ARE YOU WATCHING FOR YOUR SHIP? – Marilyn Armstrong

I was out in Arizona talking to a Blue Corn Navajo lady who made jewelry. She had carefully given me her tribal affiliations and all I had to say was “Eastern European Jewish,” which lacked panache. I don’t seem to have much of an ability to show a lot of dash in casual conversation. Whatever talent I have, it’s more introverted.

Nonetheless, it was a good conversation. I casually said I was ” … waiting for my ship to come in and hoped it had a fortune on board for me.”

She asked me, seriously, whether I’d been out on the docks looking for my ship.

Looking for my ship?

She said “Yes, you have to watch for them. Otherwise, they can pass you by and you’ll never know you missed it.”

Navajo … the sky really does seem bigger.

I’m sure I forget for years at a time to go look for my ship. It’s probably come and gone and I’ll never see it, even in the foggy distance.

It’s like looking for your writer’s voice. Recently, a lot of people have claimed to be looking for it. Or grumpily asserted they can’t figure out what it is and thus will never find it.


Your writer’s voice is, to put it in the simplest possible terms, you. It is how you speak, but written. It is how you feel. In words. Written down. That’s it. The beginning and the end of it. Anyone can find it, but you have to be looking for it and most people aren’t.


They think they are, though. They think it’s some kind of style or form. Exactly the reverse is true. Many writers are afraid of finding themselves and that’s what stops them from being what they could be.

Show time! These people have found their voices.

Your “voice” IS you. You are your voice. Once upon a time — more than 30 40 years ago when my mother was alive — someone told me I wrote like I was afraid my mother would read it. I realized she was right. I was genuinely afraid my mother would read it and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I could not find my voice until after she died because until then, I was not really looking for it.

The voice was there. I just wasn’t ready to use it where people might hear me.

If you are looking for your voice, stop reading books about it. A college course isn’t going to help you. Write how you speak and write what you say … the way you really say it. If you can’t go back to your writing and read it out loud … and have it sound like natural speech or more to the point, your natural speech? Rewrite it. If it sounds stilted and fake? It is.

Not everyone needs to find their voice. If what you want to do is write about what’s going on in the world, you only need to write well. Your voice need not come into it.

I want to add a bit here on style and form. Style and form (or format) are not your voice. They are formulas and relate to whatever type of writing you choose as your specialty. In other words, your audience or readership. If you are writing for children (for example), there is a rather rigid formula (with which I almost entirely disagree), especially if you want schools to use your work. In my very humble opinion, the really great kid’s writers have totally ignored the formalities of the genre and written what they wanted to read when they were young.

I never saw myself as a kid’s writer. Even as a kid, I wasn’t much of a kid. I always wanted to explain stuff, but I didn’t know it until I fell into technical writing as an adult. Who would have guessed it? Not me. I was going to be the next great “author” … although I was never sure which great author. I had quite a few favorites. In my youngest days, I tried writing like all of them,  sometimes at the same time. It wasn’t pretty.

Oh how many editors wrote me — personally wrote me and I had no idea that was a big deal, by the way because I was naïve enough to think that’s what happened to everyone — to “just be yourself.” When you are very young, you aren’t sure who “yourself” is. Maturity is so terribly time-consuming.

Finding your voice means letting go of the writers you admire and wish you could be. It means forgetting how others sound and — scariest of all — letting the real person you are loose. Which is to just letting your real “self” show where anyone can see and read it. It doesn’t matter what you are writing about, whether it is for kids or technicians or news-readers or lovers of magic.

You have to be yourself and no one else. Many of us are not ready to find that voice because we are afraid our mother or father or brother or husband will hear and maybe, they won’t like it. Or us.

As for my ship? I’m not hanging out by the dock, watching for it. For all I know, it’s on its way back to wherever it came from.

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Writer, photography, blogger. Previously, technical writer. Retired! Yay!

69 thoughts on “ARE YOU WATCHING FOR YOUR SHIP? – Marilyn Armstrong”

      1. Such a resonant piece. Wonder if I’ve been too busy with small stuff to watch for my ship. Something else to ponder.

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  1. Well said! I’ve often commented to people who speak well but don’t think they can write that they can write just by putting what they say to pen and paper (or computer these days).

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    1. I always told my students that writing is putting your voice in words on paper or computer screen. Whatever the medium, it’s the same. The problem is that people want to sound like some famous writer they loved, or sound more elegant or more educated or more something. But in the end, we really only have one voice and it our own. Even if we have to change the dialect, it is still OUR voice. If not, we aren’t “there” yet. It takes practice. AND EDITING. A LOT of editing. And reading your material aloud to hear if you have got the cadence.

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      1. I was so damn guilty of trying to sound like other people early in my professional career. I would be very embarrased to listen to old (college radio) tapes. I stole some of their signature lines and patter. I didn’t think anyone would notice. WRONG, PROVINCIAL PUTZ. I found my style and voice as a TV news reporter, turning out myriad stories every day. I wrote the way I spoke and vice versa. No time for phony styling. Just be yourself. VOILA! Ironically, people started talking about my “style”. Ironic.

