Hearing Voices


By Gretchen Ayoub

My vision of a writing class was that of a group of lofty literates who held the trade secrets to the flawless essay, not easily accessible to me, a relatively shy newcomer. Until quite recently, my writing career consisted of one essay published in an unknown magazine and my reading tended toward books such as “Quiet: The Power of an Introvert in A World That Can’t Stop Talking,” while those literates, I was certain, had long lists of award-winning books that they had read.

Despite my self-perception as an outsider, I knew that the only way to become a better writer was to write more and let people other than close girlfriends read it. I have a friend who teaches at Grub Street, a writing program in Boston, and I decided that this program was the best place to start, after she assured me that Grub Street was not in the business of outing newcomers. Of course, she was right.

In the Six Weeks, Six Essays class, I was in the company of twelve talented writers with zero pretension. They were smart, supportive, and genuine. As our ages ranged from mid-twenties through mid-sixties, the essays represented a range of viewpoints on life experiences, from the everyday through the life changing. I certainly learned much about writing, such as the importance of having a narrative arc and not introducing characters only to have them hang out in a black hole. I discovered techniques for writing beginnings and endings and I learned of numerous places to submit my work, some with cool names like Tiny Buddha and The Hairpin.

One of the more valuable lessons introduced that elusive yet central part of writing called voice. This writer’s voice is a regular feature in the many writing magazines I subscribe to. I knew I had to develop my own voice, but it was a vague, borderless concept to me. It was actually the voices of class members, spoken and written, that helped me to understand what this meant. During class, each student, each week, read aloud his or her essay. The stories were funny, sad, compassionate, heartbreaking, and often a combination of all of the above, layered with rich sensory details. There was a genuineness and authenticity in each voice that cannot be explained in an article from Writer’s Digest, Poets and Writers, or Creative Non-Fiction, and there were many memorable take aways; here are a few.

  • Jellied cranberry sauce can be a very funny topic that can also speak poignantly to a daughter-father relationship over the years.
  • Dating opinions from the viewpoint of a Russian grandmother to her millennial granddaughter can be well expressed in a classic quote: “He should be international, but not foreign.”
  • Discovering a partner has cheated evokes moments of self-doubt, lack of worth, and fantasy revenge scenarios across all age groups.
  • The rich colors of fall against the backdrop of a white church provide an indelible setting for the tender relationship between a son and his mother that spans his roller-coaster adolescence through his adulthood years.
  • The new Uber driver, his “training” in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn and the creepy Norman Bates-like customers who sit directly behind him, provide a hilariously unsettling view of the world of rideshare users.
  • Slot canyons, azure blue skies, and church architecture loving atheists make for a unique vacation.
  • The girl in the “Daddy’s Little Princess” pink t-shirt living in squalor in Haiti is an understated, yet powerful, statement on contrast.
  • The financial and emotional mess made by my generation for our children can be best understood when seen through the eyes of a Thailand ESL teacher who also works long hours as a bookstore clerk.
  • The “Actor Out Alone” is a courageous piece quietly read by our incredibly competent class editor-in-residence.
  • In this Facebook world, no one wants to admit to being anything but happy and engaged.
  • Questions about sex from pre-adolescents are at the same time funny, sad, scary, and sweet.
  • A deeply compelling portrait of the emotionally complex journey of living as fully as possible while knowing the inevitable can be painted from the sacrifice, pain, and resolve of caring for a spouse with ALS.

Now, when friends ask me how the class went, I probably won’t tell them that I heard voices. I will say that learning to write well is about listening to the stories told by members of a valued community, and finding and trusting one’s own unique voice.

When not learning about writing, Gretchen Ayoub works as a school counselor at Needham High School, Needham, MA, with students from grades 9-12. This is her second published essay.

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