Early in my career, I joined a writing group with the word change in its name. When friends asked, “What kind of change are you writing about?” I responded, “Whatever kind of change is happening in my life”—whether that change occurred by chance or was initiated by me.
Changes occur daily in all our lives: moves, aging, illness, death. As a writer and public speaker and citizen, I’ve always been especially interested in the way we can use these shifts in our personal landscapes to bring about change in the world. In 2018, for example, a mishandled 911 response led to the asphyxiation death of a sixteen-year-old boy trapped in his minivan, leading his parents to push the Cincinnati City Council to overhaul its emergency measures. Author Nadine Gordimer, a South African writer whose body of work centered on apartheid, argues that “a writer has to reserve a right to tell the truth as he sees it,” and calls this the writer’s “unique contribution to social change.” I’ve written about blood cancers and the death of my first husband with the goal of inspiring people to register as stem cell donors. I’ve spoken about grief with the goal of providing people with a more helpful script than the dreaded “I don’t know what to say.” And I’ve advised family caregivers on how to best support their loved ones through education, practice, and love.
We walk among many disconnected systems until tragedy strikes, when we are left to find the tools that lead to connection once more. The late anthropologist Gregory Bateson noted, if you consider the human hand, “not as a number of bananas on the end of some sort of stick but as a nest of relations, … you’ll find that the object looks much prettier than you thought it looked.” He continued, “With a correction of our epistemology, you might find the world was greatly more beautiful than you thought it was,” he said. The pattern that connects us is also the pattern that can correct us. We, with our stories and our advocacy, create the pattern that connects us to the civil world. We, with our hurts and our desires for healing, call out for the betterment of humankind. We can correct when systems have veered off the path. And we do so, above all, by finding our own voice.
Years ago, I listened to an On Being with Krista Tippett podcast with writer and journalist Studs Terkel. He told the story of taping an interview with a mother surrounded by boisterous young kids who begged for Studs to play back the recording. When he did, the mother sat awestruck by the timbre of her own voice. “I never knew I felt that way before,” she marveled.
Our voice begins when we are deeply listened to or profoundly moved by the circumstances surrounding us. The young mother was touched not only by the sound of her own voice, but by a masterful interviewer who was patient enough to listen.
This interview helped validate my voice—and vocation. My writing, my talking into that great tape recorder of the world, could be a boost in helping others sound out their reactions and emotions surrounding disease and dying, their positions on elections or women’s reproductive rights. I altered the young mother’s observation somewhat to create a mantra of my own: I’ll know what I think in the morning. It led me to take daily walks at dawn to learn what was in my head and heart. Sometimes, I saw only images. Other times, I unearthed larger ideas that needed distillation into tiny particles on paper before I could share them with a wider audience. But first I had to be patient enough to listen.
Finding Your Voice
The first step in discovering our voice is to pay attention to the world around us. What produces anger or joy? What moves us? What would create sadness and despondency if it went missing or disappeared?
For me, caregiving and loss emerged as my life themes early on. My mother used to say, “You feel things so deeply.” It’s true. I’m like my father. We both carried this imagined gene, one that caused a longing in us to reconnect to the past and bring it to the forefront. In my fifty years, I have written about the losses of a brother, a grandparent, my young first husband, my devoted father, a cantankerous neighbor who was also a generous community member, my mother’s memory, and finally, my mother herself.
These losses have all molded my voice. I have tried to use this idea of re-membering, that is, reattaching memories to their origins to strengthen their impact by calling attention to what’s important at a granular level and attaching greater meaning to it. You can hear hints of re-membering in everything I write.
My grief over my husband’s death brought forth reams of anger inside me. Our daily life with our one-year-old son, our dreams for the future, had been upended. Many of our young friends of the same age didn’t understand our battles—we didn’t always need a casserole from them sitting on our doorstep. Sometimes, we needed the hand of a quiet helper instead. And I needed to find out who I was, separate from this tragedy. I did so on the page.
When my mother experienced dementia, I was moved by those singular moments when the electric current passing between her and me was all that was required to feel the love we shared. I recreated that energy through a series of stories I shared in my blog.
What creates a sadness in me? A young foster child who is abandoned and found drowned. The toppling of trees after a wildfire on the Oregon coast. A father’s legacy I am still trying to unravel. In every sentence I write, you can sense what’s gone missing while also witnessing the growth that followed.
