Call and Response (Or, Learning to Love my own Voice)

When I used to sit down to write, I heard a lot of voices in my head.

Some sounded like the person I wanted to be. Some were my grandmothers and other imagined ancestors. One was a collective shout of all the Baptists I’ve known. Many were the writers I loved.

No matter who it was, getting words out was painful. The eternal empath, I couldn’t sort through what I felt that everyone else needed from or wanted for me. There was not enough silence to write my way out.

Then one afternoon, in the midst of a miserable job and the overpowering awareness that I could really do anything I wanted, I sat down with some blank index cards. I remembered an early morning in Tulsa when my husband-to-be became the one truth that could not fade. I took a picture from the Oxford American that translated that moment and turned it into a bookmark poem for M. When he read it, the voices in my head started listening to my own.

After that unusually sunny weekend afternoon, I became more patient with my heart’s fear of discovery. It became a little easier to coax its song out of hiding as the stakes were as low as what would fit on a postcard. Words and images that needed a 4×6 space to call home bloomed out of my fingers. For the first time since my teenage years, I didn’t want to stop writing.

The process of learning to be honest with yourself so that you can be honest with the world comes slowly for people who know how it feels not to be heard—who want more than anything to help other people find a place where they do not feel alone. These days, sitting down with a blank card and letting those voices come out gives me enough space to hear my own say anything and everything that it wants. Sometimes, it starts with an image that I saw on the streets of Chicago or read in a novel. Other days, I wake up to Ma’s voice and have to capture it before the walking world takes her away again.

For me, the process starts with not trying to fight against the words that have broken and healed me through all of my life. It begins with listening long enough to join in.

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