Tag Archives: voice

that doesn’t make me a stupid girl: that makes me human

multicolored graffiti that reads, "Developing a voice"

Developing a voice... (click on the image to see more of Cassidy Curtis's pictures)

Thursday is a VozSutra day, talking about the practice of voice.

This morning I woke up when the alarm went off at 5.24, but then hung around in bed for another half hour, sleeping and wrangling with getting up — thinking of lines of poetry.  The only one I can remember now is something about the bright eyes in our vaginas, or the bright vaginas in our eyes. I think it was the latter.

I dreamt of writing a thoughtful-yet-blistering post to facebook (dear god, it’s time for a break when I start dreaming about facebook! that’s terrible!) about transguys taking their shirts off in public. There’d been a whole bunch of photos in a row, guys posting about what they’d done that weekend, and look, I got to take off my shirt, now that I got my surgery and look, you can’t even see the scars, and it was so nice to feel the sun on my chest, finally — and I was just livid, because of the willingness to do this, to share this celebration with all of their female-bodied compatriots who would have been cited or arrested at the same events if they’d taken their own damn shirts off without putting fucking stickers or tape (or something else painful to remove) over their nipples. (It may have been that I had exactly this feeling at Oakland Pride this weekend — just maybe.) Livid because of the willingness, too, on the part of some transguys, to say that transitioning has nothing to do with male privilege. And yet those photographs, that experience, in this country: male privilege. In the dream, F! was worried, didn’t want me to be too something — and so I was thoughtfully crafting this message that wasn’t too angry, but was still clear and a bit angry, but didn’t make anyone uncomfortable, and…as you can imagine, I didn’t get the damn thing posted before I woke up.

What’s this about — this fear of just saying what we think, when we, at the same time, think someone else will be offended.  As female folk (and even here I freeze — is it just female folk? am I being too gender-essentialist?) we’re socialized to be polite and cautious about what we say: don’t lead anyone on, don’t upset anyone. And so we grow up learning to swallow so many things, in so many different ways — we learn how not to speak the things that will upset someone. You know all this already.  The question is, how to unlearn that swallowing.  How to spit it back up and out?

Writing is a help, for me — putting it down on the page, in a notebook, in a thick messy scrawl, with as much intention and emotion as necessary. I remind myself that I don’t have to share it with anyone, and for a very long time, I didn’t. I just kept on going to the cafe, ordering my large bowl of french roast coffee and sitting in the back corner or up front, by the window, just writing in the notebook — trying to figure out how to get it all down, how to say it all the way it felt in my body.

And then, little by little, I started sharing this writing voice with others — at work, at organizing meetings, at open mics, through characters in stories that found their way into anthologies, and then, lo and behold, just in conversation with my lovers and friends. And it’s still a struggle.  It’s a struggle to say something that I know will upset or offend somebody, it’s a struggle not to waver with kind of, I think, don’t you? or try to give voice to every side of an issue at the same time — everyone likes you if you don’t take a clear side, is what I’ve learned, if you just kind of look like you’re leaning toward their side when you’re talking to them. That’s a skill girls learn, I think, and maybe some boys too, something trauma survivors learn, over and over: the ways not to appear a threat, not to appear to have a mind of our own, not to say something that will set someone else off.

I understand the ways that using caution around voice is a self-protective mechanism. And I hold within me the aftermath: that choking, that wishy-washiness, that unreasonable (for me) terror that upsetting someone else means my physical safety is threatened.

For many years, I literally could not have an debate or argument about something I felt strongly about — I’d get so angry, and afraid, too, that I just couldn’t speak, couldn’t find the words I wanted; my mind just went blank. I despaired of ever being able to articulate, extemporaneously, my feelings about, say, violence against women, or rape in movies, or incest anywhere, or queer assimilation or… and, of course, I’d be talking to people who could remain dispassionate about their opinion, which we at my undergraduate institution were supposed to be learning how to do. But how do I stay unemotional about battery and intimate partner violence? Who would want to? Why keep the facade of objectivity, when there just isn’t any such thing as a non-subjective perspective or viewpoint?

I could, of course, easily preach to the converted, and maybe that helped.  The writing, and the talking with folks who shared, and added to/expanded, my feelings and politics and analysis on a particular subject. Listening to other folks talk, folks who could both embody emotion and clearly navigate complex terrain, also inspired me to believe that it was possible to do.

And these morning blogs are another part of that practice –to write what I’m thinking into the computer without too much forethought or editing, sometimes even just stating an opinion without apology: the gall. I learn to be willing to be wrong, learn that it’s not the end of the world if I change or grow, complicate, my opinion. That doesn’t make me a stupid girl: that makes me human.

