I'm doing something super-fun today. I have the awesome privilege of teaching an interactive seminar about finding your own unique voice both as a writer and a speaker. We're gathered together at the annual Allume Conference in Greenville, South Carolina - just me and 400 of my closest blogging friends. And though I don't usually write about writing, I thought I'd share some of the main points with y'all here today.
I remember my very first acting class my Freshman year of College. I had come all the way from Los Angeles, California to Boston, Massachusetts to study with a specific acting coach. She was a living legend in the theatre world. Had a deep resonating voice, slightly raspy from too many cigarettes back in her hay-day.
On our first day of class she greeted us all one at a time as we came into the small black-box theatre. I remember very clearly how she stood there, stately and confident, with her hair tied back in a bun, a few wiry grey hairs pulled out and framing her otherwise stern appearance. I recall clearly the way she looked me in the eyes, shook my hand and said, “What’s your name?” It was an intense moment for this 18 year old, 3,000 miles from home.
“Wendy?” I said it like a question, with an out-of-place inflection at the end.
“Are you sure?... ‘Wendy?'”
“Yes?” Though my voice didn't sound sure.
“Welcome, Wendy. It is my goal that when you leave this class, you will know exactly who you are.” And then she greeted the equally unsure student that came in behind me, and then the next, and then the next...
We did all of the strange things that first year theatre students do. We warmed up our articulators “p-p-p-b-b-b-t-t-t-d-d-d-k-k-k-g-g-g…” We read Henry the 5th and memorized the prologue, and then she invited us to each memorize it and perform for the class.
“Oh for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention. A kingdom for a stage, princes to act, and monarchs to behold the swelling scene. And then should the warlike Harry, himself assume the port of mars. And at his heals, leashed in, should famine, sword, and fire crouch for employment...”
Afterwards we were all quite proud of ourselves. But she took the stage, hung her head, and challenge each one of us. She said, “Who do you think you are? You think that you can come up here and tell us Henry V’s story? The King of England? And yet, you haven’t ever told us your own. How can you honestly tell another person’s story, if you haven’t gone to the depths and the heights to recount your own?”
"Here's what you're going to do," she continued, "I want you to go home to your little dorm room and search your little heart for that one moment in your life that had the most profound impact on you. It was the moment everything changed. It can be heartbreak or euphoria. That moment because the lens through which you view your life. The moment you discovered who you were – the good, the bad, the ugly. The moment that would change things, change you... forever.
You come back here, and you tell me that story - and maybe, just maybe, I’ll give you another chance to tell us someone else’s story before this year is through.
My dorm room was over a mile’s walk from the theatre, and I remember crunching through the early winter snow replaying my professor’s words in my mind.
[Tweet "How can you ever tell another person’s story, if you can’t authentically tell your own?"]
The next week when I walked into that same dark room, I knew exactly what story I was supposed to tell. It had happened only a couple of months earlier. But before I tell you my story, let me preface it by saying that the other students in my class had very different stories to tell. One boy told us about the day he walked into the house after school and heard the bathroom shower running. No one was supposed to be home. So after a long time he knocked and called out, but no one answered. So he peeked in and found his father sitting in the shower, fully clothed, slumped over with slit wrists. A girl then told the story, in haunting detail, of the day she had an abortion. And then there was the young man who recounted the events of his first murder. He had spent his pre-teen years in a gang on the streets of New York.
And then it was my turn, and this is the story I told:
A couple of weeks after I graduated from High School I went to Hawaii for a week with my best friend. We stayed in an apartment on the water in Honolulu, Oahu. Since we were both Christians it ended up being more like a Spiritual Retreat than a Senior Trip. We hung out on the beach and went snorkeling, but we also read our Bibles, prayed together, sang worship songs on the balcony over looking the water.
