Why Your Voice Matters NOW + 6 Steps to Use Your Voice as a Literary Citizen
Your voice matters. Did you know that? You should.
Your voice mattered yesterday. Your voice matters today. And your voice matters tomorrow. Your voice is important. It deserves to be heard. Your stories deserve to be told. You and this whole writing thing are necessary.
But are you living up to your potential?
Your voice matters. You must find it. You must own it. And you must use it. (And I must do this too).
- If you fear the world in the Trump era, your voice matters.
- If you voted for Trump, your voice matters.
- If you are NOT comfortable with what's going on in your world or your life, your voice matters.
- If something beautiful and amazing happens in your world or your life, your voice matters.
I'm not hear to preach to you about what you should think. I don't care what you think. I care if you're expressing yourself or not.
Where is this coming from?
(BECAUSE USING YOUR VOICE AND SPEAKING YOUR MIND IS TERRIFYING AND SO I FEEL THIS IS NECESSARY)
I've been trying to write this since November, since specifically November 9, 2016 as I sipped my morning coffee the day Trump was announced as the president-elect of the United States.
This isn't a political blog. This a place to discuss writing craft, mindset, and life. But today, this is less about craft and more about purpose. Why do we do what we do? Why do we write at all? What purpose does it serve? And how can we do it better, for a Real+Good purpose?
This stems from a political place. I live in America, and as such, I am in the middle of controversial political things. (Need I say more?). And while this post WILL have bias, this is NOT a post intended to offend, to divide, to hurt. (Let the record show.) This isn't about politics; this is about life. And life stuff IS writing stuff.
This IS about using your voice. This is about doing something important with your thoughts, ideas, and opinions. Some people do this through speeches or activism. We are writers though. And so this is about doing something through our shared medium of expression: writing.
Additionally, this stems from a personal place. I am a 20-something millennial on the quest for discovering who I am and what my purpose in the world is. This is who I am. This is a fact. This is me revealing myself to you on the page.
I'm trying to confess to you. I'm trying to take a snapshot of my thoughts, a snapshot of the world as I (personally) view it, a snapshot of whatever is happening right now, and reveal it to you. This requires me to be vulnerable, to expose myself, to confess.
The issue is: I don't know if this is a safe space. I don't know what you'll think, what you'll say. I don't know if, after writing this, I'll receive backlash, hate, threats. I've been internet-bullied before. It's no fun.
But I can't NOT say this. I can't NOT talk about this. It makes me uncomfortable. It makes me nervous. It makes me scared. But I'm doing it anyway. Because this is important and it needs to be said.
So, enough with the disclaimers.
My whole life I felt limitless. I felt and truly believed that I could be anything, anyone. I felt I could do anything. I truly believed in my heart that with enough will-power, agency, and hard work, I could accomplish whatever it was I wanted. And I believed it wasn't a special gift I had or an exclusive right given to me in this body or this life, but something that every human ever was capable of. I believed in hope, magic, possibility, potential. I believed that people were incredible and amazing beings. I believed the good in the world.
I woke up on November 8, 2016 not really thinking about the world I lived in, the America I lived in. I woke up just like it was any other day.
I woke up on November 9, 2016 differently.
At first, I believed we had entered a whole new world, a blast from the past, a time-travel, a scary story from science fiction that had become my reality. But this wasn't the case. This was the America I'd been living in my whole life. The same exact America. I just saw it differently. I felt cornered, put down, forced to obey a strict black and white world where I can only succeed if I subscribe to the standards power elects.
We could turn this into a conversation about perspective or character view vs. world view or point-of-view or even the description of setting. But this conversation is bigger than that. And this isn't fiction.
It is my duty as a writer to use my voice. It is my duty as a citizen to be a part of this country. And I have not done that enough. I want to participate in an inclusive society, a caring, nonjudgmental, accepting society. (I dream of such a thing). But that is not where I live. And that does not mean I can ignore the society in which I live. I have a duty to use my voice, use what little power I have, independent power, to educate, to empower, to heal.
And I feel threatened by what's happening. I fear, for myself and for others. So, I have to use my voice.
This election has been a push for me. This is a push that I (and other people who may feel the same way as me) need in order to step it up and realize our full potentials. I am thankful, grateful that this happened, because, now, I am forced to be louder, to take action, to speak, participate, and help the world grow, change, evolve, heal.
This isn't about bashing Trump or initiating any kind of "us" versus "them" campaign.
This is about standing up for humans.
This is about choosing to be conscious about what's going on with the world, the good and the bad. This is about choosing to document that.
