I was eight the first time I knew my voice was ugly. My cousins and I were playing around with a tape recorder. I filled with shame when I heard the stuffed nose kid speaking my words through the speaker. We all lived with chain smokers, though. We all had ugly voices then.
In junior high and high school, my ugly voice plagued me. Lisa liked to mock the stuffy nose sound. B.J. liked to mock the vibrato that came in so much earlier than most girls’. They did it in front of class. At home, I sang only in the garage. Dogs and drug dealing neighbors don’t have a lot of motivation to critique voices.
I found out I was a writer at the age of twelve. I sang with my ugly voice and wrote with one that made up for the singing. I won awards for both, but I only believed the ones for writing.
In high school, my voice did not fit. It is not a pop music voice; it was never an inside voice. I muddled through, half singing, holding my breath through choir concerts, trying to keep it down, to sound like someone else, like I was supposed to. I stopped writing. The abuse that caged me through childhood broke me when I was fifteen. I didn’t have a voice; I was speaking with my feet. I focused on overachieving so I could go away to school.
A creative writing program offered me a full scholarship. It was ranked third in the nation. It was too close to my abusive family, so I had to pass. I went into debt for thirty years so I could go to school 300 miles from home. It was far enough away that I no longer had a stuffed up nose, but close enough to hear my mother prompt my 5-year-old sister over the phone line, “Ask her why she doesn’t love you any more. Tell her she would come home if she loved you.”
In college, a belligerent choir director reminded me of my dad with his bullying ways. I barely sang. I buried my huge soprano voice in the alto section. I still did not write. I sang a bit, but I could not afford the fees for extra lessons. The mean director policed the halls where the practice rooms were. I would sneak in as late as I could to sing without having to compete with piano students clamoring through the paper thin walls. Sometimes the director would knock on the door, thinking I was one of his pet sopranos. He was always surprised to see me, the alto exile, on the other side of the door. I never welcomed him.
I did some mediocre solo work in churches and oratorios in college, but I felt as though it was by luck instead of talent. I still remembered that my voice was ugly.
When I was 28, I tried to write again, but nothing happened. I could sketch characters but not plots. I was afraid.
I joined a writing group and tried my hand at short stories, which everyone said was the place to start. I wrote bad poetry. I wrote terrible short stories. I stopped. It just wasn’t working. I would write every day and have hardly anything to show for it. I decided to do good works instead, and I committed myself to over 20 hours a week of volunteer work, mostly through my church.
It wasn’t a great place to work for someone who thought her voice was ugly. I didn’t speak up when people slandered me for “taking over a meeting” by talking for 15 of its 90 minutes, or congratulated me on “making posters” when I put in over a thousand hours of work to arrange a weekend conference. But at least at church, I could sing in the choir, rarely even solos. Singing for church turned into my salvation.
One day just before I turned thirty, I was singing a descant that ended on a high B flat. When the reverb came back, I realized that I was singing louder than the pipe organ that accompanied us. Something had changed in my ugly voice. I looked around for a voice teacher and found one who sounded reasonable.
The day I met Katherine was a day my soul started to wake from a long sleep. I came for a trial lesson. We vocalized. I was nervous. She listened to me, heard my story about the B flat, and smiled. “Honey, you can sing anything you want. You have an extraordinary talent.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I think I cried. “I always thought my voice was ugly.”
“Your voice is huge.”
Katherine went on over the next few months to explain the way of dramatic voices. They are uneven and unpredictable early on, though a skilled teacher can hear the core of the voice well before it becomes ripe. I was then a coloratura, what some people called full lyric, some spinto, some young dramatic. But there was still the unevenness, the feeling I would so often have of my voice getting stuck in my throat.
I was too old to start an opera career. Not old in voice, but too old for the prejudicial opera culture that favors light voices and early starters. My voice wouldn’t even begin to show itself till my mid-30s, I knew, but it was highly unlikely I would ever be granted an audition when it did. I talked to opera professionals who weren’t my teacher. They were grim. You can have a career, or you can have a happy family life, they advised. Not both. I decided to have a family.
But I still sang, and the glorious horizons of songs written for my voice healed me deep. After my second child, a daughter, was born, I found myself growing restless. We moved to a larger home. The restlessness wriggled at the base of my spine. I sang more often to try to assuage it, but it wasn’t music I needed.
