Over the years my church has developed a series of topic-specific Bible Study courses that they call “Bible Institute.” I’ve been very privileged to have the opportunity to teach a few of those classes. There’s one particular course that’s always been my favorite, and it also happens to be the one that I get to teach most often.
At the end of 2014 my pastors asked me to teach it again – but this time I’m sharing that responsibility with my BFFFC (Best Friend Forever From Church … a different person than my BFF/SNOO). We’ve been taking turns, teaching alternating weeks, and helping each other out along the way. It’s been a lot of fun, and one of my favorite aspects of the experience has been getting to sit back and listen to her unique perspective. Hearing her teach the material has been exciting. It’s given me a fresh outlook, a shift in focus. Even though I know what she’s going to be teaching, hearing her explaining it has opened my eyes to things I’ve never noticed, connections I’d never made. I LEARN in her classes. It’s awesome.
But two weeks ago when we were discussing our schedule, she suddenly sighed and said (in the most self-defeated tone imaginable,) “Maybe you should just teach the class from now on. You’re such a better teacher than I am!”
Um … what?!
First of all this woman is a teacher by PROFESSION. She teaches for a living. And secondly, she’s GREAT at it! She makes her topics come alive in a personal and instantly-applicable way that I could never do. Her stories are funny and self deprecating. She has a wonderful flow between covering the source material and explaining it in her own words. She’s awesome, and I love listening to her teach. In fact, I’ve found myself on more than one occasion wishing that I had her perspective and her voice – wishing I could teach like her. It never occurred to me that she was sitting in my classes wishing she could teach like me!
It turns out we were each suffering from a certain degree of voice-envy. We both wished we sounded like someone else (each other, in this case.) But isn’t that silly? We were both able to benefit from and enjoy each others voices, and that’s a great thing. But it doesn’t mean that we should try (or even want) to change our own.
In thinking about this, I’ve realized what a common trap voice-envy actually is. As a reader and a writer, it’s one that I find myself struggling against all the time, and I think that it’s one that plagues too many writers and would-be writers in this world. After all, we all have favorite authors of our own, men and women whose words come alive to us on the page, people who inspire us to try our own hand at writing. And far too often we start our writing journeys by wishing above all else that we could write like ___________ (fill in the blank with as many other writers as you’d like).
But writing is an art form. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or something completely abstract and experimental. The words that you put on the page paint a picture. They tell a story. And the picture that you are painting is as much a product of your interpretation (your artistic voice) as the subject you’re conveying.
Could you imagine if Van Gogh had tried to paint like everyone else, or if Jane Austin had tried to write like a man? What would have happened if William Shakespeare or Earnest Hemingway had abandoned the originality of their voices in order to sound like someone else?
I’m not saying that we’re all destined to be the next Shakespeare. But what I am saying is this: the world doesn’t need another copycat. The world needs artists with original voices, people who are willing to write from their own perspective, to tell stories their own way. That doesn’t have to mean that we throw out all convention and toss the rules to the wind. We all want to write well. But if you’re serious about the endeavor of writing, then you need to be willing to own your voice.
By all means, read. Read as much as you can as often as you can. Glean what you can from the masters. Learn what good writing sounds like. Let other authors inspire and influence you. But don’t ever lose your voice. It’s what makes you special. Without it you will never produce anything that can teach or inspire others.