This is about choosing to listen to all perspectives (no matter who they are, where they're from, and whether we agree with them or not) and creating space for them to be heard.
This is why we're talking about this today. Because this is necessary. This is important. And this whole political conversation is pushing me to take action. It starts with small, but beautiful baby steps: Knowing your voice matters and choosing to use it wisely.
And it starts with me. And it starts with you.
So, how do we do it? Here's 6 Steps to Use Your Voice as a Literary Citizen
1 | Recognize Who You Are
SOME FACTS: I am a woman. I am white. I am a child of divorced parents. I am a sister. I am a girlfriend. I am a worker. I attended grade and high school in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. I attended a private, liberal arts college. I work in a community college. I am a writer.
All of these facts are important and for some reason they matter, they define me. But what do they mean? What do they add up to?
SOME MORE FACTS: There was a field of wild onions behind my house growing up. The first time I had my heart broken was at 15 years old. The night my childhood cat died I toasted shots in his honor. My family's vacation spot growing up was St. Augustine, Florida. The sound of alternating footsteps on stairs makes me happy. I have a favorite road, and I drive on it every day. Dentists and teeth are my biggest fear. Hurting someone's feelings is my biggest fear. I listen to rap music. I clean my house while I brew my morning coffee. My car is old and broken and dying. I don't believe I've actually lived enough years to be the age on my birth certificate.
These facts define me. These facts matter. These facts add up to form some shape of a human that thinks thoughts, feels things, perceives the world in a certain way. All of these things add up to something. And that something is important. That something has important things to say. That something needs to discover her voice, and use it.
That something is actually a somebody.
That somebody is me.
*Want some help with recognizing who you are? Check out The Writer's DNA.
So, we take our life facts, we take our experiences, we take our thoughts, and when we mash them all up together, we get ourselves. This is redundant. Of course we are a compilation of all of our facts, our experiences, our thoughts.
What matters more is that so many of us are NOT using our unique facts, experiences, and thoughts (our unique selves) to create a better world.
2 | Recognize Why You're NOT Using Your Voice
Look, it's SCARY to use your voice.
For my whole life, I've been a conflict-avoider. I like to play fair, to understand all perspectives, to play nice. (I'm too nice).
Once upon a time as a young child, my parents were asking me to choose who would read my bedtime story that night. It was a harmless choice, a simple choice: Will tonight's bedtime story be read by Mom or Dad? They were asking and asking and asking and I was looking at her face, then his face, then back to hers—both smiling, teasing, laughing—and suddenly I burst into tears. "I don't want to choose!" I cried, turning the silly, insignificant decision of who would read a bedtime story into an epic analysis of who would hurt less. I was scared to hurt their feelings and I was unable to weigh the emotions of who was more deserving, who wanted to read it more, who would be less upset, and so I didn't choose. I didn't choose because I didn't want to offend. I didn't choose.
And yet, this inability to choose, this inability to verbalize an opinion, has plagued me into adulthood. Now it regards much bigger issues than a bedtime story, but the concept is the same. I stay politically correct. I keep my voice out of conflicting conversations, except in shared, safe spaces. I'm quiet, reserved, shy. I play Switzerland, I play neutral.
And by doing this, I've chosen to neuter myself.
The inability (or refusal) to take a stance, state an opinion, and stand by it, is a choice. And it still has consequences. Although they may be indirect, the world is still affected because of my opinions. If I don't use my voice and state my opinion—fine. But someone else will, whether I agree with them or not. And if the general public is only receiving a one-sided argument with no opposition, how will we understand each other? How will we grow? How will we change? What will we change into?
I don't intend to offend. I don't intend to offend. I don't intend to offend.
I am so scared to use my voice. It terrifies me perhaps more than anything, which is ironic, right? As a writer, my voice is my strength, and yet it's also my weakness. I don't want to raise conflict. I don't want to cause frustration. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. I don't want to ruin someone's day by something I said, or wrote. I don't want to divide people. I don't want to offend.
If you're like me, you've silenced your voice in fear of what others will think. You've silenced your voice because you don't want to offend. You've silenced your voice because it's easier, safer, certain.
Recognizing your fears helps you move away from them.
3 | Choose to use your voice because it's important and necessary
We live in a world that is changing. Some say evolving, some say regressing. There is change. There are differing opinions. As an inactive, silent, non-participating individual, I am allowing the world to change without my input. Staying silent doesn't evoke change. Reflecting normalcy and unbiased emotion isn't going to cut it. The world is changing. And as a citizen human of this world, I can no longer be silent. I have to be bold. I have to be loud. I have to have an opinion, and I have to express it.
