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How Emailing My Mom Gave Me My Writer’s Voice Back


Much like a profuse, Indian-girl unibrow, my love of the written word was ever-present in my childhood. I may not have had many friends, but boy did I have a glut of journals, ranging from day-planners to sticky pads to Moleskines. The mountain of notebooks that cluttered up my room was the only thing safe from my over-protective mom, which made it sacred to me. In these notebooks, I first developed my craft through poetry, short stories, and essays, depicting every last detail of my crush-of-the-moment, right down to the nose hair.

Nearly a decade later, applying to some sort of journalism program was a natural progression for me. I had remained confident in my plan to become a great writer, and fortunately, was accepted into my first choice for university, where I was certain my real-life narrative was just beginning.

In spite of my confidence, I immediately joined the ranks of the kids who couldn’t cut it in the program, and the one thing that had formerly come easily to me (writing), was suddenly something I was second guessing. It wasn’t that I wasn’t trying or didn’t possess the skill; what I struggled with, right off the bat, was finding my writer’s voice. In light of my shortfalls, one professor recommended I reevaluate my degree and I came close on several occasions.

So where does a writer’s voice come from? Some would argue that your writer’s voice is formed by what you read and you have to be wary of crossing that fine border into imitation. Besides this, writer’s voice can be largely intangible, and much like star quality, it can’t always be pinpointed. Working writers will tell you it’s the attitude, emotion, and personality you already possess that comprises your voice, but I gather it’s something beyond this that makes a writer’s voice a strong one. Everybody has a lens through which they view the world, but not everybody has a strong writer’s voice.

According to Jane Friedman, the former President and Chief Executive Officer of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide, developing a strong voice might be as simple as paying attention to what captures your mind and your heart—that, and mastering the skill of the rewrite. Via her blog, she writes, “Try generating new material without deleting as you go. Leave a string of your not-quite-right words and ideas. What happens if you erase your first inkling? You interrupt the flow that will soon lead you to what you really want to say. Tidying as you go cuts off your process. Learn to tolerate seeing the mess so your voice has room to grow and permission to show itself.”

I wish I could say I turned it around and surprised my professors by my fourth and final year of university, but by that time I had simply stopped trying to find my voice. I didn’t even know how to begin and I was so disheartened that I had already resolved to give up on writing. I would work in human resources or at the public library—somewhere that wouldn’t force me to be creative. By that point, I yearned for tasks that were formulaic and not subjective; for years after obtaining my degree, I worked as a receptionist, an office administrator, and a personal assistant. I stopped writing for pleasure too. By the end of 2013, the only thing I was writing was email to my mother.

Here’s where my “ah-ha” moment comes in, because—spoiler alert—I now write for a living, and I can’t believe I ever considered doing anything else. Miraculously, it was the emails my mom and I exchanged back and forth for years, after I’d moved away from home, that changed the game for me. While these emails oftentimes lacked proper grammar and forwent conventional spelling, within the pressure-free confines of these private conversations, I was able to be myself at length—a luxury I had not been comfortable enough to experience when writing for my professors. Even though I didn’t know it was happening, I was developing my voice again, as I shared my experiences, long-distance, with my mom. And no matter how banal were my stories about irksome co-workers, perpetually drunk roommates, and awkward first dates, mom always wrote back, and was always open to hearing more. Ironically enough, my mom had become the human version of the journals I’d been hell-bent on keeping from her as a cagey adolescent.

Here’s what I now understand from my experience of losing (and gaining back) my writer’s voice: you’re never not developing your voice, meaning it should always be in a state of flux and should always be somewhat malleable. Leave rigidity to the seasoned writers with a couple of books under their belt, and let your voice be affected by the things you read, the people you meet, the experiences you have, and the culture you’re lucky enough to be exposed to. And finally, let your voice get away from you sometimes, just to see where it will end up, and just to see if you can draw it back in.

As a writer, everything you do is a step towards developing your voice, which is an endless task. Just because you’ve written something with a strong voice today doesn’t mean your work is done. So consider everything to be practice, be it writing in a personal journal, blogging anonymously, sending snail-mail to friends overseas, or—you guessed it—emailing your mom.

Illustration by Josh Quick.

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Zakiya Kassam (Guest Blogger)

Zakiya is a writer. Her articles have been published in The Globe and Mail, This Magazine, Toronto Star, NOW Magazine, and J-Source, amongst others. Find her on Twitter: @zakkassam