The first time I remember being proud of words that I wrote, happened in high school. We were instructed to write a poem. We had 20 minutes and a prompt that I no longer remember. Even at that age I had a great respect for poets like Ntozake Shange, Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes. The first book I remember my mom reading me that was filled with images of Black girls was a poem called Honey, I Love. I had never tried writing my own poem and I was grateful for the opportunity to try.
I loved it. It was cute for a 16 year old. It wasn't deep or earth shattering. I think it was about a duck. But it made me smile. My English teach loved it too. She decided to read a couple of our submissions aloud, and mine was one of them. I beamed. And I held onto that poem for years and years. I honestly think I could still find it if I put my mind to it.
That little poem couldn't be further from my current artistic voice. But it was important because it was my start. That start told me that I love words. That I love their power to make us feel.
When I first started writing about racial justice, it was within a white, Christian context. I learned about the pursuit of justice through a theological lens. I was empowered by Black liberation theology and womanist theology and the theology of my grandmothers and aunts and regular Black folks. I learned to dig out the assumptions underlying white theology and challenge it head on. Because this was my start, my writing began by crafting arguments, teaching, educating, defending my way of understanding Scripture and myself.
That was my start, but my voice came later.
I found my voice when I stopped trying to convince, stopped trying to argue, stopped trying to defend. I found my voice when I started, not with others, but with me- my thoughts, my feelings, my experience of the world.
Starting with myself was a much more vulnerable way to write. I found myself writing much less about theology and much more about my physical reality. I was no longer trying to convince others of my humanity, but instead declaring it for myself.
As you think about your craft, I want you to know that your starting place matters. Our starting place gives us a chance to play, or a chance to clap back, or a chance to see how our art fits on our tongues, on our pen, on our bodies, on our paint brush... But voice is developed over time… It happens by taking risks, by finding yourself, by noticing your patterns. It happens when you start becoming more vulnerable or more honest or more courageous or maybe all the above.
There are a million more small ways in which my voice has evolved. Turns out I don't follow grammar rules for their own sake, but instead to indicate a certain pace when reading. I care deeply about the rhythm between the words. I also write short. While I can appreciate a sweeping sentence, I don't often write them myself. I like a two word sentence. These could be called quirks, but they have become more than that to me. They are sign posts that tell me if I'm being true to myself or if I’m imitating someone else.
Pay attention to your “quirks”. Explore them. Find others who are similar. What do you appreciate about their work? And find others who are different! It's good to take note of the ways you embody the same artistic expression but so differently.
Your voice is constantly rising to meet you as you evolve as an artist. Pay attention to how you and your craft play together. Notice the sweeping changes and the small quirks. Enjoy witnessing your voice take shape.
How would you describe your voice right now?
How would you describe your voice when you first started?
Is there room to insert more vulnerability or honesty or courage into your work?
Do you have certain quirks about your artistic process? What do those quirks tell you about yourself?
Have you ever taken the time to study your craft? Is there a name for your voice? If you had to make up a name for your voice, what would it be?