Your Voice = Your Power
Four ideas to jumpstart your writing from Peter Elbow, the master of writing practice.
He was there most afternoons when I’d walk out of the repurposed double-wide trailer house that served as my seventh-grade writing classroom. Sometimes he was in the process of ripping off his shirt. Sometimes it was already off, exposing the fish-belly white of his hairless chest with its bicycle spoke ribs.
Every time I saw him, he yelled the same sentence, punctuating it with raised middle fingers of both hands: “F — all y’all! I mean ALL y’all!”
Appearing at or just after five o’clock, he was as regular as a factory whistle for me, signaling the transition from school time to life time.
Once, I waved at him and he shot both middle fingers at me, looking at me as he yelled. Strangely, I felt as though I’d been seen. Not quite blessed, but not quite cursed either.
Often ragged from the demands of the day, I felt his same anger and frustration. His energetic obscenities validated my unvoiced inner state. “He has a point,” I’d think as I backed my car out of the parking lot. “I wish my writing voice were as strong and authentic.”
When you’re a writing teacher, that’s the way you process the world. Everything is a lesson. Everything is an example. You can’t help the fact that your brain is like an old television set with only one non-staticky channel.
But back to the idea of voice and message. It’s on my mind as I’m re-reading Peter Elbow’s seminal 1973 text:
Writing without Teachers
In Writing Without Teachers, well-known advocate of innovative teaching methods Peter Elbow outlines a practical…
Maybe you don’t like your voice; maybe people have made fun of it. But it’s the only voice you’ve got. It’s your only source of power. You better get back into it, no matter what you think of it. If you keep writing in it, it may change into something you like better. But if you abandon it, you’ll likely never have a voice and never be heard.
Most of the time, I really hate my writing. As in it makes my teeth hurt. It seems to never reflect quite what I’m thinking or transmit even a tenth of what I’m feeling. But here I am, back at this keyboard. Trying again.
That’s how I’m answering Elbow’s implicit call to action. And as I see it, his advice boils down to just a few portable practices:
- Write without anyone looking over your shoulder.
- Write for ten minutes at first, never stopping to cross out anything or edit.
- Write out what’s really on your mind; don’t edit your “unacceptable thoughts and feelings.”
- Write. Now. Get back into it.