When I began my first book of personal essays about the desert where I then lived, I struggled to find my writing voice. I had always written as an expert, telling stories of science. That was easy for me: I was trained as a scientist and grew up in a family that valued observation, data collection, analysis, and detachment. Articulating my personal voice–the voice of my heart and spirit–was much more difficult. How did I do it? By cultivating quiet, stilling my mind, and treating my writing as a spiritual practice. Here's an excerpt from my memoir, Walking Nature Home, just released by University of Texas Press that tells the story:
I threw myself into my writing, beginning a book on the desert where we lived. I read archeology, anthropology, and history. I waded through hydrology and water law. I burrowed into geology, botany, and zoology. I searched out journals of early explorers, poured over Spanish land grants, went to the county courthouse to examine old deeds. I found stories galore, but no matter what I wrote, the sentences came out stiff, the tales lifeless. I couldn't seem to find my writing voice. …
A background in science made it easy to speak as an expert, but the results didn't satisfy me. When I turned in the first few chapters of my desert book, my editor returned them with one word in all caps scrawled atop the beginning of the manuscript: "Personalize!" What was I supposed to say?
Quakers find their voices in silence. Friends' silent worship stems from the belief that the voice of the divine, the urgings of the spirit, can only be heard from attentive stillness. Out of the quiet comes sacred speech as individual Friends stand up and give voice to their insights. … In Quaker practice, silence speaks.
I began to treat my work as worship, striving consciously to cultivate the inner and outer quiet necessary to hear the voice of my spirit. Once Richard left for campus and Molly biked off to school, I sat down at my computer, a mug of herb tea close at hand. For the first half hour or so, I cleared my mind by spilling its clutter of thoughts, emotions, images, and memories into an unedited, uncensored journal file, simply writing them out of my way. Then I settled in to work in the stillness I had created, ignoring the ringing of the telephone, the summons of the doorbell, the noise of cars passing on the street outside. Whenever I found myself giving in to the oh-so-urgent call of household or garden tasks, I recollected what I was about, hauled myself back to my office, wrapped the stillness around me, and resumed writing.
In essence, what I was doing was honoring my writing by giving myself the conditions I needed to nurture my creativity. Silence, both metaphorical and literal, helped me listen to the voice of my heart and spirit, key components of my writing voice.
What do you need to nurture your writing voice? How do you find silence–or whatever nurtures your creativity–in your life?
I'll be back on Telling HerStories on April 10th as part of my blog book tour for Walking Nature Home to talk about my journey with this story, including how long it took me to write. I'll also talk about what I've learned about reconciling my private and public lives since the memoir has been released. For more on my blog book tour, visit my web site.
In the meantime, join the discussion: How do you make writing your practice?