In Search of Your Voice?

Try Writing a Passionate Opinion Piece

One of my biggest challenges in writing has been finding my voice. For years I struggled to even understand what was meant by “voice.” If I wrote marvelous, well-crafted sentences, wasn’t that enough? 

Well, no, voice matters, and it’s something that does not come easily to most. Voice is the indistinguishable something about the way you tell stories. It involves the way you observe life, others, events, as well as how you experience them, and how you recount them—the details you pick, the mood you set, the emotions you infuse, the style and the words you choose. Ideally, voice is distinctive and engaging. When you read something by an author who writes with a unique voice, it’s often unforgettable. Their voice becomes a huge part of what makes them great.

But how does an aspiring writer find his or her voice? Reading as many novels as possible–carefully analyzing their style, identifying how each author is distinctive or unique, noticing how they select details and invoke emotion, how to propel the story forward, how they write superb endings—helps tremendously. I don’t know how anyone who aspires to be a professional, published writer who ever achieved it without extensive, in-depth reading.

I called last year, my “year of reading,” during which I read over 90 novels, focused on women authors known for unique styles or voices. I wanted to see how they differed from other authors, how they broke the mold and developed a unique voice.

Experimentation is another way to discover voice. I recommend writing anything and everything—from short, descriptive emails or letters, to long, detailed opuses, to short stories, to essays, to whatever strikes your fancy that day. 

When George Floyd was murdered this past summer, I allowed the passion reverberating through my pained heart to flow onto the page, in the form of an opinion piece. I sent it to various newspapers, none of which printed it, but I’d like to share it below. What I’d like you to notice is how I’ve brought in details from my childhood and married them to my supreme horror that this tragic event happened.

I discovered that writing this opinion piece unleashed emotions and energy I tend to suppress. It’s not perfect but it’s got fire, clarity, and brevity. It’s my voice, my distinct way of remembering and feeling. That’s what you want to employ when you write novels, or anything really.

Here’s My Opinion Piece

It’s Not Enough to Simply Be Anti-Racist

This summer I saw a photograph, in The New York Times, of white men gathered around a tree, looking proud. They’d hunted down, tortured, mutilated, castrated, and hanged a young black man.

My eyes paused; my heart stopped. I looked closer. One man looked like my father. The 1930s date and location in Georgia made it conceivable. The resemblance was so striking I considered finding a photograph of him to compare. But who wants to imagine that her father could ever participate in such a heinous act? I set it aside, but the image haunted me, left me feeling deeply ashamed of white people—my people. 

My father wasn’t a monster. He’d dropped out of school after eighth grade to help his seven, younger brothers and sisters survive the depression. They called him “Bull” and forever worshipped him. He and his parents picked cotton on someone else’s farm—on par with the poorest blacks in 1930s southwest Georgia.

Prior to the war, he’d studied at Coyne Electrical School and, right after Pearl Harbor, volunteered as a Navy Seabee during World War II, until ulcers ravaged his stomach. If one space hadn’t opened up on the last transport out, he would’ve died in a Pacific jungle. Navy doctors replaced 3/4 of his stomach with a sheep’s stomach. He used alcohol and later pain pills and tranquilizers to mitigate his pain. Deep depressions led to long stretches in Veteran’s hospitals drying out, pulling himself together again. 

Once discharged, he worked on a top-secret government project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, unaware he was helping build the atom bomb. He met and married a nineteen-year-old, local farm girl, also working there. After the war, he launched Reynolds & Wamble Electric Co., offering electrical installations and repairs in Albany, Georgia. They had five children, bought one of first houses in a new neighborhood.

His parents managed a roadside gas station/general store/attached apartment outside Doerun. We’d gather there every Sunday, right after church, for family dinner. Daddy served as Deacon at a Baptist church. I remember squirming as his deep, melodious voice wafted over the congregation, marveling at how people adored him. My mother would slap my leg, shoot me a stern look, hiss a threat to tell him later that I wasn’t paying attention—though I was.

My parents believed in discipline, bragged that their toddlers would sit silent and still, ankles crossed, arms on our laps—for hours—while adults talked. Daddy used his leather belt to thrash my brothers’ bare behinds. We girls sometimes had to lift up our dresses for a beating, though rarely. Mostly we were ignored, discounted.

Anna, an elderly black woman, cared for us while our mother worked at a local bank. Anna had unruly grey hair, missing teeth, and a hitched-up hip. She fried us bacon her way, burned and crispy, laughed when we misbehaved, giggled when we threw our vitamins down the sink. She gave us pennies, so we could carefully select penny candy at the local store. When cleaning, she’d lift a throw rug, put a finger to her mouth, wink, and say, “Don’t tell your mother,” then swoosh the dirt under it and do a little dance. She hugged us often, called little Roy her “preacher man.” We adored her.