I have to have a voice. And I have to use it.
Real+Good Fiction (and nonfiction and dialogue and anything ever) has bias. Nothing is completely objective, no matter how hard you try to make it. Everyone is coming from their own perception and that's going to naturally seep into what they say. You might as well make your perception known instead of trying to mask it in niceties and politically-correct falsehoods.
Because using your voice is more important than playing nice. As Oliver Emberton says, "Ending slavery [is] more important than the feelings of people who like slavery." It requires courage, and bravery, and it's hard (it's really freaking hard). But it's necessary.
(P.S. Go read Oliver's article, "If you're not pissing someone off, you're probably not doing anything important." This = GOLD).
We could talk about the reasons this election was so divided. We could talk about how we got to where we are. But we need to talk about now.
NOW: I will NOT apologize for my beliefs. I will NOT apologize for offending. I will be conscious of what I say. I will come from a place of love, a place of compassion, a place of "yes." I will NOT be a vehicle for rhetoric I don't wholeheartedly agree with. I will NOT sit on the sidelines and be quiet.
(Yes, this sounds good in theory. Do you know how hard it is in practice? Do you know how terrifying it is to reveal my soul on the page for you to read today? Do you know how difficult this is?).
You know, I want to stay on the sidelines, nodding my head politely, laughing out of courtesy at every slightly offensive joke, reserving my own opinions locked up inside my heart, only to be revealed in private conversations. I want this because it's easy, it's safe. I want this because it avoids conflict. I want this because no one gets offended, no one's feelings get hurt, no one fights or argues. I want this because it's the socially acceptable, politically correct thing to do. You be nice to people. You don't be mean to people. This is Human 101 stuff.
But I feel something burning in me to speak the truth, to help others, to work towards a better society. I'm by no means perfect. I'm by no means holier than thou. I'm actually very naive about all this. But I can't stay silent just because I'm scared of what other people think.
I genuinely believe all voices need to be heard: my voice, your voice, the voices of people who share opinions with me, the voices of people who view the world differently than me. No one's voice is more or less important than someone else's. The discourse currently running through the country I live in makes it feel that way though. This makes me uncomfortable, so I'm not just going to be quiet and politely nod my head to keep the peace.
NOW: Moving forward, we need to hear your voice. We need to hear your voice with all its beauty, with all its uniqueness, with all its bias and influence and perception and belief. We need to hear you.
We NEED your voice.
You voice WILL connect with others. You will find others who share your beliefs, who think similarly. You will foster community, friendship, and belonging.
Your voice WILL expose YOUR truth. Your voice will reflect what it means to be you. You will share what it means to be the unique and wonderful you that you are. You will bring light to your corner of the universe. You will broaden the minds of those who have yet to understand you. You will document the world as you understand it. You will show what it means to be you and to live in your world.
Your voice WILL evoke change. You CAN change the world with your words. Some people will love your voice; some people will hate it. But by sharing it, we will all come one step closer to understanding each other, understanding ourselves, and understanding what it means to be human. By using your voice, you can help bridge the divisiveness we're living in, and move towards understanding.
Words help change the world. Use your words to evoke change.
Think of Malala. Think of Frederick Douglass. Think of Shakespeare. Think of Plato, Dr. King, Mary Wollstonecraft, George Orwell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Aldous Huxley, Toni Morrison, Dante. Think of the Bible, the Qur'an, the Torah. Think of your favorite author. Think of the books that made you infuriated. Think of the books that made you cry. Think of the books that changed your world, the books that changed you, and how you were different because you read them.
You have the ability to do this too with your words, with your stories. This is why your voice is important.
4 | Write the Stories you were meant to write
Quit subscribing to the pressures of what you should write, and write what you know to be true. Get everyone else out of your head. Ignore the audience. Don't write for anyone else except yourself.
Write what matters to you. Write what's important to you. Write what you were meant to write. Write in the way that only you can tell it.
You know this. You've always known this. But with all those pressures to write the right things, the safe, certain things, it can be hard to stand up and write the right thing for you. Your voice can get lost and blurred in a world that demands politically correct standards.
But it's time to find your voice, own it, and use it. Use your voice to share your truths. Write the book you were meant to write. Escape the fear of judgment or criticism or what other people think. Write for you.
5 | READ, READ, READ ALL THE BOOKS
Read things that reflect your beliefs. Read things that challenge your beliefs. Read in your genre. Read outside your genre. Read writers who have had a similar life path as you. Read writers who have had a completely different life path as you. Read what you're drawn to. Read what you're uncertain about it. Read widely. Read diversely. Read to understand yourself. And read to understand others.
