How the beast launched me on a journey to discover my voice
My family doesn’t go to church every single Sunday. But when we do, we make sure we leave an impression . . .
So let me set the stage for you. We’re in a historical church in the heart of our small town. The church is set on hill, keeping a watchful eye over the historic downtown. It’s built up tall, and not out wide. With a roof adorned with a cross at its pinnacle.
And inside, it smells . . . old. Not the dead and decaying kind of old. But the kind of old you smell when you rummage through grandma’s basement. In some ways — though it’s a completely different scent — the smell reminds me of Christmas when we pull the decorations out of storage. There’s familiarity. Context. Even memory.
God bless those Lutherans
When we get to church, we shuffle into the sanctuary. We’re loaded down with snacks and coloring books, anything we can carry to help calm the beast — who is our precious child.
You see, these folks are Lutherans. And God bless ’em — they believe children are just as much a part of the Body of Christ than any adult who may come for worship. And since little ones are part of the big ‘ole family, they stay with us during the service.
This is all well and good. But these church services — while welcoming of beasts, I mean, children — aren’t really designed with a child in mind. There’s so much movement. And at the same time, so much quietness and reflection. Everything that goes against the grain in the psyche of a toddler. And of course, there’s an echo. There’s always a massive echo. Even the slightest whisper of, “when does the movie start,” will carry on and on and on — making sure every person present knows your child thinks the house of God is a movie theatre.
Well, God doesn’t give us children to make us look good, right? I’ve never believed that more.
I forgot to mention, it’s Easter Sunday. The highest of all high celebrations in the Christian tradition.
Just when we thought we’d made it
On this Easter Sunday, we made it more than halfway through without too much incident. We navigated our daughter’s movie comment like pros. And I think we just might make it. Until the choir starts to sing . . .
Their choice of music, appropriate for Easter, is the “Hallelujah Chorus.” But it’s a different variation, beginning as light as a whisper, floating throughout the sanctuary. Now I had no reason to believe my daughter was really listening. In fact, she’s acted as though she’s the only one in the room.
But once the singing started, after the very first “Hallelujah,” she suddenly perks up with a demonically-infused crazed expression. And screams at the top of her small, yet powerful, lungs, “IT’S SHREK!”
Of course we panic. And we make even more noise trying to cover her mouth while wrestling her to the floor. Did I mention they were practically whispering the lyrics? And it was Easter Sunday? To tell the truth, she yelled so loud, I’m a little surprised we didn’t see a few resurrections of our own.
We felt momentarily mortified. By the way, this was our first visit to this church. So yeah, we were the newbies who couldn’t control their child.
Why, dear God, did you have to yell “Shrek?”
But it didn’t dawn on me in the heat of the moment — why did the kid yell “Shrek?” I mean, she’s obsessed with the movie. Yes, we let our daughter watch Shrek 1, 2, and 3. Sue her mother.
For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine what she was referring to. Was Shrek actually a spiritual metaphor of some sort?
Then I remembered the “Hallelujah Chorus.” And all the pieces started coming together. Our daughter was confused. She thought they were singing “Hallelujah” by Rufus Wainwright (a song on the Shrek soundtrack) — not Handel’s Messiah.
Ha! This story is a clear indication of my failure as a parent, on so many levels. But the more I think about it, the more I’m intrigued by my daughter’s loud — yet faulty — expression of recognition based on a single word, “Hallelujah.” And its use in the midst of two radically different messages.
I started cussing more than normal
I’ve spent much of my writing career in a marketing agency. In some circles, you could call me a ghostwriter. My days are spent plugging away at the key board — hiding behind the signatures of President’s and CEOs of nonprofit organizations across the country.
But recently, I’ve started taking more significant steps to pursuing my own writing. Exploring the exhilaration and fear of writing under my own name. Aspirations of grandeur and fame have kept me up at night. Along with the reality of a blank page. A seemingly insurmountable roadblock, I never imagined I’d crash against.
I started cussing more than normal — and struggling to discover the reason why I was having so much trouble writing. I was frustrated. And really, really pissed. Because you have to understand, I’m good at my day job. I’m known for my efficiency and quality work. I own every blank page.
So I didn’t know how to handle my sudden sense of . . . well, impotency.
I’m not overly creative. Or even artistic. But I got so desperate, I started exploring what others were saying about writing and the creative process.
