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.

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

  1. Pingback: the right way to write – My Blog http//www.mypublishedbooks.blogspot

  2. 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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  3. 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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      • 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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        • 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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  4. Pingback: Have your found your voice? | Author Stephanie L. Danielson

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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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    • 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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      • 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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        • 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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    • 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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