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Are You Listening to All the Wrong Voices?

Today I’d like to welcome guest blogger Laura Joyce Davis, who is here to talk to us about shutting out those nagging voices that tell us to do the laundry, make more money, and clean out the basement—instead of doing what we’re meant to be doing—writing.


Laura Joyce Davis was the winner for fiction of the 2013 California Writers Exchange Award, a contest held by Poets and Writers every three years to introduce emerging writers from California to the New York literary community. Laura earned a 2010-2011 creative writing Fulbright scholarship to complete research for The Low-Flying Dove, her novel about sex trafficking in the Philippines. An excerpt from this work was the winning submission for the California Writers Exchange Award.

She was nominated for a 2009 Pushcart Prize and has published short stories and creative non-fiction in Lakehōm Magazine, A Cappella Zoo, the Cricket Online Review, The Mills Quarterly, The Campanil, and Building Bridges: The 2009 San Francisco Writers Conference Anthology. During her time as an MFA student at Mills College, she won the Ardella Mills prize for graduate fiction in 2005 and 2006. She lives in Oakland with her husband and son and enjoys trail running, wine tasting, and the rare days when the words come easy.

All the Wrong Voices
By Laura Joyce Davis

I’ve been listening to voices for as long as I can remember.

St. Patrick’s Day, 2012, found me celebrating in an operating room, surrounded by the glare of fluorescent lights and the smell of cauterized flesh. I tried not to think about the incision across my belly. I waited for the wail that would change my world.

For nine months prior I had nursed a novel born from a year of writing and research in the Philippines. I hoped that having a literal child wouldn’t mean the end of my literary children—and then felt guilty for the thought.

Every writer must find her voice; for me, it has been a long struggle of trying to hear my own voice amidst the chorus calling me elsewhere. Chekhov said “the thought that I must, that I ought to, write, never leaves me for an instant.” It never leaves me, either—though I’ve spent a lifetime acting as if it had.

When my husband and I married ten years ago, we promised ourselves that I’d make writing my profession. Yet we held that promise in one hand and practicality in the other. We took turns in graduate school, saddled ourselves with a mortgage, and advanced in our respective fields. I worked as a college track coach, squeezing writing into dark pre-dawn hours, hoping ideas would percolate through exhaustion and workaholism. I couldn’t hear “I’m a writer,” over the shouts of “Keep coaching—you’re good at it!” Many years would pass before I would learn that strengths are not what we’re good at, but what make us feel strong.

Once a year, I played hermit in a Minnesota cabin and did nothing but write. The only voices there belonged to my characters, enlivened by my undivided attention. I longed for such conversations all the time, but the thought of relying on my husband’s spotty freelance work brought the Voice of Common Sense back at full volume. Writing was safer as the pastime I dusted off each summer.

Meanwhile, my twenties had trickled away, and I was living Thoreau’s life of quiet desperation: a depression-inducing job, one unpublished novel, and the mere inkling of another. The sinister voices multiplied: You’ll never make it as a writer. You’re wasting your time. You should just quit.

At last my husband and I hatched a plan to silence the voices: we’d spend every seventh year volunteering somewhere that would force us to cast off the carefully-sewn safety nets. We’d get back to what mattered. In July 2010, we left our jobs, rented our house to strangers, and flew 7,000 miles to the Philippines.

It was in the most earsplitting place I’ve ever been that I learned to hear again. With twenty million people swarming in squatter communities, air pollution to make chain smokers cough, and thunderous typhoons, life in Manila was constant cacophony. But in it were voices I could learn from, voices that questioned our worship of wealth and security. These voices, accents and all, were strangely like a younger version of myself—a self calling me back to writing.

With zero jobs, little savings, and a baby in utero, however, the voice of practicality pestered relentlessly when we returned to Oakland in July 2011. But Manila’s echoes lingered; we agreed that until our son was born, I would nurture my literary baby, a novel about sex trafficking inspired by the Filipinas I had come to know and love.

Then a voice cried out that I couldn’t ignore: Gabriel, my newborn son. For three months I gladly put everything aside—even my writing—to make sure that he knew he was heard. And while I cherished his first giggles, I also missed the days when all I had to care for were words.

Before Gabriel was born, I had eight-hour workdays—time to write and rewrite and rewrite again. Now I have nap time, time to tune out the voices squawking, House work! Text messages! Part-time work! But being a writer makes me a better mother, because even when the words come like weeds from the ground, writing nourishes me for the rest of life. It gives me the grace to allow my son to find a voice of his own.