One night in September, my son fell asleep in the car on the way to the grocery store. While I waited for him to wake up, I pulled out a notebook and pen from my bag. The light was dim, just the fluorescent glare that filtered in from the store awning, but it was enough to see by. I started writing. Over the next three months, I wrote a novel by hand in notebooks. It had plot holes and inconsistencies, but I wrote it anyway.
The following February, I sat down and typed out what would be the first chapter of my first published novel. “That was weird,” I thought. It had come from nowhere, it seemed, the way music comes when you stop fretting and just sing. A month later, the story came back. I wrote the first draft before I turned 35. It took another several months to edit and polish, but the story came to life. It was a real book.
Between the first and final draft, my dad died. I was with him for his last days. I sang to him most of the time. The last song he heard with his ears was, “Steal Away To Jesus.” My voice was rich and easy and cutting the way only a voice singing high and soft can be. Writing and music and tears had washed the ugly out. I spoke forgiveness to my dad. I sang healing into him, even as his body failed.
That fall, I finished the revisions on the novel and turned it in. My editor loved the new story, and we contracted to publish the following summer. I dedicated the novel to my dad. I kept writing. The next novel took longer, took more singing and healing, but I finished it this spring. It will come out next fall. The soundtrack to the first novel was La Traviata. The soundtrack to the second was Suor Angelica.
I’m working on my next book now. Since my first novel, I’ve lost a pregnancy to miscarriage, borne healthy boy twins, and made it through my first trimester with our expected little girl. These sorrows and joys have changed my singing and deepened my writing. I’m writing the new novel to the soundtrack of Greek liturgical hymns and Puccini arias. Tosca and Turandot are working their way into my voice.
We talk about voice as though it can be taught, but what we really teach is how to weed out what it isn’t. Simplicity is the heart of singing. I could not sing Tosca six years ago, because I tried too hard. Now I am Tosca. I couldn’t write novels six years ago because I didn’t know how to listen and decide. Singing taught me the discipline of trust that allows me to let words come.
When I was in the hell of an ugly voice, I thought that the way people treated me was relevant to my abilities. I was used to abuse and sadness. I could not sing past the lump in my throat. I could not write and make myself vulnerable to the scorn of people who thought themselves my judges. I thought they were my judges, too, but I was wrong.
When you learn to sing, you stop trying to sound like someone else. You listen and let go of artifice. You find the stability of discipline that we call the open throat, and you trust. When you write, you cut out all the judgmental voices and listen deeply. Then you write what you hear. When you do this well, people notice. They say, “She has a strong voice.” Or they either love or hate your work. Strong voices rarely evoke mediocre responses, though I would not advise a writer to pay much attention to responses. The reason you write is because you are taking the risk of sounding like yourself in words on paper, the way a master singer risks herself to sound like herself in song.
It has been almost thirty years since I found out my voice was ugly. It turns out that my voice was strong. I have lived through ugly, but it didn’t take. I have sung through ugly, but it didn’t keep.
No one was ever long inspired by a soul rising up. It’s when she comes back down, into herself, to say with decision that this is good and to tell out how the world is beautiful in all the reflected glory of God that her words ring out true.
You will fight, young voice, against all the ugly laid on you. But don’t give up in the thick. When you get through, you’ll find you have been saying truth all along. At first you were so quiet you did not even hear yourself. Your voice was as small as the scratch of eyelashes on a pillow wet with tears. One day you’ll surprise yourself by harmonizing with a known arbiter of joy and beauty. It may be a pipe organ or a protester. Maybe an admired teacher will look at you in recognition; maybe someone will smile as if they knew. When that happens, find people who love you even if you don’t know how to love yourself. You’ll know them by the way they say, “O-kay” to your doubts and excuses and get you to move on and make beauty anyway. They’ll hug you or hold your hand or get you tea or just keep coming back even if you have been ridiculous in your frantic search to distinguish yourself from the ugly.
When you find your voice, thank those people. They’ll be at your readings even if the reading is in a bar and they don’t even care for novels. They’ll make you food when you need it, even if you never call and cannot benefit them a jot. Then, take your strong voice and sing or write and live so that someone hears that truth you worked so hard to free.
It calls out “holy” in all things. It’s the hand of blessing that makes art beautiful. It’s the turn of phrase that steps your mind into a clear space where grace seems possible. It’s why roses bother with colors and mamas kiss their babies in the dark when no one is awake but nightmares. This truth will transform you when you tell it.
When you come back down from your fight, you will not be on fire. You will be fire. You will be the flame that shows up truth and love around you. You might even be catching.
But first, you might be ugly.