Finding Your Voice....
My mother picked up my sheets of school-ruled paper, smacked them against the table
to line them up, her smile out of sync with the slap of paper against wood. The crease deepened between her eyes as she focused on my words, a red pencil marching across
the page — a nick here, a slash there. Soon, in a voice meant to be warm as soft butter
but carrying an edge, she “explained” my errors. There were so many. Each explanation preceded with “I love you honey, but ...” or “Now here, you’re not being clear.” I shrank inside bit by bit with each correction, each mistake brought into the light.
I would never use a red pencil! I thought. Nor have I. Instead, green or purple.
I would never start out with all that’s wrong. Nor do I. Instead, find the strengths, build on those. Understanding the weaknesses is then embraced — ah! mastery.
After a while it didn’t matter that she found something to praise. I couldn’t feel her offering that I had a talent. All I could feel was her red pencil striking at my heart. This wasn’t why or how I lost my voice, of course, but it confirmed for me all the reasons why it should be gone.
I watched her day after day, year in and year out, writing and having published ten books. Few in the family read them — my father read one once and as he closed it at reading’s end said, “You misspelled a word on page 219.” That was all.
She told me shortly before she died, as she railed against her ebbing light trying to finish book eleven, that she’d never written what she wanted to write: the Great American Novel. Instead, she wrote biographies of women who were first in their fields. She also told me, me who had stopped writing for years on end, “You should write, honey — it is so satisfying. You just can’t make a career out of it.”
Where did her voice go? Had she ever had it — hiding under her bed as a child and young girl, afraid of the task of living the next moment?
She would love to be sitting here right now [in my class on dissertation writing], and she would marvel and celebrate that, indeed, there is a way to have your voice. What it takes is the hardest thing of all. Having your self. And the courage to let it show up on the page at hand.