• Lisa Colburn

Listening for Your Original Voice


Last month, after my mother and I were both fully vaccinated, I flew to Maine to visit her for Mother’s Day. She picked me up in Portland and we went to one of my favorite little seaside haunts for lunch: the Lobster Shack at Two Lights. Mom ordered the haddock boat, which includes crinkle-cut fries and coleslaw, and I ordered the scallop boat so we could mix and match. When I opened the Styrofoam container to see six sea scallops (for $20.99), I said, “They’re kind of skinchy with the scallops, aren’t they?” Then I laughed at how quickly a Maine-ism popped back into my speech. I’ve lived away from Maine since 1984, but I have visited often, and my original language is never far away when I am on Maine soil.


In her book Writing Alone and With Others, Amherst Writers & Artists founder Pat Schneider said that we have three (or more) voices:

  • Original voice: the one you first learned, and the one you still use to some degree when you talk to people with whom you lived as a child

  • Primary voice: the one you use at home, relaxed, talking to those with whom you live as an adult

  • Acquired voices: these could be professional, academic, the playful voice you use with small children, etc.

Sometimes, when I mention my Maine roots here in the DC area, people will remark that they wouldn’t have guessed where I’m from because I have no accent. I laugh and tell them I had it teased out of me at college, which is true. I grew up in Eliot, a tiny town (then pop. 3,000) in the southern tip of Maine that is only an hour from Boston, so I had more of a Boston accent. When I went to college in Canada, I was always teased about it: “Are you gonna pahk the cah? Do you need a quahtah?” It was hard enough being only one of four Americans in the school, so I dropped my accent in favor of something more generic and tried to blend in. I guess I was successful! Years later, long after I had moved to the DC area, my father noted (rather unhappily) that I talked like a TV newscaster: “It’s just not normal the way you talk. You can’t tell where you’re from.”


In her book Pat said that her children still teased her about her original voice, which was from the Ozarks. She had dropped words like warsh and rinch, but kept “Wouldja like a glass of myelk?” because it reminded her of her grandmother asking the same question. She said, “I refuse to let that pronunciation go. It is my own first voice, my ‘mother tongue’; it is my treasure. It is what I know by heart.” (p. 94)


There are certain phrases that I have refused to give up from my original voice, too: things like slugabed, not too smaht, ayuh, and dao, which my father used often to express skepticism. (He signaled anything stronger than skepticism with oh horseshit). When I am visiting Maine and winning at cards, my mother calls me Old Biddy Winktam, which makes me laugh, but it’s not a phrase I have started using. Yet.


These small words and phrases link me to my past and help me remember that a part of me is still the skinny, too-tall girl who lived in a little ranch house her father built on a winding country road. We lived across from the Hartfords, with the Carpenters on one side and the Cotes on the other. There was a dairy farm down the road where the neighborhood kids would go ice skating in the winter, tufts of tough grasses poking up through the flooded frozen field. There was a good-sized hill next to the Hartfords that was good for sledding. There were long car trips up north to Aroostook County to see Gram Kinney and the rest of my father’s huge extended family. There were walks along the wet gray sand of York Beach any time of year, and stolen kisses in the parking lot across from Nubble Light. All of these memories and more come flooding back to me when I hear and speak the words of my original voice.


Pat said we must honor this voice:


You must trust your own voice. You cannot write in the voice of various characters until you accept and trust your own voice. Writers often ask me, “How do I find my voice?” It is a sad question—as sad as if the question were, “How do I find my face?” The answer is so clear, so transparent, we can easily miss it altogether. Listen. Listen to yourself. Listen to your own voice telling your own stories to the listener you most trust—to your best friend, to your lover, to someone with whom you relax, or perhaps to your siblings in a session of “remember when.” You have a voice, just as surely as you have a face, and it is already full of character, passionate and nuanced and beautiful. (p. 93)


Writing Prompt

In our “Write Around the World” fundraiser for Amherst Writers & Artists on May 1, Summer Hardinge and I offered this prompt of Pat’s on original voice (p. 95), and I offer it to you now:


First, write a bit about each of your grandparents and your parents. Where did they come from? Can you remember any old sayings or delicious bits of dialogue, pronunciation, or vocabulary that remind you of them?


Then write an intimate memory of childhood. Go into detail and “lean back” into that time. Allow the speech patterns of your own people to rise and spill out onto the page.


Write whatever comes.


I am taking the summer off to go camping! Feel free to check out my travel blog at https://lisacolburn.wixsite.com/senseofwander if you’d like to follow along. I don’t know how often I’ll be posting (reliable WiFi is often an issue), but I’ll check in from time to time. I’ll be back in September with new workshop offerings. May you have a joyful, healthy, and creative summer!


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