Rediscovering Your Writing Voice

by | Nov 18, 2020

There is a wealth of strategies for overcoming writer’s block across genres. But what about rediscovering your writing voice? Whether or not you are writing, it is possible to feel cut off from your writing voice. The push to write in a voice that negates your ideas, lived experiences, and ways of knowing can stir up trauma.

Relatedly, writing in a hostile (home, school, work) environment, labor market, and publishing industry often leads to lost confidence and, worst of all, silencing. For these reasons and more, rediscovering your writing voice involves reclaiming it again and again in the face of delegitimizing forces. This article offers practical strategies for doing so based on my own rediscovery process following a three-year postdoc.

Losing your voice

In theory, temporary postdoctoral positions—especially at resource-rich universities—are meant for revising your dissertation into a book before (and for the purpose of) landing a tenure-track job. I was ready to plunge back into my research upon accepting the job and I had a solid writing plan. But my perfectly crafted agenda fell apart by the end of my first postdoc year despite the fact that I used every opportunity to present my research.

There were multiple reasons for this unfavorable turn, not to mention the pressure on myself and other postdocs of color to compensate for where the university had chronically, structurally failed minoritized students. However, the ways in which my research—and, by extension, I as a researcher—was continually read caught me off guard after a supportive graduate school experience.

No matter how much I tried to participate as a peer, people still mistook me for a student, staff member, or—frequently off campus—a non-English speaker unaffiliated with the university. When I conversed with people who didn’t forget that I was a postdoc, they provided delegitimizing feedback that included baseless critiques of ethnic studies as a field. For example, a faculty member once told me that ethnic studies research methods were “wrong,” according to historians.

Even as I was hyper-aware of the racist, classist, and gendered underpinnings of my experience, it didn’t hurt any less. And the more such experiences accumulated alongside routinized micro- and macro-aggressions, the further they eclipsed affirmative and constructive feedback and, sadly, wore away at my hard-earned confidence. Everything I had spent years grappling with as a first-generation student of color (including imposter syndrome) suddenly resurfaced.

I effectively stopped sharing my writing. When a potential fellowship mentor who was excited by my research agenda asked to see my writing sample, I never responded and thus lost an opportunity for intellectual community. Ironically, I had that sample ready in addition to many others because I continued writing—privately. I had pages and pages of writing that I didn’t share, let alone publish.

Getting it back

It wasn’t until my final year as a postdoc that I really began to rebuild self-confidence and, shortly thereafter, engage in the publication process without strain. As I slowly worked toward reclaiming my voice, three small-scale practices made a monumental difference.

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Find writing partners who genuinely get you

Writing buddies who believe in your work are priceless. For instance, I reconnected with two graduate school friends who invited me to join them on Slack. We checked in every day and they cheered me on. I believed them because they truly believed in my work.

Fortunately, joining or putting together a remote writing group is pretty accessible. One of my colleagues joins a Meetup group every morning. Many scholarly associations run programs in which they match you with a group, peer, or mentor, including Writer to Writer by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

In the past I have formed my own writing groups with current colleagues or folks I met at a conference, class, or event. I have coauthored via text, social media, Zoom, you name it. The key is to find buddies that get you. That’s why reconnecting with graduate school friends worked so well for me. We shared a commitment to interdisciplinarity, justice, and creative cultural production even though our research was very different. Additionally, we had a long track record of valuing each other’s scholarship and scholarly identities.    

Share your work selectively

Focusing on your work often means sharing it selectively, with those who can help you grow. This can mean only soliciting feedback that is based in shared values.

In my case, sometimes people at my postdoc institution questioned why I turned to, say, Black feminist literature and suggested that I instead consider the work of [dead white man]. In rediscovering my writing voice, I realized that I didn’t have to explain why the texts so central to my research were theoretical. As Toni Morrison says, “the very serious function of racism is distraction” and “it keeps you from doing your work.”

Working with academic editors in your field is a great way to solicit feedback. When that’s not financially accessible to you, consider reaching out to people who are in your immediate and extended community.

I still share work with my graduate and postdoc mentors, all of whom uphold both the politics and poetics of ethnic studies. I have also benefited from mutual exchanges with copanelists, members of working groups and constituency groups (e.g., caucuses), and chosen family. Exchanging work with carefully selected readers/writers results in a positive feedback loop because it is a form of building intellectual community. 

Play around with genre

To rediscover your writing voice, consider writing in a different genre. As I mention in this post about writing during the pandemic, expanding your definition of writing honors the myriad work that we already do in and outside of academia and leverages it to our benefit. If you write op-eds, poems, zines, or creative writing in any other form, then pause to do that. Maybe playing around with genre is enough. Otherwise, share what you wrote with others, even if it’s just on social media!    

For instance, I desperately needed to practice releasing my work after holding on so tightly. Blogging was the perfect genre for me because I could express opinions from a first-person perspective to a readership of interdisciplinary change-makers. I was stoked to learn that former mentors read my posts and that a scholar I greatly admire assigned my first post about how to write an academic book review to her grad students. Blogging demystified the fear of publishing and I wrote more openly with every post.  

Rediscovering your writing voice and confidence will likely take time, particularly after a hurtful experience. For me, finding like-minded writing partners, selectively sharing my work, and playing with new genres were the starting points of a journey that many marginalized scholars must navigate. In the process of rediscovering and, most importantly, reclaiming our writing voice, we reconnect with comrades and remember that our words contribute to redefining knowledge as we know it. 

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Tala Khanmalek is a contributing writer at Ideas on Fire as well as an assistant professor of women and gender studies at California State University, Fullerton.

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