Courtenay Baker-Olinger describes herself as a happily married, working mama of two young kids, infant twins, two cats, a flock of chickens and one large dog. Her blog, Soup: Midwestern Mama Cooking Up Life in the Heartland won the Best Humor Blog in the 2010 Scholastic Parent and Child Blog Awards. She is a regular contributor to the Iowa City Patch.com and is one of The Real Moms of Eastern Iowa.
If you want to get in good with her, bring her some sushi, red wine and chocolate. Or a really good book to read.
“You have no voice.”
That was the response written by my English teacher on the top of a paper I turned in my senior year in high school. It didn’t really bother me. I was sort of checked out anyway, my path for the next four years chosen and cemented by scholarship auditions, housing requests, and the fancy new backpack for my college texts. I didn’t need a voice in my writing because I was going to be an actress. I was born to bring a voice to other people’s words.
Or so I thought.
My first course in college was the obligatory College Writing 101. Our first assignment was to write about a formative moment using descriptive language. Well… crap. I had nothing interesting to write about. I dithered about, starting three different papers before deciding that I had the most boring life any white, middle-class girl had ever had. I had no source material, no crisis, nothing that would make an interesting read for anyone.
So I punted. I wrote about a family I knew – a family that was falling apart. I described a mother addicted to gambling, a father addicted to rage, and a couple of terrified kids caught in the middle. They weren’t my family, but I loved them nonetheless. It wasn’t my story, so I wrote about watching their collapse from the outside, casting myself in the role of narrator.
When I brought the paper to class, I was introduced to a new concept – the writer’s workshop. My heart raced as I listened to the other students and the Important Situations that shaped them. I offered compliments and constructive criticism, nothing too biting because I was terrified to read my piece. Finally, the group turned expectant faces to me. I cleared my throat and laid my papers flat on the desk so that no one would see my hands shake. And I started reading. When I finished, I looked at the desk, dreading the reaction as a child dreads an immunization. No one spoke. My heart dropped in the silence.
The instructor approached our circle as one girl put her head on her desk, hiding tears. I looked up and no one made eye contact with me. My breath was shallow and quick – I was very confused, very unsure, and very vulnerable and yet no one was talking. The instructor pulled up a chair and broke into the circle of silence, her words soft-spoken and nurturing, “I’ll start. I think that this was a fantastic piece of writing – dissecting an entire family by describing a three-minute argument. Every word was essential to the emotional tone of the piece; I was overwhelmed by the needs of the children. What a wonderful voice!”
Wait a minute! Three short months ago I had no voice…
And yet, though the way had been pointed out with a big, flashing neon sign, I deliberately turned the other direction. I was an actress, not a writer. I bring life to other people’s words, not my own. It didn’t matter that in my head I narrated everything that happened to me all day long. It didn’t matter that my first reaction to every new experience, every moment of weight in my life was to describe it to myself, putting the words together like Jackson Pollack painting, slamming them into each other until the description melded and captured every sensory detail. It didn’t matter that someone had told me I had a voice; I didn’t want to use it on my own words! I was to breathe life into someone else’s character and I needed to push my fledgling voice aside to do that.
The problem was (and is) that as I grew, as I started owning my opinions and owning my life, my voice began calling to me, like an echo in a pristine rainforest. It gathered momentum, picking up words like pebbles, carrying them forward, rolling, tumbling, expanding until my children were born. Then my voice and all of the treasures it had collected cascaded like an avalanche, pulling me along, burying me in words until I had to dig myself out by writing, by casting words into story, into flesh, into the world.
And there it is again, my voice. Now with experience and lifetime to back it up so that it sings with the colors of the landscape, weaving rhyme and rhythm into a counterpart. It hadn’t been hiding, but perhaps it had some stage fright. Perhaps it was too constrained by my own narrow vision. Perhaps it needed the melody of motherhood to return.
I realize now that my voice can be used both on my words and on the words of others — that the same well of creativity that inspires performance also pours into writing. I do not need to compartmentalize my experience anymore. I can write and perform and dance and mother and read and paint and plant and cook and love and sing and it is all me all the time.
So here I go…