friend, the illustrator.”

“Ah.  I haven’t read many children’s books lately… maybe there’s a market for this sort of work… but I think you should go back to what you’re best at.”

“You may have a point,” I conceded.

I called my friend Ellie, also an aspiring writer, the next day to share my dejection.

“My mom thought the dog piece was not up to snuff,” I confided.

“Oh, Beth, I’m sure it’s good,” Ellie countered.

“No, Mom didn’t think so, and she’s right.  It’s not.  I was just so desperate to figure out a way to make writing profitable.”

“Now, now, you can’t throw up your hands just because your mom doesn’t like it.  You have to get a second opinion!  Send it to me, I’ll read it, or better yet, because it’s a kids’ book, I’ll let Juliette read it.  She’s about the age you were targeting, yes?”

“Ellie, that’s so kind of you, but I really don’t think Juliette would want to take the time…  it’s rather long…”

“I insist.  I’ll be looking for it in my inbox.”

True to her word, Ellie gave the nascent book to her daughter, and Juliette sent me a lovely message, saying the writing was “great,” but suggesting I cut it down a bit and build on the fictional elements.  I thanked Juliette– and Ellie– warmly, but I knew, despite their kind efforts to buoy me, that the dog book was a sinking ship.

After brooding for a week or two on my failure to show promise as a children’s author, the drive to write overpowered the desire to sulk.  When the children had been kissed good night, I poured myself a cup of tea, took my place at the writing chair, and waited for words to present themselves to me, exactly as I had done countless nights before.  It didn’t matter that I was not suited to bring forth work to rival the Rainbow Fairies, or that my readership consisted almost exclusively of dear friends and family.  I would persevere regardless, jaws clamped shut like a terrier’s to the belief that if practicing the flute for thirty minutes a day for a few years meant that I could play Mozart passably, then writing for thirty minutes a day for several years must mean that I would eventually write something that would be worth reading, even by strangers.

One infrequent reader once commented that writing must be therapeutic for me.  I huffed around the house in righteous irritation for some days afterwards, wondering if the reader in question was insinuating that I would be better served paying someone to listen to the inner workings of my mind rather than exposing the process for all to see.  What made matters worse was that the reader was correct—writing is restorative, sometimes verging on cathartic, for me.  My reliance on the regular practice of capturing thoughts and emotion with written words is most noticeable during the Christmas season, when the demands of December impose a month-long writing hiatus.  The online comparative shopping, the Christmas cards to prepare, the extra evenings out—they all conspire to eat into that precious hour or two at the end of my day that I try to ring-fence for my habit.  My restiveness has increased with each passing year as my evening writing ritual has become more established, reaching nearly intolerable levels this past Christmas; denied my daily hour of introspection, I turned to the obsessive pursuit of perfect stocking fillers for the children, and became more short-tempered with each passing day of December.  The stocking fillers, painstakingly chosen, took less than five minutes to open and were forgotten by Boxing Day, but it took me a few weeks to deflate from December, rid myself of my annual materialist hangover, and return to my alleviative craft.

Memoir is among the heavyweights of writing as therapy, and constitutes much of what I write, but I dabble, picking out certain events rather than attempting to write a proper, chronological memoir that spans several years.  Two seemingly insurmountable obstacles stand in the way of writing a cohesive and continuous memoir; the first is pain, and the second is time.  I know, from experience, that it hurts to spend too much time among the ghosts of times past, and were I to write about the most vivid ghosts, I would not only be walking headlong into sorrow myself, I would also be dragging loved ones along, likely without their full consent.

Even if I were to determine that the cost is worth the reward, at my current level of output, it would take me at least four years to write 70,000 words, the word count of a typical book.  I read an article titled “The Art of Being Still” (New York Times, December 1st, 2012) just as the Christmas season was commencing.  The author, Silas House, opens with this paragraph:  “Many of the aspiring writers I know talk about writing more than they actually write. Instead of setting free the novel or short story or essay that is sizzling at the ends of their fingers, desperate to set fire to the world, they fret about writer’s block or about never having the time to write.”  Well, I can credit Mr. House with leading me, that evening, into the very trap he warns about.  Upon finishing the article, I leapt out of my chair and stormed off to find my husband, who was in the kitchen hanging laundry.

“I just read an article that says most wannabe writers don’t actually spend enough time writing,” I announced.

My husband was nonplussed.  “Mm-hmm,” he murmured, turning a collar right-side out.

“I mean, I try so hard to write every day, but some days I just can’t manage it, like now, when we have to decide what Wii game to get the kids for Christmas,” I moaned.

“I don’t think it really matters which Wii game you get, just pick one,” my husband said, attempting to be helpful.

“That’s not the point,” I quickly retorted.  “Even if I simplified the Christmas shopping, there are still nights that I don’t have time to write, like if I have to do menu planning, or if I need to order school uniform for the kids.  Not to mention that I should plan regular writing breaks so that we can watch TV together…  I think Mr House must have a lot of extra help,” I concluded.

