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Letters to the Living No. 4: Who Is Your Voice?

When I lived in London, I gave workshops on poetry and spoken word to children and teens, especially from migrant families. In one seminar in London’s East End, I asked three young Afro-Caribbean women to write an autobiography of their voice. Here’s the assignment:

Create your voice’s life story. It may be your story, or something altogether new and strange.
Give your voice a name and a body: human, animal, or divine.
Give your voice a birthplace and a quest: a journey in and/or out.
Give your voice a “voice” of its own.
Let your voice speak to you.
Create a dialogue between you and your voice.
What is he/she saying? What are you saying back?

I’ve encountered quite a few young people during my travels through Europe, the U.S., and the Middle East. So many are searching for their voice — how to speak their truth to the world. It’s one of the central journeys of my life too – how to discover, channel, and unleash one’s voice.

But I found that by thinking of the voice as an “it” rather than a “you” was disempowering. Voice is a part of us that should be encountered as essence, not object. So by reimagining the voice as being — as a life force in its own right — I thought this might unlock some latent creative energies, and help my students envision themselves in new ways.

The results of this experiment were beautiful and elegant, which, in both science and poetry, points to some nugget of truth. One of the young women described her voice as tasting like “rice and fresh raspberries.” Or imagine the story of a rainbow fish that was caught and cut open only to find a tiny daughter who understood the language of all things that flow.

So if you’ve ever asked yourself who you are and what your purpose is (that is, if you’re human and relatively engaged in being human), I’d recommend writing the life story of your voice. My only advice comes from Mary Oliver, which is to “keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”

Let your own voice surprise you.

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