Two competing forces have dominated my life: a great need to please others and an equally powerful desire for expression, a tumbleweed that has grown in mass and velocity with the passing years. Now that I’m a writer and a writing teacher, I can safely say that expression will prevail, but the imprint of the small girl who tried to make herself smaller still shimmers within me, reminding me of the long way I’ve come to find my own voice and to trust it.
When I was seven, my mother and I attended a horse show in which a family we knew had a couple of horses. The Wilsons were a family of accomplished children and prizewinning horses, a family together enough to obtain quilted covers for their blender and toaster. They provided a vivid contrast to my single-mom family with siblings scattered. My mother never said, “I need their approval,” but even as a kid I could feel it—in her eagerness to speak, her laugh, her carefully applied pink lipstick.
After the show, horses promenaded between track and stables. I remember the satiny ribbons of blue and red and white. I loved the order of it: first place, second place, third. It was a hot California day in the mid-1960s, the hills parched yellow except for the dark green spots where old oaks offered circles of shade. I stood between my mother and one of the Wilsons’ horses, taking in the all-knowing horse eye, its crazy straight eyelashes, the fly on the nose tolerated for only a second. And then the horse shuffled its hooves a bit and one hoof pressed silently onto my foot. Pain shot through me. I wanted to scream, but my mother was talking to Mrs. Wilson, and I’d been taught never to interrupt. Good manners were integral to my identity; more than once, I’d imagined a chance to curtsy—usually a fluke meeting with a queen or a Kennedy. My mother was talking very quickly, and there didn’t even seem to be a quick inhale of breath in which I could wedge my voice. Finally, the pain was intolerable, and I spoke—very quietly—the line that would soon become legend: “Excuse me, the horse is on my foot.”
A moment later the horse was shooed off my foot and the incident was over, but the story of my passivity lived on and has been retold so many times that it has become an emblem of my childhood self—a sort of calling card for the younger me, the timid girl too afraid to speak up when needed, or to risk the displeasure of others even at the cost of her own welfare. I cringe during the retelling of this story, which my mother tells without malicious intent and with great affection. When she gets to the “Excuse me” part she uses the smallest of voices, unaware that my silence had once been a boilerplate item in the unspoken contract between us.
I don’t mind telling this story today, though, because I now am telling it in my own voice. It’s not a funny story when I tell it. “Excuse me” is no longer the punch line. The heat, the yellow hills, the fly, they’re all mine. When I tell the story myself, in my own voice, I understand why the young me did not speak up sooner and I forgive her for it. Forgiving her has become an essential part of uncovering my own voice. My “uncovery.”
• • •
Like many kids who grew up in the blue cloud of the 1960s, I spent the bulk of my childhood feeling like I had to be “good.” I didn’t come up with this on my own. Being good paid off. During the years when I was often told that I was a “good girl,” one of my “difficult” sisters lived in a convent in Mexico and another sibling with a wild side vanished to do a stint in a school for wayward girls in the belly of Texas. In my child’s mind, everything dear to me—including the love of others and my own survival—depended on being good.
What did being good look like? Besides shiny patent leather Mary Janes and Shirley Temple manners, being good often meant not talking about what was really happening. The argument that erupted downstairs after you were supposed to be asleep, mother’s afternoon nap, the inviolability of the five p.m. happy hour—all of these single events cluster together, and the cluster has a name: alcoholism.
But if you don’t have access to that name and if you don’t talk or think about these things for long enough, you might find that you actually have no idea what you think. At least, that’s what happened to me.
Writing has been part of my recovery from being good, silent, and in denial. All of these were so much a part of who I was that I have had to keep coming back to the page—to writing—to remind myself that I, too, possess a version of things, a take on the world. Not the take. A take. Mine. The page is where I am free at last from the isolation of unarticulated life, where expression takes the place of silence.
A long time before I wrote regularly and a very long time before I was published, I knew there was a writer inside me. Occasionally words would tumble onto the page in a rush and startle me with their rawness and vitality. Uncut gems tossed suddenly from a velvet bag, they magnetized me. More often than not, though, I was avoiding writing, or writing so rarely that I could never keep track of the thread of a piece. But in those rare moments of writing with abandon, I did recognize my own voice.