“Maybe he does,” my husband said.  “Or maybe he never goes on Facebook.”

Touché.  I could not deny my social media habit—it ate a good thirty minutes each evening– but I justified time spent scanning the news feed and responding to comments as social activity.  Beyond that tenuous social engagement, more concrete forms of interaction also clambered for a share of the treasured evening hours: emails, instant messages, or phone calls to family and friends.  My husband, bless him, never complained, but I knew that too many evenings spent in separate rooms, looking at our own screens, could not be beneficial to our marital contentment.  Even if I were to completely shun the siren call of procrastination, and ignore the itch to communicate online or by phone, my active duty day job doesn’t end until just before nine o’clock at night when both kids have been tucked in.  By the time my reserve duty– tidying the kitchen and preparing for the following day– has been fulfilled, I have less than an hour of unbroken time before eleven, that magical bedtime that can make the difference between waking up as a human and waking up as an automaton.

Lack of time has not dissuaded me from writing.  What discourages me is methodical self-doubt, which starts at the top, with form, and works its way all the way down to the word level.  Take form: while some memoirists publish best-sellers, and some essayists write for large audiences, I remain convinced that the only true writers are writers of fictional novels (short story writers need not apply).  I consider it a personal failure that my writing is based on my approximation of reality, yet the mere idea of attempting to fabricate fills me with trepidation.  I am not skilled enough to create a story wholly alien to my background, but the thought of taking any factual element and using it as a springboard to invention seems like a very slippery slope.  Not to mention the prospect of living two parallel lives— my “real” life and the life of my characters.  My grip on sanity is feeble already; if I began to inhabit an alternate fictional world of my creation, how would I not succumb to madness?  Better to stick with memoir and essay, but then I disparage my work before it has even begun, as it is not proper writing (a fictional novel) at all.

At the sentence level, I repeatedly come up against my poor knowledge of grammar.  My ten-year old son, who has been studying grammar at school and has developed a particular interest in the subject, has started to correct my spoken grammar; if I were to let him loose on one of my blog pieces, I am sure he would find many grammatical errors requiring remediation.  He would not stop at that—he would undoubtedly suggest improvements to my vocabulary as well.  Yes, even at the word level, insecurity strikes.  Last year I read an essay collection, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (Penguin, 2000), by the wonderfully talented writer Anne Fadiman, and I was gobsmacked by the breadth and depth of her working vocabulary.  I would never be able to use the verb “balkanized” casually and appropriately, as Fadiman does a mere four pages into the book (“Marrying Libraries”).

Most debilitating of all, though, is the niggling feeling that my writing is a fluke.  My deepest anxiety is that I will run out of things to say, or that I will crash headlong into writer’s block and never recover.  Cheerleading helps; my audience has declined as my word counts have risen, but I still have a handful of devoted readers, and the certainty that they will read what I post, regardless of my assessment of the quality of the writing, incites me to keep working.  But praise, while it warms the cockles of my heart, is not what compels me to return to my writing chair.  What leads me to my laptop, night after night, is the powerful, bittersweet desire to speak with my written voice.

The year I met my husband, I often heard him speaking Swedish to a fellow Swedish exchange student.  I understood nothing of what they said to each other, but I observed subtle changes in my beloved when he spoke to his friend: his speech flowed more smoothly, and he laughed more readily.  When I later moved to Sweden and became proficient enough to follow conversations, the facets of my husband’s personality that had been hinted at the year prior became more visible.  As I gained fluency, I too developed a Swedish self, in addition to my American self.  But unlike my husband, who feels almost equally comfortable speaking English or Swedish, I could never lose my hesitancy when speaking Swedish; as a result, my Swedish persona always remained a shadow of my American persona.  I recall the sense of liberation I felt when some of my husband’s family came to the United States for our wedding and first heard me unapologetically speaking English; the subtext to every effortless sentence I uttered was, “This is me!  This is what I sound like when I really talk!  I am not that girl that stumbles over simple vocabulary; no, I am usually articulate!”

Greater facility with a spoken language made it possible for me to convey my personality more accurately in English than in Swedish, and similarly, skill using written language can allow an author to reveal more of herself in print than in conversation.  A dear, long-standing friend of mine, Brittany, delved into blogging a few months ago.  When she told me she had posted her first entry, I made the appropriate noises, but I didn’t jump straight on the computer.  After a few days, I remembered that I needed to see what Brittany had to say.  Her post had me in stitches after the first paragraph.  I was taken aback; I had been friends with Brittany for well over ten years, and while I know her to be a well-spoken woman who relishes a good laugh, still I would not have guessed that her writing would be so instantly engaging and wryly witty.  When I receive notifications of new posts on Brittany’s blog now, I hasten to the site, and with each entry I read, my mental picture of my friend gains further resolution.

