Over the summer, I’ve been writing more than I do during the traditional academic year when other tasks consume the bulk of my workday. I have spent more time experiencing the joy of creative discovery and production, but I’ve also had more time confronting the difficulties of creative work as I’ve wrestled with some of its unique challenges. One of those challenges has been to refine my academic writing voice. I’ve approaches the challenge of developing my voice as both a spiritual and feminist practice and this has helped me find confidence in my work.
Before this summer, I thought I had already developed my voice as a writer. I wasn’t so foolish as to think I’d perfected it, but finding and expressing my voice through writing was quite intuitive after years of practice. I’m comfortable writing entries for this blog, articles, course lectures, and presentations for academic conferences. I’m comfortable writing lessons and prayers for schools and churches. While these types of writing require effort in research, in structuring the arguments, and in refining numerous drafts, I haven’t had to work very hard at voice, the thing readers hear when they read a work. But as I have been focused on a new type of project, which is my first manuscript for an academic book, voice has become one of the most significant challenges. The primary challenge has been that I was trying to avoid using first-person language, adopting a more traditionally formal style suggested by many publishers instead.
It felt unnatural, and so I turned to friends and books on writing for help. I found useful insight in Writing Theology Well: A Rhetoric for Theological and Biblical Writers (Second Edition), where Lucretia Yaghjian argues that there is no such thing as one normative theological voice:
“…[T]here is no univocal ‘theological voice’ but rather a polyphonic register of theological voices through which the breath of God resonates in response to particular contexts, concerns, callings, and communities. Among these theological voices is, of course, your own. How can you identify, develop and refine it? … You do not need to ‘find your voice’ before you can write ‘with voice,’ or ‘choose a voice’ in which to write. At times you may need to gain confidence in the ‘voice’ you have in order to let it resonate more clearly. At other times you may need to let go of that voice in order to give other voices in your writing precedence.” (p.282)
Yaghijian’s advice is comforting and encouraging. I’m comforted that the struggle to develop a clear voice is not unique to me, and that making adjustments for the particular context and audience I’m addressing is sensible. I am encouraged to use my theological voice to clarify where I stand apart from my conversation partners. To do this, I am using the first person, so that my words can be distinguished from the theologians and ethicists who inform my work. When I invoke “I” or “my argument,” it will be intentional. My language in the book is more formal, but since I’ve decided to use first person, I recognize my writing again as my own and it is a style that is consistent with what I write here.
Such writing becomes a spiritual practice as I engage others’ spiritual and theological writings, learn from them, and clarify my own views. This is what I have done in classrooms and church sanctuaries since childhood: seek knowledge from wise people and discern God’s message for me within it. Developing confidence in the wisdom I receive and confidence in my ability to share my own insights with others is spiritual practice, too. And as ironic as it may seem, declaring that I have something to offer requires humility. As I revise my work and as I show it to others, I open myself up for correction and guidance. When the book is published, I will have to consider the criticisms of a public much larger than any class of students I have taught.
Developing my writing voice has also led me to consider the influence on feminist scholarship on my writing style. Much of feminist, black feminist, womanist, and mujerista writing has been about women naming their own realities and experiences. I have been most inspired by writers who speak in their own language, especially when it clearly departs from the norms and conventions of their predecessors. What writers like Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, and Katie Cannon have modeled for me is the power that comes from a voice that roots her authority to speak in her particular knowledge of self and sacred power revealed to and through that self.
Writing, as a creative pursuit, is a challenging task. This art requires courage and humility. I am grateful that I do not have to do it alone and that my voice is joined with others. I am grateful to have foremothers whose writing inspires me, and communities like this one to sustain me.
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.