On the last day of our trip I woke up early, before dawn. I slipped on my shorts and a tank top quietly, grabbed my sandals and snuck out the door. When I went down to the beach I saw some guys launching charter catamarans out into the water. They said that they didn’t have a full ship and I could come along for 10 bucks. I asked if there was time for me to grab my girlfriend and they said yes but hurry, because this was a sun rise cruise and the sun was just about to rise. So I ran up the room, grabbed Kacy, and we hustled back down to the water and climbed aboard.
We sat at the very edge on the netting at the front of the catamaran and away we went, bouncing into the oncoming waves as the sun started to rise over the volcano behind us. We started to sing together, “Our God is an awesome God He reigns in Heaven above, with wisdom power and love, our God is an awesome God.” We sang the chorus over and over together and just as the sun broke over the ridge, Kacy broke into harmony. As if on cue, four dolphins leapt out of the water right in front of us. If I had merely reached out my hand, over the bow of the boat, I could have touched them.
It was the most holy moment in my life, up until that point, because I knew deep down to the centermost places in my heart that God truly had made the heavens and the earth and all that is within them – living, and breathing, and having their being. And that all of God’s creation INSTINCTIVELY responds to Him. In that moment, I realized as those dolphins danced to the praises sung to their creator God, Elohim, that only humans have the gift of freewill. Only you and I can choose if we are going to lay down our self-seeking ways, our sin tendencies, and step out in faith, follow, and praise Him.
With tears streaming down my cheeks I decided then and there that I would… absolutely… follow Him… for my whole life.
That was my story. That was the monologue I shared. I remember the silence that followed. I can still feel it. I didn’t receive the applause and tearful hugs that the others had. I was even cornered in the bathroom after class by a group of very hostile girls that wanted to know how dared share that story after every one else had been so vulnerable about their pain and their mess. One girl in particular, I remember the way spittle flew from her lips as she accused me of… Oh, goodness, I don’t what it was she accused me of… maybe of not being more lost.
But my story was the story of a woman who had been found.
I believe that my acting teacher was right – We have to be able to authentically tell our stories. And, I’d go a step further and say that when you do learn what your most important stories are, it’s there that you discover your voice. When you realize what your main story is, you unlock the key to your main message. And your main message is usually expressed through your unique voice both as a writer and a speaker.
I often ask young writers, "What do you write about?" And they look me in the eyes, like a deer in the headlight and sputter and stutter... they way I awkwardly extended my hand to my teacher and gave her a pathetic first impression.
So here's my question: Who are you and what do you have to say?
Here is how I introduce myself today: “How do you do, my name is Wendy Speake and I tell stories that allow me to point readers and audience members to Jesus. My favorite stories let me segue directly into the gospel message of salvation through faith in Christ.”
The popular term for this is “What’s your elevator pitch?” Maybe you’ve heard this term when you have a book you’re trying to sell or a message you'd like to share. But I think every author needs to be able to express in 1 – 3 sentences, the time it would take you to go from the top floor to the ground floor in a fancy hotel. “My name is, and I…”
Now oftentimes, this heart message came from a deep-down-dirty place of hard-earned experience - that's your story. But your story isn't always your message. Christ is in the business of taking our mess and exchanging it for His message. Yes, for Christian story-tellers the story unfolds in two parts. The first part is centered around the sin that wounded you (either someone else's of your own) and the second, redemptive piece to the puzzle that is your heart message, is the way that The Lord rescued you from that sin and sadness, saving and healing you - putting a new song in your mouth.
That new song is usually where the Christian author finds her voice to sing, to speak, to write...
He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him. (Psalm 40:2-3)
Your story may be that you were abused - but your heart message is that the Lord heals.
Your story may be that you were abandoned and neglected - but your heart message is that the Lord found you, and cared intimately about your lonely heart.
Your story may be that your earthly father was harsh and offensive - but your heart message is that God is your Heavenly Father, and He is tender and kind and gentle.
Your story may be that you were lost - but the heart message that beats in your breast, and bubbles out like a new song from your mouth and your pen and your podium, is that Jesus came to find us!
[Tweet "When you discover what's in your heart - You discover your voice."]
...out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.