The first time I wrote from a vantage point of loss occurred when I was a college freshman. Six months prior, I had sat bedside with my grandfather when he died. For English Comp 101, I wrote an essay about how I was meant to witness his death. Twenty years later, I would see this as my ability to navigate what Celtic Christianity calls the “thin places” between life and death. At the time, though, all I conjured up as a metaphor for my grief and his death was a memory of Grandpa driving his Cadillac on a Sunday afternoon.
I assumed that event was the flash point that had formed my future. I was wrong.
More recently, I set down on paper the family story of my oldest brother, whose death occurred two days after his birth. This occurred four years before I was born. Whenever my mother recounted this story, I wallowed in childlike sadness. About the time I turned eight, I went from being a grieving sister to becoming a fierce advocate for sick children. Moved by this loss, I proudly told teachers and friends I wanted to be a pediatrician “when I grow up” to help others lessen the load of their grief. This lasted until high school biology, when I realized I hated the sight of blood.
When we reach into our past, we see how scores of pivotal, intimate moments in our lives form a chorus that projects our voice outward for others to hear.
What Is Your Theme or Through Line?
Author Michael Pollan has referred to this weaving together of the themes of his work a through line. In an interview for Earth Island Journal, he said, “The premise of all my work . . . is: How do you think through this relationship in the messy places where nature and culture have to engage with one [another]? That’s true in the garden, it’s true in the farm, and that’s true in our bodies even.”
He did not stumble upon this through line. He thought through it. He wrote through the themes. He spoke through them, finding his way to the center of his work. Titles of his some of his books are proof: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, This Is Your Mind on Plants, and the lesser-known A Place of My Own.
Even in fiction, we can see how writers define an essential question for understanding their own through line. Novelist Walter Tevis, author of The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and The Queen’s Gambit, experienced a rheumatic heart condition when he was young. He was left alone for a year in the Stanford Home for Convalescent Children. Later, in The Man Who Fell to Earth, he would write about an alien who comes to Earth to find water to save his drought-struck home planet. Ultimately, as he learns more about Earth, his plan is foiled. In this novel, The Queen’s Gambit, and his other works, Tevis gives readers pause to consider the definition of being at home in the world.
The more we contemplate, write, or speak on specific topics, the more we see with clarity our efforts to define the scope of who we are, the scope of the work we want to or must do, and the arc we must follow.
Asking the Essential Questions
Our themes or through lines, simple or complex, grow from the essential questions we try to answer about ourselves and the world. Why did loss feel different to me? Was it because of my personal lunar cycle at birth or a gestational grief my mother may have carried? Was it my artist heart or urbanist thinking that gave me insights into the complexities of city living? These questions don’t come easy—if they come at all. Though in asking them, we are listening for the answers. This is how we’ll find our public voice.
Whether in opinion pieces, editorials, or essays like these, I tell new writers to state the problem or issue, expand upon it, and offer a resolution or action item. Writer bell hooks says, “When we only name the problem, when we state complaint without a constructive focus on resolution, we take away hope.” We live in an age when people often fail to digest what they read or hear, perhaps because no solution has been offered. If we are ready to act, we are also ready to spread hope.
Margaret Atwood suggests the act of writing imagines a future reader. Or a future listener. When I write about my mother, I imagine her reading my words, letting me know what I got right—or wrong—about our relationship and how I can improve interactions with my own adult children. Regarding political or social situations, my suburban friends once asked where I grocery shopped, given the lack of options in the city. One shop was known for occasional menial crimes, and a public market sat in what some might see as an unrevitalized part of town. Yet that’s where my new neighbors shopped. My blog post answering that question went viral. In it, I concluded that one might want to “live here first, then judge.” When preparing speeches for those who are or will become caregivers, I consider the audience. How can I articulate my experiences, my losses, in a way that helps carry my listeners and their loved ones through difficult times? This two-way communication enables us to personalize our essays, our speeches, and our advocacy, turning our work into a living, breathing, universal being. We use our personal voice, honed by the themes in our lives, to ask the questions, and our public voice to find the answers.
All around us, artists and activists and everyday people perform what appears to be the unexpected. Their motivations, their essential questions, are being asked in private and answered out loud in public. They have remembered their stories, connecting their inner voice to the one the world needs to hear.