Every morning last week Cyndi and I woke up to the sound of birds. Loud birds. Our bedroom, if you call it that, had only one wall and the rest was open to the world. We couldn’t help but experience the chorus. It was obvious even to non-birders like us the overly ambitious bird just outside our “bedroom” was calling, or warning, more of its own species on the next ridge, and they were responding in kind.
They didn’t seem to care about all the other birds calling around them. They knew exactly which voice was the correct on, and were interested only in that.
I sat in my lounge chair writing in my journal while listening to birds and thought about how quickly I can recognize Cyndi’s voice in a crowded room. We’ve invested over 35 years learning each other.
And yet, I have to admit I’m still learning my own voice. Finding that voice is the life struggle for any artist, certainly any writer. I’m always surprised when readers tell me they hear my voice when they read my writing, because I’m never certain. I don’t think we develop or learn a voice from scratch as much as discover and deepen it. But it takes a lot of writing, a lot of copying, a lot of reading, for our true voice to find its way out.
For me, the biggest influences in finding my voice has been teaching and reading.
In teaching I’ve learned how to bring my far-flung abstractions into focus so others can follow what I’m saying. There are moments when I’m teaching in Compass or Iron Men when I realize I said something in my authentic voice, and it’s sobering. I often retreat to the corner after class, seeking quiet and solitude because, I can’t believe what just happened.
As a writer I never witness the active response of my readers, but when teaching I am constantly aware of the responses of listeners. Teaching has made me a better writer, and has helped me find my voice.
And reading certain authors has shaped my writing voice. Calvin Trillin has taught me than anything can be funny. Austin Kleon taught me to let people in on the writing process and not just the finished product. In reading Donald Miller I’ve learned to love my readers and trust what I’ve written matters to their lives. Erwin McManus has encouraged me to stop fretting, sit up straight like a man and be the artist, and to wear my creativity on the outside where it shows.
But none of those have crafted my voice as much as a lifetime of knowing God.
In his book, The Artisan Soul, McManus wrote, “When we hear God’s voice, we finally find our voice. When we find our voice, we discover we finally have something to say, and that when we speak, our words have power.”
If we want our true voice to speak or write words that matter, we have to first hear God’s voice. It’s God that gives us something to say that has lasting value.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32