Using Your Original Voice

“Find my voice?!” she asks with frustration bordering on annoyance. “Do we say, ‘I want to find my nose’? No! This is how much we have lost our original voice.” I sat in an intimate audience of forty or so at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology last week listening to Pat Schneider, author of ten books of poetry and nonfiction, as she spoke these words in her authoritative 81-year old voice.
Two committees live in my head. The first says, “Be vulnerable. Speak your truth. Say what you mean.” The second says, “Be guarded. Speak a comfortable truth. Say some of what you mean.” Each week, when I sit down to write Aiming for Okay I ask for the first committee—my truth—to come into my work, to come through my words. The second committee, which moves a little slower than the first, usually pops up just after I hit send and tells me I’ve said too much, I should have said less or I should have said it in a different way. It tells me to “protect” myself, to bury my original voice.
The day before I left for Atlanta to hear Pat speak, I lamented to a friend that I was feeling self-conscious about my writing. Someone had said something to me recently that, while not intended to be malicious, left me feeling insecure all the same. Maybe I share too much, I offered. Maybe I don't share enough, I followed up. What if I'm being misinterpreted? What if people think there is something wrong with me? I felt embarrassed and worried.
But as I listened to Pat speak, as she shared stories of guiding people back to their original voices through writing (of guiding herself back to her original voice), the self-consciousness of my own voice began to lessen. My voice, and everyone else’s, began to feel necessary, beautiful, and important.
We’ve become so conditioned not to share, or only to share what is perfect, what is aspirational, what is staged or curated. We are taught to hide our fears, to act as if. We have become experts in creating voices that are no longer our own. We have buried our original voice in favor of the manufactured.
The night I returned home from Atlanta I stumbled upon an episode of "60 Minutes." Charlie Rose was interviewing Lin-Manuel Miranda, the playwright and composer of “Hamilton,” the blockbuster musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton. The show, which opened on Broadway in August, has already racked up 57 million dollars in advance ticket sales. Miranda is 35. He told Rose, “It’s put my dreams to shame.”
Miranda shared about his high school experience, how he managed to carve out a space for himself amid a sea of overachievers. He described knowing early on that he wouldn’t be able to out-smart or out-funny his classmates. So when Rose asked him why he thought he was sitting here [talking to Rose] and not one of his classmates, Miranda responded, “‘Cause I picked a lane and I started running ahead of everybody else.” His lane was theater. His lane was his original voice.
Shortly after President Obama took office, Miranda was invited to a White House dinner to perform a song from his first musical, “In the Heights.” He decided, however, to perform a song he’d just written for “Hamilton,” still in its conceptual stages. The audience laughed at him when he explained the premise of the show: Alexander Hamilton’s life set to a hip hop soundtrack. Miranda performed his song, and by the end, no one was laughing. His faith in his concept, his willingness to take a risk, his belief that his original voice was his truest voice, left the audience believing too.
Pat Schneider said, “We’ve had our original voices stolen.” It isn’t that we’ve lost them or that they’re something to be “found.” It’s more that so much story has been piled on top of our original voice (by ourselves, by others) that now we have to dig it out. We have to strip away what others think, what other parts of ourselves think, the armor and the crutches. The scariest thing we can do on this entire planet is be unabashedly ourselves.
Original voices will challenge us. They will ask everyone who hears them to look closely, not at one another but at ourselves. Original voices are relentless. They will mine the coal until they find gold. Original voices can be stolen but never lost.
Everyone has an original voice. Pick a lane and start running.