"I knew it was you before I even read the byline of the article," she said to me. "No one else has your voice."
It was a throwaway comment from a friend—she probably doesn't even remember saying it. But I tasted those words for weeks because they came after a hard-won battle.
Six years ago, I quit writing. After more than 20 years of calling myself a writer, I laid the dream down in the ground, heaped on a bit of earth, and walked away. There were many reasons why I quit writing, but the final nail in the coffin was the literary agent who told a roomful of hopeful writers if we didn't have a huge platform (think mega-church pastor) to recommend us, then we'd be lucky to have a unique enough voice to ever be published. Quite right, quite right, murmured the packed room taking notes at the writer's conference, all while my carefully curated dreams of sitting across from Oprah discussing my book's inclusion in her book club crumbled to dust.
I knew the truth in that moment: I had no voice. Even though I loved to write and had a knack for a phrase now and then, I knew, quite clearly after listening to that literary agent, that my voice did not exist, and so I could not be published. That night, I had a come-to-Jesus moment in my hotel room. This sounds a lot more romantic than it was. In reality, there was a lot of wadded up tissue and the bitter sense I had been chasing rainbow gold that did not exist. I was a failure.
Less Strategy, More Authenticity
Before that moment, I had tried to be strategic about a writing career. I don't think there's anything wrong with being strategic at all, but for me, I was using strategy to mask the lack of substance—strategy as smoke and mirrors to distract from an inauthentic voice. I had read the tactics and tutorials for being a better blogger-turned-writer and so I tried them.
If a blogger was popular, I tried on their voice or topics for a while, imitating style and substance. I thought that I needed to narrow my focus a bit more because I couldn't find my fit in the progressive Christian blogosphere—I wrote too much about my life and motherhood, perhaps. So I tried writing proper fodder for mum-bloggers: tutorials and tips, lists, and anecdotes. This was a disaster because I was not made for do-it-yourself crafting or potty training tips. Then I tried the Christian-lady-blogger world with blog posts as devotionals, but I was bored to tears and my own experience defied tying my spirituality up in a neat package. I tried to write like wry and smart feminists, objective and logical. Then I tried to write like a serious social justice advocate for women.
One persona after another after another, all were inadequate and fragmented snippets of my own self, masks for my whole self, and so it's no wonder that I went to that writing conference discouraged and frustrated and unfulfilled.
Soon after I buried my dreams of being a writer, I read a few of Jesus' words in the Beatitudes that felt new to me. I'd read them dozens of times, no doubt. But the Holy Spirit has a way of illuminating the words I need to know or live into at that moment. The words were spoken in The Message paraphrase by Jesus in Luke 6:43: "You must begin with your own life-giving lives. It's who you are, not what you say and do, that counts. Your true being brims over into true words and deeds."
The truth broke through again: My scattered copycat writing voice was simply evidence of my scattered copycat real life.
For years, I had a try-hard life. I tried to match my spirituality to certain men and women, a pastor here, a famous preacher there, a worthy mentor, or a compelling writer, until I could parrot the "right" answers without any real truth or discipleship on my own part. I could cry out, Lord, Lord, but I didn't know the voice of the shepherd. As a mother, I would put other women on the pedestal above me, trying out their tactics or methods with varying success, always feeling like somehow I didn't measure up, always feeling guilty and inadequate. As a wife, as a disciple, as a woman, as a writer—you name it—I was a scattered people pleaser looking for her real self. I was an inauthentic performer on the page because I was an inauthentic performer in my life.
Finding Your Way Forward.
Some people have found that God asked them to lay down their gifts during seasons of great change or growth in their life. For me, I found that God used the very thing I loved—words—to help me find the new way forward. Not only did I read Scripture like it was a lifeline, but I found other writers as companions for the journey too. I wrote my way right through and into another soul-birth. I wrote my way through loss and miscarriages, through birth and recovery and the transformation of motherhood. I wrote my way through Scripture and tension, through the building of my foundation in the wilderness, through my wandering and unsteady discipleship, my passions for social justice and women's issues, through my anger and frustrations, my indignities and even my sacred rhythms of the right-now life.
In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says, "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me–watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to love freely and lightly" (The Message).
Slowly, over time, I gave up on performing: as a wife, a mother, a disciple, a friend, a writer, all of it. Exhale, release, and then, let me walk in your way, Jesus.
We often have an identity or an image of success tricked out in our minds to the exclusion of the whole life we find in Christ.
I began to recognize writer's block as a sign, a sign that I was listening to other voices or priorities too much, that I wasn't living my own life with authenticity, that I had taken my heart's attention off of the race set before me.I began to practice living my life, as it stood, right now, in the way of Christ—often with mixed results—and then, as always, I wrote my way through it. The decision to quit writing with an agenda gave me the freedom to write. Now, I had no expectation, no strategy. I could—without motive or aspiration—simply write what I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted. I could write about prayer, about motherhood, about discipleship, about feminism, about marriage, about church, and even about knitting or my geekery over the television shows Doctor Who and Call the Midwife.
Sometimes it was a sign that I had reduced my life or work to a tool for God to use instead of a gift to enjoy together, walking with love in the cool of this day, in what Jesus called "the unforced rhythms of grace."
And so I found my voice, hiding in the midst of a life-giving life, just as Jesus said. He goes on in that sixth chapter of Luke to say that his "words aren't mere additions to our life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundation words, words to build a life on."
Finding Your Voice.
Obviously, not all of us are writers. This is my story and experience—you have your own. Regardless of the specifics, we often have an identity or an image of success tricked out in our minds to the exclusion of the whole life we find in Christ. We must begin with our own life-giving lives. In Matthew's version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that you are to "steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God provisions. Don't worry about missing out. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met" (Matthew 6:30–33, The Message).
I think that's part of the reason why I find myself so often returning to that old metaphor in Scripture: Don't build your house on sand, build it on the rock. I believe that our truest self is our God-created self, the image of God stamped on our souls from the dawn of creation. Each person—body, soul, mind—unique and yet we are all bearing the image of God. Your voice is your own. Rediscovering your voice is often linked to recovering your real life in Christ.
Most of the time when we feel like we're progressing, we're actually simply returning: returning to the garden, perhaps, returning to the Kingdom of God, which has been our true home all along. There isn't room for mimicry or inauthenticity, for copycats and personas put on like masks in our life, our marriages, our parenting, our friendships, or our vocations.
When my friend said those words to me about a small article in a magazine a few years ago, it felt like an epoch worth noting for me. For the first time, I sounded like myself on the written page. I had worked out something that God had worked in me.
I believe that your real voice isn't found by shortcuts: It requires a strong foundation. I imagine that my writing voice will always change and evolve and grow, right along with the voice of my life.
The beautiful thing about finding your truest voice is that it's usually hidden in the heart of God on our unique paths of discipleship, rooted in our right-now lives, all walking in that unforced rhythm of grace in the ways of the man from Nazareth.
Sarah Bessey is the author of Jesus Feminist, an award-winning blogger at SarahBessey.com, an editor at A Deeper Story, a contributor for SheLoves Magazine, and a passionate advocate for global women's justice issues. She lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada with her husband and their three tinies. Follow her on Facebook, and connect with her on Twitter @sarahbessey.
Image by Laineys Repertoire / Flickr