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. —

“Wild Geese”

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination.” — Mary Oliver

Sunset1“Wild Geese” is another favorite by our old friend Mary Oliver, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry we’ve explored in previous posts. Listening to Anne Lamott’s Word by Word, an audio CD on creative writing, I learned that Lamott posted this poem near her desk — and advises all writers and artists to do the same.

“Wild Geese” touched a tender place in my soul. Like so many friends of mine, I was taught as a child to obey the edicts of the organized religion my family practiced. I was terrified of making mistakes — and terrified of disappointing a punitive, unforgiving God. (Not to mention disappointing my parents and teachers.) No matter how “good” I was, or how closely I followed the rules and colored within the lines, I still felt unworthy. A nasty inner critic took up residence inside my head, too, sitting right next to the punitive God.

Today, I follow a strong code of ethics and my own faith, but no longer allow fear to constrict my life or narrow my view. As Mary Oliver reminds me, we were all made to shine our creative light, and to dance freely in this gorgeous world of ours. — CL

Wild Geese
By Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

— Reprinted from Owls and Other Fantasies, by Mary Oliver; Beacon Press; 2003.