So, here’s a prompt: Is there something you’re really upset about or affected by right now, something you’d like to find the words to articulate? Can you give yourself 20 minutes in the notebook with that today, letting yourself not make sense, not complete your sentences, get really angry or sad, if you want, or even contradict yourself… this isn’t for anyone else. This is writing work, and it’s your own powerful practice.

Thank you so much for being there, for reading — and for your writing!

voice is a practice

graffiti on the side of a house -- speak the truth, even if your voice shakes

This is the morning.  Today is Thursday, and that means MedEd Writers at UCSF, and it also means a VozSutra post.

(Tea update: the tea this morning’s spiced, again, and today with a little sugar and a little milk — we got milk last night for yogurt, which I made with a little bit of vanilla bean again, to give it some flavor, and which is still setting up.)

Ok: what is VozSutra? (I mean, besides my Twitter-self and the title of our eventual online lit-zine?) For me, it’s (about) the practice of voice. A sūtra is a teaching (from a word meaning thread), an instruction for practice. Voz is the Spanish word for voice or opinion. (And, as an aside, also the Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian word for train!)

I wanted, a year or so ago, to find some language that began to thread together the various workshops I was doing — sexuality writing workshops, writing with survivors of sexual violence, of extreme and ritual abuse, workshops with adults living with cancer and other life altering illnesses. How do these groups connect?

Actually, initially, I wanted to find language to make sense of an organization (writing ourselves whole) that offered sexuality writing workshops and sexual trauma workshops. I think when folks came to visit my website, they could, somewhere inside, understand or maybe grok how these two went together: yes, it makes sense that folks who’ve experienced sexual violence might want to engage with their sexuality through this form of practice, this writing process — and, too, it makes sense that someone might offer both these kinds of workshops.  I worried, though, too, that folks would come to the website to look at information about the sexuality workshops or the survivors workshops and be put off that I offered the other one as well — and yes, in the thickness I worry that someone thinks I’m conflating sexuality and sexual violence. And that’s not what I/we do.

So what I wanted was language that brought together what happens in these varying workshops, and what arose for me after some discussion and play was this combination of ideas, this janky, makeshift concatenation of ideas: vozsutra — voice practice, voice lessons: refinding and holding on to the thread of our own voices.

(I’ll admit here that I have an affinity for Katasutra, the mascot of boingboing once upon a time and a secret agent of the NeoWobblies, and so the phrasing, I’m sure, comes from there, as does the bringing together of culturally disparate yet potentially related ideas into one word or phrase.)

graffiti -- using a bullhorn to shout and holding up love/heart in the other handWhat I’ve found is a desire to bring difficult stories to voice, to practice finding and claiming our (writing) voice, our true and complicated voices, over and over again.

This is the thread: voice is a practice. Over and over, we have to step up into telling our own truth, in poetry, in fiction, in memoir, in slams, in conversation, in action.  Over and over: each time, each day, it’s new again, this capacity we have to be true to ourselves and our desires, our histories and our presences.

I believe in the power of finding voice for difficult stories, the stories that others don’t want us to tell, the stories we most don’t want to tell because they are too painful, shameful, scary, gross, messy, real. Difficult stories are often, in my experience, also gorgeous stories — they are rich with detail and honesty, they are riveted with attention and energy. Dorothy Allison, and others as well, describe the importance of going after the fear in your writing: that’s where the energy is. When I talk about societally-difficult stories, I mean stories we’re afraid to tell because one or more of our communities don’t want to hear them, because they’re stories that complicate what we (can) mean, to ourselves, to our families, to our friends, to our organizing groups, our affinity groups, our identity groups —

VozSutra is returning to that practice of our own voice: telling our own truths, over and over, complicating ourselves anyway in the service of finding our own deep truth, and making that complicated, complexly-human space available, through our modeling, to others as well.

And the thread? What’s that poem that I first heard from John Fox?

The Way It Is
William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change.  But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

What are the threads for you today?  What are the apparently-disparate pieces that make up your whole?  What pieces are you not letting go of?

Thank you for being there, for reading and for writing —

raw and possible


Initially I see these two wiry bony consecrated hands, sharp-tipped and skinny, long fingers with severely, gorgeously articulated joints, reaching down into a throat, through mouth, beyond lips and teeth and tongue, past the epiglottis, I think, past uvula and gag reflex and there is no hope of vomiting because this is going down. I see them inside, the two hands, the fingers catching hold of a wizened greenish-greying mass, this sticky dripping lump, something squeamish, tender, almost furry or corrugated, entirely encapsulated in slime — something like a hairball or a carcass, the body of an alien life form, but without tendrils or tentacles — something without hope or fever or mental status.

Something incoherent. Or inchoate. Or both.

The hands pull it out of its lodging the way you yank something nearly rotted and festering out of the disposal chamber in your sink — gingerly, quick, with steady pressure, hoping your fist will fit on the way back out with you holding to the pile of not yet decomposed foodstuffs mixed with peach bits or bones or a spoon, all of which is tangling up the blades of your disposal — I mean your throat.