I prefer writing to speaking.  Conversations move too quickly for me, and I often miss words, or even sentences, particularly if there is competing sound.  I learned at school to limit my vocabulary or risk unwelcome attention; even now, twenty years later, if I toss in a low-frequency word I endure a minor panic attack as I worry that my conversational partner may feel uncomfortable, or worse yet, that I may have mispronounced the word due to lack of exposure.  Writing gives me the time I crave to craft my chosen medium, words, into the most accurate description possible of the thoughts, or emotions, that are asking for release.  It has taken me years to trust my written voice, and now that I do (most of the time), I do not want it silenced.

The satisfaction of accomplished self-expression wavers, but what remains constant is my wish to produce work that my children can read in years to come.  I had my children late, at thirty-five and thirty-eight.  When I am in a deal-making mood, I pray to be granted enough life to see my youngest celebrate her eighteenth birthday.  That prayer seems likely to be heard, but I am well aware that the odds of meeting my grandchildren are not nearly as favourable for me as they were for my mother, who gave birth to my little sister at twenty-five.  I will leave traces—the kids will have memories, and photos, and mementoes—but traces are not enough.  I want my children to be able to hear my voice, speaking to them from across time through the page, when I am no longer present to speak to them in person.  I want them to know me in the way that I have only been able to know my parents as an adult.  Each post I publish will give them more to chew on, for better or worse, than any photo could offer.

So I continue, steadily, but oh-so-slowly.  I console myself that perhaps I write like I jog; most runners are warmed up after one kilometre, but it takes me about four kilometres to get the kinks out and begin to run naturally.  It may take many more years for me to hit my stride as a writer, but I want to maintain a base level of creative fitness so that I will be ready for the big race when the time comes.  I’ve averaged seven posts a year; I pat myself on the back if I write one hundred words in a day, and I am overjoyed if I clear two hundred.  Doubt threatens continuously to force me to fold, but I play on.  It seems possible that even successful authors can’t hide from the gnawing fear that what they have written is not worthy to be read, or the terror that even if their work is solid, their muse may take the first flight out without saying goodbye, so I attempt to accept the doubt rather than fight it.  I would be grateful for a map of where my writing is taking me, but, like a driver in heavy traffic in parts unknown, even if a map was offered, I’m not sure I would be able to read it without risking collision.  While I can’t predict the sights and detours that will pepper the road my work takes, I am well aware of the ultimate destination: a future my children will see, but I will not.  Certainty of the point that is surely programmed into my personal satellite navigation system suffices to keep me travelling along the route I am prompted to follow, writing faithfully, until at some point—hopefully later rather than sooner—the chequered flags will appear, and I will arrive at home.

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4 Responses to My Written Voice

  1. Martha says:

    You put into words all of the things that I cherish, and struggle with, about being a wife and mother. Finding balance, a sense of self, recognizing personal potential, just dealing with “life”. It is truly a gift that you are able to write about your own experience in such a way that makes the reader think, “Yes! That’s how I feel!” Just so you know – whenever I see you have posted something, I read it immediately.

  2. Editor B says:

    Oh wow, oh my, oh everything. So much of this resonates so deeply. I’ve been a diarist for much of my life, and I’ve often said it’s the one habit I’d like to pass on to my daughter. I’ve anticipated giving her a gift such as Myron gave you. I got my first blank book (from whom? my mother?) ten years later than you, but I do have some notes from when I was ten, eleven, twelve. I too embarked on writing projects with my friends but they were much less productive until we were quite a bit older. Boys take longer, I guess. The reference to multiple viewings of Star Wars reminds me that we are more or less the same age. I flatter myself to think that I’m the “friend I had made at the two-week Swedish language course.” I too wrote letters like mad that year, but none so long as the one I wrote you after my trip to Moscow. In fact at 12,000 words that letter (I photocopied it) was the longest thing I’d ever written until I cranked out a novella (which no one has ever read) in 2004. Like you I have fetishized the novel, but unlike you’ve I’m still stuck in that fetish, still trying to write that novel. It’s just that novels amaze and delight me and I wonder how writers do that. But it sometimes feels very square-peg-round-hole; it would probably be wiser if I recognized myself as an essayist, a diarist, a memoirist. I stopped blogging at the autumnal equinox to concentrate on fiction. The idea of dreaming into a dual life is very appealing to me. But at the same time I started back up a paper journal because I can’t bear to let the days slide by unmarked. Like you I became a parent late in life. Like you I want to leave something for my daughter to read.

    But it’s emerged that I am a morning person. I’ve gotten in the habit of doing most of my composition in the morning. That may be our biggest difference.

    I feel like there’s so much else to say, but I’ll stop here. This is wonderful. I appreciate your strong genuine voice.

    • bethlynette says:

      B, gosh, thank you so much for your response! I’m glad to learn more about your writing background too. So curious that you also have longed to write a novel, and well done to you for tackling that project. I’m quite relieved that you photocopied the longest letter– I have never thrown a letter away, but I have things in storage in various places and I have no idea where some of my boxes of letters are at this moment. I’m glad you recognized yourself, you are indeed that friend. I plan to re-read your comment, and Martha’s, and several emails from readers that I’ve kept for this purpose, whenever I feel like there is no point in carrying on writing.

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