Memoir: Finding Your Voice

The Importance of Voice

Voice is the literary term given to a writer’s unique style of expression. As a writer, who you are and how you come across to others is an integral part of everything you write. Because of the very nature of the personal essay, your voice is one of the most dominant impressions readers receive when they read what you’ve written. Sometimes your voice leaves a stronger impression than the actual content of your essays. If readers like your style – if they like you – they’ll want to read more of your work.

The Tyranny of the Inner Critic

Long before we reached adulthood and moved away from home, we internalized the warning voices of parents and teachers. We developed an inner critic that took over where they left off. It scolds us into behaving and warns us of dire consequences that we will face if we don’t obey.

To some extent, this inner voice is a useful thing to have. For one thing, it keeps us from taking our clothes off and running down the street on the first day of spring. For another, it reminds us to pay our taxes so the IRS doesn’t haul us off to jail.

For many of us, though, this voice goes far beyond the boundaries of usefulness. As we move through life, it grows to become a swelling chorus of voices that speak as one and stops us before we start. There’s the English teacher who said it was bad to use the word “I” in writing. There’s the boss who said we lacked self-discipline and were lazy. There’s the spouse who laughed at us when we said we wanted to be a writer.

We start believing deep inside, sometimes so deep that we aren’t aware of it, that we shouldn’t write the truth because:

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  • What do we know?
  • Nobody’s really interested in what we have to say.
  • Telling the truth will get us into trouble, B-I-G trouble.
  • If we’re honest about who we really are, people will see our flaws and reject us.

Taming the Inner Critic

One of the most effective ways of dealing with this negative self-talk is to talk right back to the chorus of inner critics. Sometimes it helps to write out this dialog. A technique for doing this that has served me well is to respond to the inner critic with left-brain logic. This works because, even though on the surface the inner critic seems a paragon of reason, at heart it’s irrational, repeating what other people have said without checking to see if there is any truth in these warnings.

Once you’ve written responses to your inner critic, practice saying them out loud. When the inner critic tries to shut down your voice, stop the negative thought it puts into your mind and substitute one of your responses. In order for thought stopping and substitution to become automatic, you need to practice.

At the beginning, you may want to type your list of responses and post them near your computer to serve as a reminder that, yes, you have something to say and the world won’t end if you say it.