And I’m weird when it comes to self-help books on writing and creativity. I admit, I’m somewhat of pompous ass, blowing most of it off as fluff and fairy dust.
But this was different. I was obviously missing something . . .
A new, better understanding of voice
Not too long ago, my agency signed a new client. There’s something electric about winning new business. It’s exciting. But it also means a ton of work — and a pretty steep learning curve. Especially on the creative side.
One of the challenges we face with new clients, especially with copywriting, is voice. And it takes some time to find the sweet spot of balancing between strategic creative messaging and the client’s comfort level with how I’m portraying the organization. Because I want to serve our client’s well, my goal is to always create messages to light a fire of inspiration deep into the hearts of their supporters. While at the same time, maintaining a believable level of authenticity.
When a client has issues with the voice I’ve created, typically it has to do with specific words or phrases. Something like: “I’d never say it that way,” “That’s not a word I’d typically use,” or even “That’s just not how I would say it.” So I change the words or phrases. Leave the rest. Then go to the next project and move on with my life.
And this voice capturing process with our new client was much the same. Until I remembered the “Hallelujah” experience . . .
Remember, it was a single word — “Hallelujah” — that confused my daughter. She heard it one context, but interpreted it through the lens of a completely different context. To be fair, she’s three, so she also proved we’re raising a child who holds absolutely nothing sacred. 🙂
But here’s my point: individual words obviously have power. Tremendous power. The Scriptures say words are so strong, they can make the difference between life and death. (Proverbs 18:21). But individual words are only the tip of the iceberg.
Chances are, if Shrek had a song with “fart blossom,” and the choir chose to sing “fart blossom” on Easter Sunday — she still would’ve screamed “IT’S SHREK” at the top of her lungs.
So when I make word or phrase changes to accommodate a client’s comfort level, I haven’t suddenly captured their voice. I’ve merely built a bridge of familiarity. I’ve given the client the version of “Hallelujah” they recognize.
Coming to grips with this reality forced me to rethink what it means to establish a voice in crafting, creating, and communicating in my day job. But most especially in my personal writing.
Instead of looking at my word choices in finding my voice, I started exploring the level beneath them. The level that determines and defines why I’ve chosen a word or phrase. And I had a bit of a revelation . . .
A writer without a message isn’t really a writer
As a copywriter, I’ve sharpened my skills of nuance and clarity (though you might not think I’ve done a very good job as you read this bullshit of a mess). But I’ve never developed my own message. I never needed to. I get paid to communicate someone else’s message effectively. For me, that was a bit freeing. But also a load of misery.
Because if you think about it, a writer isn’t someone who just writes. A writer is someone who has something to say. They have a message.
And it’s a message that’s been heated and shaped in the flames of our beliefs, values, convictions, hopes, expectations burning at the very core of our being.
That beautiful core — at the very deepest level of our being — is where our voice resides. And it beckons us to experience its life pumping power and passion. And to dig in, hold on, and discover what it has to say.
Innards and guts
The Scriptures even talk about this. Luke 6:45 says “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” But don’t immediately write that off as some lame, “Oh, just write from the heart” mantra. That’s much too cheap than what the biblical writer intended.
For Luke, the “heart” in this instance isn’t the blood pumping machine in your chest. He’s referring to our deepest innards — the primal guts of who we are. In fact, phrases we use about courage, “That girl has a lot of guts,” come from this word translated as “heart.” Not so lame now, right?
So the process of discovering my voice, was really more of a journey into my internal being. Looking beneath the curtain of my skin into my guts to find out what makes me . . . me. And why God chose a certain set of wires and specific fuses when He created me.
It’s fascinating, really. When I started coming to grips with this massive conclusion — or better yet, this new beginning — I found myself taking another look at the corny coffee cup in my cupboard. It reads something like, “Remember, as you drink this coffee, you were ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’” within a lame ass graphic.
I’d spent so long enjoying the false sense of freedom of not having an opinion about anything. And then I’m suddenly cast into the depths of my own being — and looking for only God knows what!
And what if . . . WHAT IF . . . after I genuinely searched through my own personhood, pulling off the layers to find the voice God has given me . . . I was disappointed with His work?
Suddenly, “fearfully and wonderfully made” became a phrase I didn’t want to forget. It was like a anchor. But more than that — it was a promise that I wouldn’t view the world like anyone else. And you won’t view the world like anyone else. That my voice and your voice — all our voices — are unique.
