Feeling caged while trying to perfect your one “true” writing voice? Read Sonya Huber’s new book, Voice First.

Last week, I wrote about how I used my voice to work toward a bucket list dream. The next day, I headed to the Porches Writing Retreat so I could complete a full read-aloud of my memoir before sending it to my final beta readers. It was a fitting lead up to my fall book choice: Voice First: A Writer’s Manifesto by Sonya Huber.

I met Sonya at the 2019 HippoCamp Writer’s Conference. She’s a dynamo of an instructor who teaches at Fairfield University. Her work blends razor-sharp skills with a deep sense of justice and compassion. Every time I read her work or hear her speak, I see the world in a new way.

Then there’s her opening sentence: “When you’re inside a piece of writing that hums and crackles and sparks, when a real person is talking to you from the page, you’ve encountered a voice.”

Voice is an ephemeral term writing instructors toss around like a ball you’re supposed to catch and then hold on to. The ball is your one true voice—a unique mixture of tone, diction, and style that separates your work from everyone else’s.

In Voice First, Sonya challenges the notion of one voice, and instead suggests we examine the voices living inside us, which she knows “are already fantastic.” Your job is not to whittle them into The One, but to “explore their range… and make choices about how and when to use them, how to draw on them, which voice to channel, how to create text that sounds like you, with the heft of your living and imagination, with syntax and style, and snap, and verve.”

A struggle with an autoimmune disease that deeply affected the writing voice she’d been using led to Sonya’s epiphanies. As her illness persisted, she tried to hold on to that old voice, but it no longer served her. At first, she was angry about the changes, but the experience led to profound realizations. “In letting myself loose a bit, in looking for the weird voices in my own life and head and letting them out, [she] found new ways to say things and new perspectives on [her] life.”

She sees voice as “a flame that must be protected,” from those who might tell us which of our voices is correct as well as the real-life troubles we may encounter. “Losing a voice can be triggered by trauma related to, or external to, writing instruction, including forms of social and systemic oppression.” Losing your voice can have profound effects, not just on what we put on the page, but also on our emotions and self-concept.

Whether you’re new to writing, trying to reclaim your writing voice, or hoping to hone the one that appears in your work-in-progress, Sonya suggests the first thing writers do is listen to their many voices.

She references Writing Alone and with Others by Pat Schneider, who “talks about having three categories of voices: an ‘original voice’ of childhood, a ‘primary voice’ used in our present everyday life, and many ‘acquired voice…’ she describes the primary voice as the ‘natural unselfconscious way we talk to the people we most love and with whom we are most comfortable,’ one that has ‘taken on color and texture from every place we have lived, everyone with whom we have lived, and all that we have experienced.’”

This was something Amy Eaton and I talked about a lot as I prepared for the Lancaster Story Slam. She kept saying, “Get that metal chick in there, and let her do the talking.” While some of that metal chick shows up in the conversations I have with family or friends, she’s often overshadowed by the forty-something professional who focuses a little more on peace and love and a little less on the motherfucking intensity of it all.

Since I was staying in the Porches’ cabin and not the main house, I had the freedom to let that metal chick rock out during my trip. We scream/sang songs from Hole, Nirvana, and the Foo Fighters. I let her heart break as I sang Queen’s of the Stone Age’s “Long Slow Goodbye,” the song during the Taylor Hawkins Memorial Concert that slayed me.

Having made friends with her, I began to think about who else inside me is being neglected.

Over the next few months I’ll share more highlights from Sonya’s book, but to truly understand what she has to say about voice, buy her book.

Wondering if it’s for you?

Check out this abbreviated version of this exercise at the end of her first chapter.

Make a list of the voices you use in your everyday life. Aim for at least ten. Now choose one and write for five minutes using that voice. What does a Text Message LOL Hahaha Woman have to tell you about your life? What is Work Email Woman afraid of? What does I Love My Doggy voice think about your work? 

How many voices did you come up with? Which one speaks most often? Which one needs your attention?

Most importantly what do you plan to do with your answers?

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