Writing in a Big Loud Voice
For me, writing has always been closely related to fear. Specifically, a fear of being noticed, and by extension, being judged.
I was a super-shy kid, who grew into a timid teenager, who became an apprehensive adult. I have close relatives who barely heard my voice before my 20s. But even though I didn’t speak up, from the time I could put pencil to paper, I was never silent. When I wrote, I had a big loud voice.
It started with a grade school play.
I was in second grade and we’d just finished putting on the Christmas pageant. Something about Santa Claus and a train. I was too meek for a speaking part. Instead, I rang a bell in the back row of the chorus—but I remember being wowed by the script. How could a pile of papers turn into sets, costumes, lights, characters? A whole story-world on stage?
It wasn’t long after that that my teacher, Mlle Desmarais, caught me writing a script behind my math book. Luckily, she understood quiet kids. Instead of scolding me—which would have made me fold inward like a dying leaf—she asked me to finish it later and bring it to show her. Then she went one big step further: she had the class put it on. That changed my world.
It wasn’t a great play: basically a rip-off of the Grinch who Stole Christmas, but about Easter, and in French. But there were costumes brought from home. There were sets painted on butcher paper. A few classes of big kids even showed up to be the audience. “Le Grinch de Pâques” came to life, and I didn’t need to say a word out loud to make it happen. From then on, writing became my way around fear.
Eventually, I found myself naked on the page.
I was lucky to go to an arts high school with a creative writing program. Bit by bit, along with a small group of peers, I worked up to sharing my writing and letting myself be seen and known through it—although I still didn’t speak much, except to close friends.
Then toward the end of high school, I entered a writing contest for teenage girls. It was a big one. The winning entry would be published in Chatelaine Magazine. The topic was body image. I remember sitting in my bedroom working on my submission, wondering what would happen if I dared to write about myself as honestly as I could.
My piece was called Self-Portrait of an 18-Year-Old Girl, Inside Out. It was an essay about my body as I saw it—all of it. I wrote about my breasts with no regard for who might read it. I talked about salsa dancing with a Latin boy who helped me see how beautiful I could be when I moved. I confessed to starving myself on a diet of plain rice. I talked about a sexual assault I’d never told anyone about and felt deeply ashamed of. I won the contest, and it was both thrilling and terrifying.
I opened myself up to criticism.
It was more terrifying than thrilling, to tell the truth—which was maybe why I eventually moved on to the safer-feeling ground of fiction. At least that way I could hide behind the characters and pretend that the things that drove them didn’t also drive me. All the same, the fear didn’t leave.
Writing is a very private activity; publishing is intensely public. I was 29 when my first book came out. I’d poured years worth of time and all of my heart into it and now there it was—finally on shelves. I waited to be judged. And I was judged.
There’s a graph you can watch on the Amazon author’s portal that shows your sales hourly. I hovered over it for weeks, feeling my self-worth surge and fall with each spike and valley. There are websites where you can find reviews written by readers. The first one I ever saw gave my book one star, with a comment “Don’t bother.” Some reviews were kinder—even glowing. (I don’t remember much about those ones.) Others said it was okay, but they didn’t like a certain character or the ending. I doubt it occurred to any of those reviewers that the author would read their opinions—or care—but I did care. Deeply. And I felt gutted, personally insulted, and lost. I really wanted to quit.
Writing has brought me full circle to face my fears.
But, eventually, a funny thing happened: I’d been judged through my writing, and some people found my words lacking, and some didn’t… but I didn’t stop doing it. In fact, I couldn’t stop. Writing had become my way of life. And although being judged brought me down low, it didn’t push me all the way under. After awhile, I stopped checking those websites and watching that graph. I learned I couldn’t please everyone, and that was okay. I was never meant to.
I’m learning why speaking up matters.
These days, I’ve been doing school visits and public presentations. It doesn’t come naturally. My inclination is still to hang back and stay silent… but an unexpected thing happens when you write books for kids: people assume you’ve got inspiring things to say to them. The first few times I stood at the front of a room full of students, my heart beat double time. I felt like an imposter.
But gradually, I’m finding my way. I don’t try to hide who I am. I tell the kids about being shy; the story about the school play and Mlle. Desmarais. I talk about how writing gave me a voice. I try to show them that I struggle, just like them.
I don’t always know if I’ve managed to reach the quiet kids in the room, but yesterday, just as I was leaving a class, a little girl in a pink dress tugged at my sleeve. She spoke so softly. Even though I could see how much courage it had taken her the first time, I had to lean down and ask her to repeat what she’d said. “I like writing stories too,” she whispered, then she hugged me. It was one of those moments of connection that can be few and far between as an author, but I know now: it’s worth walking through my fear a hundred times over to reach another kid like that.
ANNA HUMPHREY is the author of several books for young readers including the Clara Humble series, Mission (Un)Popular and Megabat (forthcoming from Tundra Books). She lives with her family in Kitchener, Ontario. You can find her at www.annahumphrey.com