When the leaves dance: thoughts on developing your voice.

Dear anna,

My English teacher told us yesterday to write in our own voice and not to write descriptively, saying “can I have some water” instead of “may I partake of that liquid refreshment?” This slightly goes against everything I’ve ever learned about formal writing. I love writing descriptively and making the leaves dance between the trees rather than just fall to the ground! Do you have any advice about a balance between voice and still wanting to paint a picture?

Thank you,


Sweet T,

I may have shared this story once or twice before but I will never forget the night I sent the first draft of my memoir to my editor. It was two days before the stated deadline. I pressed “send” on the email and the first thing I did was take a shower. I stood there for a really long time, no concern for the water bill, letting the stress and the angst of 14-hour book writing days fall off of my body. I didn’t know if I did a good thing or a bad thing in writing that first draft but I knew I had given it my everything.

I dried my hair. My boyfriend at the time picked me up. We rode to a burger joint and I laid in the parking lot pretending to kiss the gravel. I was being dramatic but I felt free and accomplished. I ate a burger the size of my head, went to sleep, and woke up at 4am the next morning to catch a flight to New Orleans. There was nothing climactic or big about that day.

A month later, my editor sent back her notes. I remember red slashes all over the pages and many phrases like “cut this” or “change this” or “explain this to me.” I felt defeated when it came to that first draft. I thought a good writer would have had less edits, less slash marks, less “cut this” remarks. My editor wrote in her note to me, “I could be very wrong about this but I wonder if you are hiding behind really pretty words when you could just come out and tell me how you really feel.”

In that moment— because of that one sentence— I became a better writer. Or maybe I finally became a writer.

I was 25 at the time. I treated life like I treated glass: very careful to never left anything break. I wrapped my words in descriptive and metaphorical wrapping paper. I had this thing where I wanted every word and every phrase to sound beautiful and romantic. I thought that’s what you had to do to be a good writer: write sentences people had to read three or four times before they grasped the depths of them.

You don’t have to be the girl who only uses pretty words. You don’t have to be the person who writes so complexly that no one understands them. There is a time and a space for beauty and description. There is a time and a space to just say what you need to say, void of filters and a thesaurus. There is a time to write about the leaves and how they bow and break off of their branches when Autumn comes and calls for them to die. There is a time to write about the collar of his shirt and how you never knew what home smelt like until the day he packed that collared shirt with the droopy stripes in a suitcase and never came back for you. There is also a time to simply write, “He left. It still hurts.” People will get you. People will understand you. People will stare at their palms, and look at the wall, and say, “He left me too. It still hurts too.”

That’s the beautiful thing about writing: it is one of the most rare and sacred ways to connect with other people and help them to feel. People want to feel things even when they are afraid of what those feelings will do to them. If you dress up your language so much that no one understands you— that no one can find you in the sea of adverbs and adjectives— you’ll never really be heard. Or you might look back and wish you’d been heard differently for who you really were.

T, I think your English teacher was simply trying to tell you to be yourself. You could absolutely write, “May I partake of that liquid refreshment” but would ever really say that to someone? Would you stand at a party and offer someone a fruity libation? Would you recite a poem to a person when they ask you not to go?

Language is simple and complex. That’s the beauty of it. I think your English teacher is smart to teach you how to find your voice. Your voice will be different than the person sitting next to you. That’s the cool thing about finding your voice in the writing process: you become different and set apart. We all crave that at the beginning and end of a day: the chance to be set apart and seen.

One last thing on voice: you must do the work, T. So many people create a blog or buy a notebook and just expect for their voice to show up. Like I wrote earlier, you’ve got to develop that voice through practice, discipline, and life. Even more people out there read the words of a writer they admire and then they begin writing just like them.

I once had to have a really tough conversation with a writer who was also a reader of my blog. I read her blog pretty consistently but I watched as more and more of my voice showed up in her writing. Several people reached out to me and told me they felt like she was using my voice. She started to borrow sentences and phrases. It came to a point where I had to email her and ask her to talk with me on the phone.

I felt a little crazy but I had to know, “Are you copying me? Are you using my voice?” I probably wasn’t expecting a straight answer but she didn’t cower in a corner, she was really honest with me. She told me yes, she was copying my writing. She was reading so closely that she was picking up phrases and sentence structure purposely and using it in her own corner of the internet.

What followed from that confession was this really redemptive conversation on voice. She and I were hundreds of miles away, talking over cell phones, but I felt like she was close to me. I still remember pacing the gravel of the sidewalk outside of church as I spoke to her for close to two hours. I still remember wearing a blue dress.

I told her it was a bigger issue when you opt for another person’s voice because it is easier or because it gains you applause. Two things happen when you pick someone else’s voice over your own. 1) You neglect your process. 2) You hijack their process.

For her to pick up my voice and use it was for her to claim she was a girl who used to sit in chapels hoping God would speak to her. A girl who spent her high school summer vacations listening to Delilah’s Love Songs at Night and calling into to request Mariah Carey songs be dedicated to SOS (Some One Special). A girl who once fell in love at the tail end of a semester, spun in circles by a guy who would read her Walt Whitman poetry late into the night and who would come back after a long summer and decide he didn’t want her. A girl who only became a writer because her grandmother told her to and she wanted her grandmother’s life to live longer than it had the chance to. My voice is a combination of sanctuaries, newspaper clippings, pages torn from books, love letters left by my mother, grace, and wisdom. To take that voice from me is to take the most precious thing I’ve ever been given the chance to develop. 

Developing your voice takes time. It takes writing a lot of words. It takes getting honest and getting real with yourself and your readers. Your voices develops in secret places where you scribble for hours on yellow notepads. Your voice develops when you pay attention to how your friends think and speak and act when they are nervous or in love. Your voice isn’t something you find, it’s something you birth. You spend hours in the darkroom, just in the way they used to develop film, and something is birthed out of you that the world gets to devour.

Your voice is a combination of thoughts, feelings and places you’ve gone. Your voice is a 1999 pop ballad and a 2008 heartbreak. Your voice is that beach house you spent every summer at up until you were 16. Your voice is the night you went, and said, and asked, and celebrated. That’s how you make your voice yours and only yours— you live and then you write it down. Go out there, live and then write it down.

If the leaves danced then tell me they danced. If you slow danced in the kitchen then tell me the song. Tell me the tiny, delicate details that make this story your own.

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