The road to finding my voice and letting it come to the page has been a long one. But I’ve come to understand the necessity of the journey, to see the length of the process as an understandable delay rather than a failing. I see now how the river of silence parallels the path that alcohol has coursed through my family, that courses through so many families. My experience serves as just one example of our many reasons for not trusting or even hearing our own voices. We’ve spent too long listening to everyone but ourselves; we’re bombarded daily by input that renders us passive and receiving rather than active and expressing. We work in teams. We live in families. We keep peace and build consensus. Much of this is good and necessary and yet leaves us wanting something we often cannot name, something more.
For the last seven years, I’ve taught a nine-month course in memoir writing for the University of Washington’s Professional & Continuing Education department, teaching new writers to claim their own take on the world and to write about their own experiences. Through this program, I’ve met scores of people who possess both a feverish desire to write and an equal measure of uncertainty about how to begin trusting themselves, who are afraid of asserting their point of view onto the page. They remind me of myself. For so long I was the one who was afraid, who had drawers stuffed with notebooks filled with half-finished stories. I was the one who didn’t have the faith to stay the course from not knowing how a story would come together to at last knowing. Faith means writing past doubt, holding on to the knowledge that above the cloud cover the sky is blue. Infinitely and impossibly blue.
Although my class covers the essential elements of memoir writing—using dialogue, building a scene, creating a narrative arc—I’m reminded even as I’m teaching my students these skills that learning to trust your own voice, and even to hear it, is just as important as learning the technical skills of writing. Maybe even more important. A piece of writing can be well crafted and even eloquent and still ring hollow.
Teaching memoir writing, I’ve also learned that there are as many ways into writing as there are people longing to write. Some burn to get memories down before they fade away; others feel compelled to share a story of a changing time in their lives. For me, the need to write grew out of all the years of not saying what I knew to be true, and sometimes not even allowing myself to think it. Denial, repression—you know, all that good stuff.
• • •
Writing Is My Drink is the story of how I’ve learned, and am still learning, to trust in my own voice and my advice on how you can too. I spent a long time hovering above the pool, afraid to dive into what I yearned to do: to write with abandon, to follow my thoughts on the page wherever they might take me without doubt or censure. At the end of each chapter, you’ll find a set of “Try This” activities designed to take you deeper into your own discovery process. It might be a good idea to have one notebook or document folder that you designate just for this purpose. You can do these writing activities after reading each chapter or read the book all the way through and then return to the activities. There’s no one right way. Find the one that works for you. Trust yourself; that’s the key.
The accusation that we are self-absorbed—whether leveled by ourselves or by others—seems to be what emerging writers fear the most. By going off to “find our own voices,” we must be narcissistic at best, or at worst the narcissist’s less compelling cousin, the navel gazer. Yet, it’s the work of many such “narcissists” that has given me the greatest solace in times of sadness and confusion. I have books with covers curled like furled leaves from the numerous times I’ve thumbed through them, scanning for that stray calming passage. When I find that passage, it inevitably settles me like the words of the most steadfast of friends. Almost everyone I know who wishes to write has a similar list of books to which they feel an enormous debt, books that have literally or figuratively saved our lives.
The time we take to find our voices is the time we need to prepare to give back. Finding the stories you want to tell and your voice as a writer readies you for the role of giver, to finally be the host. As the fabulous Anne Lamott has said in the equally fabulous book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life: “It is one of the greatest feelings known to humans, the feeling of being the host, of hosting people, of being the person to whom they come for food and drink and company. This is what the writer has to offer.”
This is my story of false starts, dead ends, and minor and major breakthroughs. You might see yourself in my story. While our individual stories of doubt may vary, a common thread runs through the stories of those of us who’ve deferred a dream too long. We’ve been very busy delaying that which we need and want to do. We know we’re holding ourselves back, but that shame of believing we’re the only ones failing ourselves so miserably just stalls us further. Yes, we know that most everyone else is out there procrastinating and checking e-mail too much, but we’re sure our own self-doubt is the stuff of legends. It isn’t. Our hesitation is simply an expected part of the road to writing—a rough first leg—but it’s one we should push past, one we can push past.
I’ve come to believe that even if the process takes us longer than we want and even if our words are read by only a handful of readers—or only by ourselves—they are still worth our time and attention. Expression in itself is worthwhile. When we commit ourselves to the page, our lives become larger, if even just incrementally, and our sense of ourselves sharpens. We remember the value of our own lives and the lives of others. I don’t know how this happens. I only know that it does.