We’d often go along when Mother drove Anna home. We’d wave at Anna’s grandchildren, huddled on the porch of their ramshackle house. We’d beg to get out and play with them, but Mommy shushed us, hurriedly drove away. When we’d ask why Anna’s grandchildren didn’t go to our school, she’d say, “They have their own school,” angrily adding that it was “brand new,” though ours was also brand new.

On more than one Sunday, while the men sat outside and the women cooked inside, a black man would walk past, his head down, go into our grandfather’s general store. We’d follow him in, as we did most customers, linger nearby to see what he bought, notice that he barely spoke to our grandfather, who always seemed such a sweet soul. As the Black man exited, us trailing behind him, Daddy and my uncles would laugh, make fun of his bowed head, his ragged clothes. One day, my father called several grown black men “boys” and “niggers.” His tone sliced through me. They kept their eyes cast down, their arms at their sides, wordlessly walked on.

Even at five-years-old, I recognized cruelty and hatred. I cringed but said nothing. A single word risked a belt whipping. One night I overheard Daddy telling Mommy that a “nigger” who wanted to register to vote had been tied to the back of a car and dragged through town. Recognition thudded into my heart that Mommy and Daddy hated Black people—based on the color of their skin alone. 

What about Anna? Why was it fine for an elderly Black woman to care for their children, while the mere sight of a Black man turned them into savage bullies?

Without ever discussing it, we children decided not to be like our racist parents. Their bigotry repulsed us. Daddy’s business failed. Although he fretted that Pollacks and Italians and, God forbid, Blacks in public schools might tarnish his children, he moved the family 40 miles north of Pittsburgh to work on a power plant. Luckily, our teachers offered broader perspectives. We embraced the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, 1960s idealism. As teens, we sought peace & love—for all races, all ethnicities. We clashed with our parents, marched, protested and celebrated increasing equality. One brother fought in Vietnam, the other avoided a life in Canada by scoring a high draft number. We went to college, married, had families, didn’t beat our children, raised them, instead, to treat everyone with dignity and respect. We insisted upon it. 

My father died in 1984, my mother in 1998. My brother recently reminded me that our mother once said we should not celebrate the day Martin Luther King was born, rather the day he was murdered. How I longed for bigotry and hatred to die along with their generation. 

When I saw Derek Chauvin’s knee forcibly cutting off George Floyd’s breath, despite his pleas to live, I realized why that lynching photograph hit me like a thunderbolt: I am the child of a heartless racist, and his complicit wife. Yes, I’d done better, far better, considered all colors and ethnicities equal, had black best friends in the 1970s, literally sobbed with elation when Barack Obama won the presidency, feeling so proud of the progressive America I loved. Surely, true racial equality would follow. 

Sadly, hateful white people did their best to emasculate our first, Harvard-educated, highly moral, brilliant, idealistic black president. Now one of those haters is president, and we’re suffering a nightmarish backlash. Recently, I asked myself: Have I done enough to atone for my racist father? The answer is no.

It’s not enough to do better solely on your own, to live your own life as an anti-racist, to express fury, press for the prosecution of the men who murdered George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, and all the hundreds and thousands of black men (and women) who preceded, or will follow, them. 

White people of all ages need to fight for everyone’s right to live a happy, peaceful, full, long life. We must demand that our government protect all people, no matter their color or religion or ethnicity. We must use our voices and our power to protect and defend them on a daily basis. Rebuke and educate anyone—including friends and family—who cling to racism. 

We must embrace every black and brown and mixed-race child, every Mexican and Chinese and Somali heritage child, every Hindu and Muslim and Jewish child, as our child, and then move heaven and earth, the United States government, and all government officials, including policemen, to respect, honor, protect, defend, uplift, support, and love them. 

It’s the absolute least we can do.

Susan Reynolds is a published author who has lived in South Georgia, Western Pennsylvania, NYC, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Napa Valley, Paris, New England, and currently lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

I feel like the opinion piece captured a significant part of my voice, but my capturing it in fiction is still a work in progress. 

Writing Tip: Write your own opinion piece or essay, about something that lights a fire in your belly. Write it tight, focused, intense, passionate, and cut it down and down until it’s under 1200-1300 words. Keep crafting it until you feel it sings. This kind of writing will help you discover your unique voice, what drives you to write, what matters to you, what you observe and how you report it.

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