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    1. Tas, I have a Doris Day recording of “My Ship”. Must find it. It’s on one of her early Columbia LP’s with “When I Fall In Love”, “It’s Magic” and other Day classics. I used to play the music in my room back at our old family home. My Mom would come up and listen to the music with me. MAGIC TIME.

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  2. I write like I speak. I write about what I think about, what is of interest to me, what excites me, what upsets me, and what drives me. When I read aloud what I have written, to me it sounds like me. I don’t know if that means I’ve found my writer’s voice or not, but if anyone were to ask me to describe my voice, I would have no clue whatsoever how to do so.

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    1. If you sound like you — and you can read your writing aloud and it still sounds like you, that IS your voice. Obviously your voice isn’t always the same. When you speak, do you always sound the same? When you talk to a young child, do you sound just like you do when you talk to your co-worker or friend? No, you don’t No one does. But if you sound like yourself and you are satisfied with it, they you have your voice. What you do with it is up to you. No one can tell you what to say — or should.

      I think I got a start with this because I started writing for radio. It makes a difference, writing for people to speak out loud. You learn rhythm quickly.

      Mainly, your voice IS you and if you are looking for something else, you won’t find it. You are you. When you speak and when you write. That IS your voice. You can whisper fairy tales or howl at the world — but it’s still YOU. There is no other voice waiting.

      But again — what you DO with it — that is a whole other matter.

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      1. I shy away from $10 ($20 w/inflation) words. They’re not me and are usually hard for me to say properly. But there are some words that just sound nice..like….:”disingenuous”. Just like its sound. Toss it into the conversation…like extra olives into a drink.

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  3. It is as well to remember too that we have a number of voices. Just as we do in our everyday lives. The professional voice is never quite the same as the one we will use with a small child or a lover… but they are all true parts of ourselves.

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    1. When we speak, we are us whether we are making up sleepy stories for children or ranting at the world. We — us — our voices are all aspects of ourselves. No one is one way all the time. You may ONLY write in one voice because that’s what you choose to do, but it doesn’t mean you can’t write another way and a completely different attitude. The main thing is that when you are yourself, that’s pretty much it. I’m not sure what else anyone thinks they are going to find. Someone else’s voice?

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        1. Garry and I had a whole day’s conversation about this not long ago which is what sparked the writing. I said I’d found my writing voice — after I seriously started looking for it — pretty fast. It took him longer because he was more enamored of “great writers” of the past. I said for me, because ALL I did was write for a living and also for fun, I probably got there faster because — well — that’s all I did. I wrote. All the time. Work, play, every day, night and day.

          In the end, we cannot be anything but ourselves. We can use dialects, make up worlds that don’t exist, but all the people in it are going to be pieces of us, in some way or other. For me, though, “character” and “plots” were beyond me. I can be me all day and night, but I can’t create characters and stories. It isn’t for want of trying, either. But I’m also pretty happy with where I’ve landed.

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          1. I think that is the key to it. Write as yourself, for yourself and be happy with who you are…on the page and off. It doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement (in either arena 🙂 ) but unless it gives you joy, why bother writing …or trying to be someone else?

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            1. A lot of people just can’t seem to related to the concept of “me, myself, I” am my voice. I don’t know why they fight it so hard. They have an image of something else. They want to sound like THAT, even if THAT has nothing to do with them.

              I think many of us only figure out who we are as we get older anyway. Early writing years are full of formulaic, awkward, counter-emotional things where we were striving for elegance and not quite getting there. I’m pretty good with the where and who I’ve become. I recognize I have some seriously asshole moments. Sometimes, longer than mere moments, but I have learned to understand that those times are part of the package. Everyone is an asshole sometimes.

              I’m just looking to be someone I like while hoping that the me I like will ALSO be someone other people can like.
              Which apparently is a lot harder than it sounds 😀

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              1. I look back on some of my early journals and cringe…and look back in memory and cringe some more 🙂 But it is all part of the journey to now…and tomorrow… and who knows where that will lead, whose paths we may cross, or what value others will find, either in us or in our work. I’d hate to have to keep up a pretence in case folk ended up disappointed!

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                1. Some of my early stuff is embarrassing — to ME. Really AWFUL. I am do glad it’s not published anywhere! But, if it weren’t for the early stuff, I’d never have gone anywhere as a writer. You have to start somewhere and for most of us, our early stuff IS pretty cringe-worthy. But we pushed on and now, we can write.

                  I try to remind my granddaughter of that: you have to start. Even if the early stuff is really terrible, if you never start, you never get better.

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                    1. An awful lot of people just give up when their first stuff isn’t popular. Maybe it’s a test, you know? You have to push through. Gets you ready for the umpteen numbers of rejections to come.

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      1. YES, we have different voices. One is for people who seem to be aware of what’s going on. The other is for people who are clueless and just saying stuff.