Most days, I manage to make time for the whisper of words on the page. I say no to a lot that other moms embrace: play dates, timely returned emails, a vibrant social life. (Yiyun Li once said you only need one friend; she is a writer and mother, too.) I’ve banished the goal of the woman who has it all together. There isn’t time for her anymore. But that’s just as well; she was just another voice calling me away from the one I needed to be listening to all along.

What about you, writers? What helps you to shut out all the wrong voices?

48 comments to Are You Listening to All the Wrong Voices?

  • […] 2012 was a year of new beginnings. For Laura, it has been a year of figuring out what it means to be a writer and a mother. Check out Laura’s guest blog post on Writerland: Are You Listening to All the Wrong Voices? […]

  • Laura, I love this! Your specific rendering of a common experience among artists re-inspires me to prune the parts of my life that choke my writing instead of feeding it. I imagine I will navigate the rise and fall of those distracting voices my whole life. I appreciate the reminder of the greater goal.

  • Aditi

    Great post – pruning our various goals, and finding focus that could benefit all of us – writers or not

    • Meghan Ward

      I agree, Aditi. Laura's advice applies to everyone trying to accomplish a big task, especially freelance artists.

  • Kristan

    "strengths are not what we’re good at, but what make us feel strong"

    Love that. Love this whole post, in fact. I wish I couldn't identify as strongly as I do, but at least there's hope for me. 😉

    • Meghan Ward

      Kristan, I'll let you know when Laura's novel about human trafficking gets published. I've read it, and she's a great writer!

  • Thanks for sharing, Laura. And thanks for reading my post on the same topic–that strange world where mothering and writing both clash and intersect ( How awesome that these were posted on the same day! Something we need to be thinking about a lot, I guess. I wish you all the best. BTW–where do you tuck yourself away in MN? My parents have a place an hour north of Grand Marais–at the end of the Gunflint Trail in the Superior Natl. Forest wilderness. Has been a great place for getting away.

    • Meghan Ward

      Sarah – thanks for posting a link to your post! I will check it out, too.

    • I wish you all of the best as well, Sarah! As for my Minnesota writing retreat, my parents have a cabin a couple of hours north of the Twin Cities. It has been a kind of sanctuary for me for many summers, and the site of lots of good writing! So glad you have a similar place to go to!

  • Great post, Laura (my mother is a Laura Davis so I liked it on principle, but I really did like it.) So easy to let those voices overtake you – kudos for figuring out how to quiet them, and congrats on your award. Also good as a writer/mother to remember that this, too, shall pass – my kids are 12 and 15 now and don't need or want me to hover like I did, and my output has steadily increased as a result…

    • Meghan Ward

      Nancy – funny that your mother is a Laura Davis! Reading your comment makes me feel both excited and sad. I'm excited to know that one day I'll have more time to write (in fact, I was just discussing this with a writer friend today – what a difference it makes once they're in school). On the other hand – how sad it will be when they don't want to be around me anymore! I will always want to be around them 🙁

  • So true Laura for those of us who are moms and artists. I've had to reevaluate what is important and life affirming to me and get rid of the rest, still sifting through it.

    (Mom to 17 month old Teddy) and sometimes artist when I am not teaching.

    • Meghan Ward

      I hear you, Jenn! It takes a while to figure out what's most important to us and how to squeeze it all in.

  • Thanks to everyone for the kind and gracious comments! I'm so glad my words struck a chord. Thanks to Meghan for asking me to do it, and cheers to all of the artist moms who keep working to find their voices!

  • katiequirkauthor

    Gorgeous prose packed full of truths, Laura. The notion that "strengths are not what we’re good at, but what make us feel strong" is so interesting to reflect on. I admire your volunteering sabbatical plan–there is not better way to check in with the world and what it means to be human than stepping outside of our comfort zones and into a new place. I'm so excited to see what the next year brings you as a writer, and I can't wait to read your book!

    And, Meghan, thanks for providing such a fruitful forum for sharing ideas!

    All the best,

    • Meghan Ward


      So glad to see you on Writerland! I admire both of you for your years abroad volunteering. I hope to do it someday, once my kids are grown!

  • biersdre

    So true, these are words I needed to read today, Laura. Strengths are not what we are good at, they are what make us feel strong. TRUTH!

  • melissacronin

    Thanks, Laura, for sharing your story, a universal story for writers. There are definitely days when I ask myself, "What are you doing – a writer?"

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