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Finding your (actual) voice as a writer

Published 14th April, 2020 in MRP Guest Blogger

My hands seize up. My legs are numb. My entire body feels disconnected from my head, where a brain scan would show some activity, but from outward appearance is just a blinking face and messy hair. The alternating tap tap tap of the keys and the backspace button are the only sounds. 

Writing is a silent and outwardly static occupation, sitting at a computer or in front of a notebook, fiddling about with sentences. And even when you do get out, it feels like public life is getting quieter, too. People sit turtled over their screens, side by side but not talking. Long meandering phone conversations have been replaced with messages on screens, backed up with emojis. Catch a train or sit in a waiting room today and what you’ll often notice is the silence. 

On one hand, isolation is essential to getting any work done as a writer, and ultimately you do end up communicating something, even if you’re not around when your readers receive it. But on a day-to-day level, it all happens in your head. And after a while that can start to feel unnatural. 

Which was why I was drawn, a while back now, to a voicework performance with Scottish author AL Kennedy and voice trainer Ros Steen. AL Kennedy wrote, among many other things, Paradise, which opens with the most excruciating hangover scenes I’ve ever read, so I knew she alone would be worth the journey. 

The pair performed a live voice workshop, with Kennedy vocalising while Steen nodded along in encouragement, conducting with her right hand while her left hand sounded notes on a piano. At the end of this loud, somewhat baffling performance, Kennedy talked about how voicework helps her creative practice.

Writing, she said, is a fugitive profession. “I want you to know what I have to say, but not when I’m here. Voicework, by contrast, is embodied and absolutely direct. When you hit the high notes, strange things happen. Notes peel off, you’re dripping with sweat. And when you hit the very low notes, there is always a moment when you know you are making the exact noise you’ll make when you die. But you’re alive. So it becomes a life and death thing.”

For writers, voicework is a way of getting out of your head and back into your body, rather than existing only from the neck up. It can also improve your writing, she argues, as you can access your character’s emotional states more easily if you’re aware of their bodies.

So is it for everyone? Yes, said Steen. “I’ve never met anyone that can’t sing. It’s often that there is a huge energy in that voice and they don’t know how to shut it down. Unless someone has no vocal cords, they can do this work. The mask falls away during voicework as people don’t have the energy to maintain it while they are really releasing their voice. Though not everyone can make that journey. You need an enormous amount of courage.” 

Kennedy also said that many of the younger people she meets in her writing workshops have lost the full range of their voices. She thinks this stems from people spending so much time online, tapping out pithy Twitter updates or adding a like or quick comment to a friend’s Instagram post, rather than actually talking. 

This is something we have to work to combat. “It’s about not being afraid of yourself. You stop getting so freaked out by your own existence. Voicework releases all kinds of things, including brokenness. But the brokenness is also beautiful, so why would I hide it? And if I sound like a drowning hen—so what?”

She went on to say that discovering the ‘voice of the heart’ through these workshops has been a transformative experience. As an activist, she also views voicework as a political exercise. By literally strengthening our voices, she believes, we can be heard amid the overwhelming noise of the powerful. 

“There is a political edge, and always has been, around who gets to speak and who stays quiet. For me, this work was a revelation because I realised how much we are shushed and encouraged to be quiet in daily life. Talking loudly is a kind of God-given talent for some. But they aren’t always those with the best or most important things to say.”

It’s always fascinating to listen to established writers talk about their work, and in this case, how to combat the strange physical effects of such a stationary job over time. For writers—or anyone, really who spends a lot of time in front of a screen (and that’s a lot of us now)—getting back into our bodies is essential. Voicework, singing, running, swimming, walking, dancing, trampolining, yoga, surfing, the rhythmic work of gardening or cooking—they all provide a necessary counterbalance to those hours spent in our heads.

And for writers, there’s another benefit—when you step away from your desk and lose yourself in something physical you are often rewarded with plot solutions, story sparks and unexpected connections. 

So, if you are looking to create a long-term writing practice, it’s worth thinking about how you’re going to reset yourself physically. And for the dedicated, there’s also the option of not sitting down at all. British writer Bernardine Evaristo, who just won the Booker Prize for her beautiful novel Girl, Woman, Other, works at a standing desk. Now that’s when you know you’re serious. 

Read Zoe’s first blog post with us, ‘Reading Through the Fear’, here.

Zoe Deleuil is a writer from Perth, currently living in Berlin. In 2018 she was shortlisted for our short story competition and published in the anthology, Pigface and Other Stories. Her debut novel, The Night Village, will be published by Fremantle Press in 2021.

We publish high-end literary fiction, crime and the best short stories currently being written in Australia.

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