Just read the books. Read ALL the books!
And don't just consume. Be an intelligent reader. Pay attention to what the writer is saying. Ask yourself if you agree. Try to understand the other perspective. Listen to what the author is saying. Be empathetic.
Escape the echo chamber as you do this. We're often so caught up in what we think, that we naturally gravitate to finding others who are similar to us. But similarity does not evoke change and it doesn't help us grow. We must seek out diversity, differences, and pay attention to them.
*Want some help with this? Check out: HOW TO BE A REAL+GOOD READER.
You must use your voice to express yourself. And you must listen to others express themselves too. This is how we grow. This is how we understand. This is how we become intelligent, compassionate humans that work together, not against each other. Learn about the world by reading about the world as it is through someone else's eyes.
6 | WRITE FROM A PLACE OF LOVE
I want to be cynical—God, it would be so EASY to be cynical. And it must be nice to not get your hopes up and get dejected. It must be nice to expect the worst and so that when the worst happens, it's not a big deal at all. Life would be so much easier if we were all just so cynical.
But, SOME MORE FACTS: I do have hope. I am a romantic. I fantasize about magic existing. I want to believe there are still beautiful, unsolvable, amazing mysteries in the world. I want to seek them out, to prove that this world is worth living in, is worth fighting for, that all this cynicism can go fuck itself. I want to believe that all this (ALLLLLLLLL of this) is important, that it matters, that I can make a difference, that if I'm open, understanding, sympathetic, a good listener, than I can help make the world a better better place.
Louis Armstrong's famous "What a Wonderful World" speaks to this hope, this love. But it wasn't written from a place of innocent observation. Its creators, producer Bob Thiele and songwriter George David Weiss, wrote the song in response to the civil and political unrest of America's 1960s. In fact, when the song was released in 1968, cities invoked "curfews as race riots spread from Newark and Detroit to over 100 cities" and people feared a "second civil war" (bbc). Armstrong's song was designed to comment on America's turmoil, inspire thoughtful reflection, and give a glimpse of hope to an entire nation.
I can't help but think of it now.
Let's follow the message of Armstrong's song: Let's love. Let's accept each other. Let's listen. Let's empathize. Let's understand. Let's work together. Let's compromise. Let's love.
We do this by noticing. What a wonderful world this IS, and what a wonderful world this COULD be. Let's notice the blue skies, the birds, the new babies crying their first breaths. Let's notice the violence, the hate, the discrimination. Let's notice it all. Let's write about it. Write about it from a place of love.
We do this by listening. We are all different people and we come from all different perspectives. That's what makes us unique. That's what makes us human. Instead of letting our differences divide us, let's love the differences. Let's accept each other. Let's listen to each other. Let's compromise. Let's seek to understand. Let's listen when we read, when we speak, when we're sharing beliefs, and when we're differing.
We do this by writing. It is our duty, as writers, to share our truths. But let's not share them with attacks and violence and hate. Let's share them with love. Let's share them with hope. Let's share them from a place of "yes." Let's share them with intentions of creating a better world, not hurting the one we're in.
If I was the protagonist in a novel, this would be a plot point, the call to adventure, the call to action. This is where conflict will arise. This is when things will get difficult.
But the story isn't over here. This story is only beginning.
YOUR VOICE MATTERS.
Use it. Own it. Be the change you wish to see in the world. Do it, through your very special and powerful words. Recognize your voice. Be loud, be proud, be unapologetically you. Realize that it's hard and scary to use your voice, but consciously choose to do it anyway. Speak your truths. Write the stories that make sense for you. Read and listen to the truths of others. Love the world, the writing, and your place in it.
*For Further Reading, education, + action:
- "What it Means to Be a Writer in the Time of Trump: 18 authors weigh in on their new responsibilities" by The Huffington Post
- "Aftermath: Sixteen Writers on Trump's America" by The New Yorker
- Speak out and connect with others through Writer's Resist / Write Our Democracy using #WritersResist, #ReadersResist, and #WriteOurDemocracy
- "Welcome to the Monkey House: Teaching the 2016 Election in a Literature Course" by Maximillian Alvarez
- "What Did You Say? Speaking up against hate when you’re sitting at the table" by Jacqueline Doyle
- "I am a dangerous professor" by George Yancy
Happy (+Courageous) Writing!
How will you use your voice for good? How will you stand up for what you believe in, assert your truths, and make sure your story is told? How will you seek to understand the world and the people around you when you just don't understand them at all? How will you write from a place of activism and love?