How to find your voice

And there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own.” — Mary Oliver

In my workshops for new writers, we often discuss the importance of finding or developing a “voice.” As William Zinsser points out, it’s as simple (or as difficult) as this: Your voice is who you are.

Early on, most of us hear a cacophony of inner critics and advisers inside our heads — former teachers, co-workers, neighbors, spiritual directors, family members, and friends. Which makes it hard to distinguish between what others expect of us and what’s in our own hearts.

Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” gives us clues along the way. It’s one of my favorite tributes to the authentic life — and it brings shivers of recognition each time I read it aloud in class. –CL

THE JOURNEY
By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations;
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

— Reprinted from New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press); 1992

— Top photo by Cindy La Ferle; taken at the Grand Rapids Museum during ArtPrize 2011. —

“Now I Become Myself”

I have been dissolved and shaken / Worn other people’s faces” — May Sarton

My early introduction to May Sarton‘s work was through her diary, Journal of a Solitude. I was new to personal writing at the time, and I admired how Sarton gracefully shared her private and public worlds — her beloved garden; domestic life in New Hampshire; her conflicting needs for solitude and companionship. Reading more of her work over the years, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit.

“Now I Become Myself” first struck me as a song of elder wisdom, a declaration of authentic power. Feeling her “own weight and density,” the poet has outgrown the petty insecurities of youth — including its sense of urgency. Yet the poem speaks to readers of all ages. I gave it to a friend on her 70th birthday and was thrilled to learn it is now one of her favorites. My friend was especially moved by the line, “Now there is time and Time is young.”  Which lines speak to you? –CL

Now I Become Myself
By May Sarton

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before –”
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

— Reprinted from Selected Poems of May Sarton edited by Serena Sue Hilsinger and Lois Brynes; W.W. Norton & Company; 1978–

–Top photo: Detail from “Book of Shadows,” an altered book, by Cindy La Ferle —

This post is part of a weekly poetry appreciation series.  To read more, please click on Poems to inspire in the CATEGORIES column at right. As always, I welcome your recommendations, too.