Sunday, January 22, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 22: Trust Your Voice

We heard from Leo Babauta about finding your voice in Lesson 14, but once you find it, you need to trust it! This is easier said than done and I know I definitely struggle with this one at times. Judith Van Praag, a fellow Seattle writer, talks about how she finally arrived at the decision to fully trust her own voice, and to follow it:

We're told to follow our heart, yet to use our head. That sounds like prudent advice and applicable in many situations. But too often rationality mums gut feelings and smothers our true self. Does your heart speak to you? Let its voice be heard.

I'm telling myself the above as an 84,000-word manuscript beckons. This work in process, titled Forgiveness, awaits revision, editing, and being sent into the world. Another month or so and I'll be looking for beta readers who'll give me feedback. More critical than your average reader or especially fans (such as a loving spouse or best friend) they'll offer me an honest review. Those who read like writers will comment on theme, premise, characters, plot, structure, style, grammar and voice.

This won't be the first time. During the writing and development of an earlier book, I shared sections with my critique group. I wrote and rewrote, edited, re-envisioned and edited once again. Only after I'd finished the sixth version did I deem the text worthy to be printed as a whole and read by trustworthy beta readers. I cradled each of my babies in a box and sent them off. How would my story be perceived? As a writer and artist I've learned that every single person will see something else in a creation.

We all have our own perspective, each and every one of us has a life experience that's unique and colors our perception. In critiquing one another's work and receiving critique, we have to remember that. What's true for us is not necessarily true for the other. With that in mind we focus on craft, not values.

My five beta readers were brave to take on the hefty load I laid in their laps. Creative Acts of Healing: after a baby dies with its in your face subtitle, isn't poolside literature, although one of them did read most of the book while soaking in her bathtub. While they hadn't suffered a similar loss, Creative Acts of Healing made them remember their own, or others' sorrows. I was and am grateful for their conscientious approach. I understand how difficult it must have been to look at this material in an objective manner, to not let personal feelings take over. In going over her notes one of my readers said there was a certain instant where she didn't believe me (or the narrator, as we writers call the main character, even if we're writing a memoir). Now this is a big deal. You want your readers to trust you.

The phrase my reader objected to was: "She will not want us to become embittered."

"Too Buddha-like," she said, "Impossible."

My reader could not believe that I (the narrator) would be able to say such a thing to my husband while holding our lifeless Ariane Eira in my arms. At that very moment I made the mistake I still regret. I stifled the voice from within and deleted that line.

One of the biggest no-no's in writing fiction after life is to insist on the supposed truth, saying: "But that is how it happened." For what really happened usually doesn't have enough drama, or on the contrary is over the top. In writing non-fiction however, this may accentuate the essence of the experience. That we chose not to become embittered by our loss, has saved my husband and my relationship and in the long run our happiness. Looking at the manuscript of Forgiveness, I vow I will make sure I won't be seduced by another person's beliefs. I will let my heart speak.

How about you?

Judith Van Praag, originally from the Netherlands, makes her home in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and pooch. Her background lies in multicultural theater, but in the 1990's the balance tipped over to studio + literary arts.

In 1999 she published Creative Acts of Healing: after a baby dies. From 2000-2002 she wrote a column about grief for a Dutch Parental magazine and from 2004-2006 she covered Arts & Culture for the International Examiner in Seattle. She remains a regular contributor to the latter.

Judith wrote the storybook for three of Luly Yang's Runway Fashion Shows, and was Ms. Yang's speech writer.

Since the opening of the Seattle Central Library in 2004, she has presented architectural tours of this landmark designed by her countryman Rem Koolhaas.

Momentarily Judith is working on "The Counterfeit", a screenplay based on "Forgiveness", her novel about art, love and redemption in a cold country. Next in line is a memoir about growing up on a nut farm and coming out halfway sane.

You can find her contact information, link to blog and more at and Google+


  1. Judith-I hear you on this one. Fortunately, my voice speaks to me clearly, but I waiver at times and can be swayed from following it on occasion. Your post and story give me courage again to stand up for what I have to say and write. I did this in my book and on this blog and I hope I can continue to do this in life as well. It takes a lot of bravery to trust your voice when others don't or when others are handing out criticism or suggestions on what to write, say, etc. But the people I truly admire are the ones that stand up and say, "No, this is my truth and I"m not changing it." Bravo to you!

  2. It's great that you wrote about one of your most difficult lessons. As an artist you're sensitive to all the different interpretations of your work. Sticking to your gut feeling is not always easy, but knowing to trust yourself will let your heartfelt intentions come through. Well done.

  3. Great post, Judith. The truth of your words is evident; neither you nor Gary are bitter. You're wonderful!

  4. Katherine,
    We live and learn, don't we?
    Thank you once again for the opportunity you created here on your blog for other writers to voice what's important to them, and for asking me to join the inspiring line-up. You played an important role in me allowing myself to let these thoughts come to the surface and share them with y/our readers and fellow creative spirits.

    Gary, Dearest one, your support makes it all possible. Your music making is my inspiration!

    Kathya, wonderful Seattle Story Teller you, thank you for seeing and saying, and bearing witness, as you do so beautifully in your own writing. The strength of your voice resonates in my mind.

  5. Great post Judith. I am struggling to trust my voice. I know it is almost always right!
    Forgiveness is a subject I deal with daily...cannot wait to read!