It’s become its own colony, this amalgamation: collecting every loop that got slipped around your neck, every swallowed I said no thank you, every murmured Please stop , every unspoken I wish you would, every clenched teeth mumbled Jesus Christ will you just get the fuck away from me, every Gosh I don’t know that issued from between your lips instead of the facts that gathered boom like metal to magnet         on the other side of the gathering storm in your throat. Numbers, equations, dates, names, places, hopes, longings, dreams: all tangled together, knotted and nearly putrid         but not quite         just like the compost can be. You know it’s all good stuff in there, even if it has been left all on its own to fester and decompose

The fingers begin to pick and pull at the mass, brushing away green slime         saliva and more caught for so many years, what got washed down your gullet — and your throat is bone sore, stretched and aching, wheezing empty with sound         cavernous, open, raw and possible

‘Resurrecting’ survivor voices

One of the pieces of “survivor” identity that I wrangle with is this idea that we must “recover” our voices. I mean the notion that our voices are lost, have been snatched away from us.

The literal truth for most of us is that our voices were always here – and yet swallowing this concept of “lost voice” (en)forces a deep body collusion with the prevailing myths and metaphors of those in power. We internalize the idea that we’re silenced in order, I think, to break free of the reality in fact that we are/were ignored. That there are those who heard what we said, and then just turned their faces away from ours.

I spent years believing that I was silenced, that I had no voice. The fact is that I was unheard–an important distinction. As is true for most kids, I learned not to tell my complete truth while I was growing up, and then, and, like many millions of children around the world, I was trained in secrecy by a stepfather/rapist who took my (en)forced silence as his birthright, and used it as a weapon against me. How do we who are survivors of abuse (sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse) tell our truths in a culture that doesn’t want to really hear people’s words and meanings? We are not heard by abusers who demand a silence they can interpret as “Yes.” We are not heard by a patriarchal, capitalist society that demands our silence so they can overlay our lives with their image of us. We are not heard by a government that usurps women’s tears in order to justify the killing of other women’s sons and daughters.

Sometimes I am left wondering why I should bother trying to communicate at all, when those in power aren’t listening. When I speak, my sentences often come out broken and peculiar, cut off in the middle with long stretches of silence. I stop writing to stare out the window. I stop typing to play with a candle that doesn’t want to stay lit. I stop. That’s their aim.

My aim though, is to start again. After years of internalizing the directives instructing me to be quiet, be quiet, be quiet, I have begun the work of trusting the true power of my voice. I have come to believe in linguistic border-crossing as a means through which to change the world through a renewed sense of speech, voice, self, embodiment, empowerment. One means through which to enact this change is with a writing practice–a regular, repeated experience of coming to aspects of self through writing, through linguistic risk taking; the placing of self and selves on the page; the attempt to name what cannot be named and what we have been told should not be named. I have used this writing practice to struggle with and against the silences imposed on me, silences I’ve been expected to collude with, to put voice and flesh to experiences and desires–both sexual and not–that were never meant to be articulated.

Sometimes it seems we speak into the wind and feel the craziness of unhearing laying across our face and shoulders like a heavy wet blanket. Our government is at war, killing people for no reason other than money and hatred. Here again is the time and place for our writing, through which we can do difficult work. We are a nation of subjected and silenced people. We are a nation of people trained into the difference of others as reason enough to kill them. Millions of people around the world gathered to declare their opposition to a U.S.-led invasion, and the U.S. invaded anyway. Does this mean that those millions all lost their voices? No–they were ignored.

We are a nation raised on our supremacy–the United States of America is the greatest country in the world!–and so many of us believe it even as we see the leaders stripping away our bedsheets and clothes, snatching the food from our and our children’s mouths, tearing down our homes, thieving the books from our children’s hands and tossing it all on the bonfires of their war, tossing it all into their own furnaces; selling our bodies on the open market to the highest or most connected bidder and pocketing the money themselves.

If we don’t tell our stories, others will tell them for us, and they will get them wrong. (I’m not the first one to articulate this fact; who said that?) The stories that others tell for and about you will be used to build policy and pathology, will be used to build houses to hide you in / used to build walls to close around you / will be used to build stories to their own ends / will be used against you. If we do not tell our stories, the stories told about us will be used to our detriment.

Your voice, however it sounds or doesn’t, has always been in you, with you, of you, you. And what happens in the Writing Ourselves Whole workshops, in most Amherst Writers and Artists workshops, is that your words – that relentless creative speech and possibility – are deeply attended to, not pathologized or ensnared in sin or broken down but opened into all it’s matter-of-factness, heard as beauty and majesty or rage, walked through as a garden full of flowers, a pond lily marshside.