Voice is like a door, an entry point
I was talking to a friend the other day. And she described voice as a door — an entry point. I couldn’t stop thinking about the metaphor she chose. It was completely unexpected. But, in truth, that’s also the kind of person she is.
And it’s a pretty profound thought. Especially when you think about what writing really is. When we write, we raise our God-given voice forged in the fire at the core of our existence — our values, beliefs, and convictions. But we don’t do it to push readers away. We use our voice to draw them in.
We invite readers to journey with us — to sit by our flame and feel comforted by the warmth, challenged by its heat, and to capture a bigger vision or greater clarity by its light.
If you’re looking for your voice, and you feel the frustration and angst already starting to rise, here’s three thoughts to encourage you —
1) Just write
Focus less attention on your voice — and discovering it. In fact, try not to think about it at all. And instead, focus your energy on writing every day. Set a goal, maybe 500 words a day. And then show up every day and knock it out. Doesn’t matter if it’s an article you’re working, a book, or even just journaling. I know, I’m sure you can’t believe you never thought of this yourself.
When you do this, two amazing things will happen.
First, you’ll find the act of writing less daunting. This isn’t instant. And it’s not as though you’ll suddenly have something to say all the time. But over time, after faithfully showing up to write, when you get in front of the screen, your brain and muscle memory will start kicking in. And you’ll experience less intimidation. Even when you’re not sure what to write about.
I grew up playing competitive tennis. And my coaches would push us to spend a few hours on the court every day. They would say, “Practice makes permanent.” That’s not a typo. I didn’t mean to write “perfect” — because practice doesn’t make you perfect. Showing up doesn’t guarantee perfection. But if I hit 10,000 forehands every single week in practice, when I’m in a tight match, I can feel confident my forehand won’t suddenly breakdown. Because I’ve hit so many already — I know what it feels like to get my feet into position, arc my backswing, transfer my weight for momentum, and then let my swing rrrrrrrrrrriiiiiippppppppppp.
Second, you’ll feel more and more comfortable in front of the screen. And the process of transferring your brain to the page of your processor will become like second nature. And then . . . you’ll start trying new things. Maybe a different style of writing. Or using different descriptors / metaphors / phrases to breath even more life into your stories. You might even jump into a project you’d never thought possible just a few months before.
You’ll start challenging yourself to explore more deeply into your writing abilities and stretch yourself beyond just the basics. And that’s really when the fun begins.
There’s a really powerful story in the Bible. It’s in Luke 19. Essentially, a landowner leaves 10 of his stewards a sum of money and then goes on a trip. The hero of the story is the steward who traded and invested the owner’s money and increased his original sum over ten times his original amount.
When the owner returned and the steward gave him ten times more money, the owner praised him. Because the steward had shown himself faithful in the little he was given. But more than that, the landlord gave the steward even more responsibilities!
I think the same principle applies here. If you’re faithful in showing up and writing every single day, you’ll eventually enjoy the rewards of your efforts. You might not get a wad of cash, or a Pulitzer, but you may unlock some of your untapped abilities and find yourself creating work you never imagined possible. And sharing a message you never dreamed you had.
2) Your voice is already living inside you
When you want to discover your voice, it’s easy to think you’re looking for a stranger. Or it may feel like an annoying, never ending game of hide and seek. Or you might even feel as though you’re trying to create something out of nothing. That type of thinking only leads to frustration. Because you never feel any sense of certainty. Is that my voice? Does that sound like my message?
Have you ever found something you enjoy doing so much that when you talk about it, people comment on your passion? I’m not a huge advocate of passion, but finding something your passionate about is a lot like discovering your voice. It’s about experimenting, and sensing what feels right. And when you find something that resonates, you explore a little deeper.
Your voice is . . . you. So it will feel familiar to you. In many ways, you may think, you’ve known it all along. Have peace in the discovery process. Your voice is already inside you. You’ll recognize it.
3) This isn’t about a one-time discovery
When it comes to voice, discovery is an endless process. Voice isn’t static, it’s fluid — and there’s incredible depths to mine and layers to remove. When you feel like you’ve discovered your voice, you’ve really discovered a path you’ll spend the rest of your life exploring.
But don’t let that discourage you. It means you’re always changing, shifting, deepening. And it means your adventure will never end.
How would encourage other writers in the midst of their journey to discover their voice? And where are you on the journey?