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  4. Maybe we should go down to the pier and see what’s going on? You make excellent points with this one Marilyn. At the recent writer’s conference I attended, many of the ‘don’ts’ you listed happened. Somebody who had gotten published was telling the rest of us in the crowd what to do. Obviously it worked for THEM, but I think your method (as such) is more valid. We need to speak (write) in our voice. Else we’re just telling someone else’s tale really. Thanks for the validation of what I have always felt was true, regardless of the ‘teachers’. 🙂

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    1. There isn’t a substitute for being yourself. That’s kind of the point and it seems to be the point that courses in writing miss … possibly because you can’t TEACH someone to be themselves.

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  5. I think your ship has come in on several occasions, once with Owen and again with Garry. The money ship might be a little slower getting in but as long as you have what you need, all is well.
    Leslie

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    1. So far, so good. I have my “new” computer sitting on the coffee table, unopened, trying to decide if I should send it back. It’s money. Just that. So it’s unopened. Garry says I should just get on with it, we aren’t getting any younger.

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  6. I think it would take sonar and a bathyscaphe to find my ship. Somewhere down there my dream life is all covered in barnacles. Oh well, it’s probably just as well. Who says we’re really better off when our “ship” comes in anyway…

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  7. I think we can learn a lot from great writers, not the least of which is how they fought to be themselves in their writing. Reading a lot of good writing teaches us what good writing is, and that it is not just one thing. I hate it when I read something that’s “writerly” — it pisses me off. I want that person to shut up and stop writing and go do something else because there’s no reason to write. I also think when a person finds what they have to say, it’s a lot easier to say it in their real voice — orally or in writing.

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    1. Good lord, did I suggest not reading? Heavens forfend! If you don’t read your brain will be empty and you won’t have anything to say. Other writers teach you about characters and plot. They also help you learn about … everything. You just can’t WRITE like them for one single, important reason: it doesn’t work.

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      1. You know, I’m not sure. Hunter S. Thompson was a great writer (IMO) and he typed out The Great Gatsby I don’t know how many times to internalize whatever it was Fitzgerald was doing. I think it might be different for every writer.

        I learned so much from Hemingway — the way he wrote, but also what he said about writing in A Movable Feast. Most of all — and I think a lot of aspiring writers miss this point — it should be fun, even if it’s difficult challenging fun sometimes, it should be something you enjoy doing. I like what Burroughs said about Kerouac, “Kerouac is a writer, by that I mean, he writes.” I think it is really that simple.

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        1. For me, it boils down to this: Writers need to write. The surest sign that you ARE a writer is that you have this bizarre compulsion to write. Most of our early work stank. So what? If you feel you learned a lot from Hemingway? Great. But you don’t write like Hemingway, not even close, so whatever. you learned, it was YOU who learned it and you didn’t clone Hemingway. Nor did Thompson clone Gatsby. If I didn’t read, I could not write.

          We all had to learn and we learned however we learned. If your early work was awful, you started and you kept at it and later, it wasn’t awful and eventually, it was really terrific. You gotta start somewhere. We all need to start somewhere. Developing whatever it is we have in us to do takes time and determination and a willingness to write really bad stuff and then, overcoming the cringe-worthiness of it, do it again and again until one day, you get it right.

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    2. Martha, you are right. When the light goes on in your brain, it’s usually easy to let the words just flow — in writing or orally. But you need an emergency “cut” button.

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  8. This completely resonates with me. When we are kids we don’t know our voice, and I did write like I was afraid my father would read it, or other family. Now? I don’t care. I have found my voice and I love it.

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      1. The group that knows is large, and I’m hoping they just don’t care. One day I’ll be gutsy enough to show my face and say ‘Ha! Look at me!’

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        1. It takes more courage than most people think. If you REALLY write, you are probably going to upset a few people. At work, at home, your friends. Even if you aren’t saying mean things, it doesn’t matter. That you are saying anything is likely to upset them, so you have to be ready to deal with those slings and arrows — and if you are not, then you might need to rethink where you are going as a writer.

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          1. So incredibly true! When I do have day jobs, I withhold what I write and say ‘it’s a hobby and I write fiction’. Family not a fan either; Dad read one once (loved how I tell a story, but of course not the subject matter.) Mom has never read it at all. (not a reader anyway). lol Lots of arrows and slings and grenades aimed at us!

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              1. Ouch! Now that’s cold! I’m still in as far as I know, I was always the black sheep anyway. 🙂

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  9. Boy, did this resonate with me…especially the part about being afraid of who would read my writing, and potentially be hurt by it. “Many writers are afraid of finding themselves” is such a powerful and woefully truthful statement. Thank you for your insights!

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    1. When someone first said that to me, I realized it was true in the most literal sense. I was afraid to write seriously because my mother WOULD read it. And, in the end, it caused me a fair number of problems anyway. If you are going to write — really write — you are going to upset people.

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