(Editor’s Note — 1120 Press is proud to publish this beautifully written essay by writer Liza Frenette on how she found her voice — a subject rather appropriate for our continuing ‘VOICES’ series. Born and raised in the mountain and lumber town of Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks, Liza is a journalist and author who resides in New York’s Capital Region. Her piece — poetic as it is vivid — is testament to how the written word has the power to transform. Enjoy!)
Tonight, I was driving home from the mountains and lakes where the forests are filled with the muted orange colors and the unpolished rubies of autumn just past its prime, like 16-year-olds used to being teens and just starting to get bored with it.
Night descended while I drove and around a corner and suddenly there was the crescent moon, hanging like a big comma in the sky.
I think of a comma as a polite pause, one that is waiting for what will be said next.
All afternoon as I swam and paddled my kayak on a remote lake, listening to the sounds of two loons and my dripping paddle, I thought about voice. I could hear the voices of the trees as they let go of their leaves, a soft sprinkling sound. Trees talk to each other. They send messages through roots to warn other trees of invaders – dangerous insects that will eat them alive. They can change the taste of their leaves to ward off the insects and they tell the other trees to do the same.
Voices, even when quiet, quiet, quiet underground, are powerful. The velvet underground. I tried to imitate the sound of the loons in a chortling voice, calling out from my little green kayak to communicate with them, but my voice wobbled. I laughed out loud. The loons did not acknowledge my sounds.
I remember in grammar school we began studying French and I recall opening my orange and white primer to find a new language. Je m’appelle Liza! École. Livre! Livre! Books!
A globe spun in my head. There are other countries! Other languages! I was receiving code. I was exploring voice.
After school I regularly walked to the town library, where my great aunt, the librarian, wore A-line skirts, collared jackets and lovely dresses to work. When I took my haul to the checkout desk, she would press the ink pad attached to her special pen to mark the due date in the little card glued to the last page of the book. I could hear the squishy sound the pad made as she pressed it down.
I read fat books of poetry, often at night under my covers with a flashlight, long past bedtime. I saved my paper route money and bought a desk at a second-hand store for $8. It was blue. I bought a poster of a little dog holding a feather pen. I knew with every pulse beating in my wrist of the hand where I held my own pen marking my aliveness, that I was and would be a writer. I became enthralled when I learned that some writers had pennames — pseudonyms — and I made up some for myself, writing them out elaborately in careful cursive. “Gwendolyn Miller” was a front runner. I changed my writing to all lowercase like e.e. cummings, and I memorized Robert Frost and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Under the spreading chestnut tree/the village smithy stands/the smith a mighty man is he/with large and sinewy hands.” I could picture that tree, and that worker. “... something attempted, something done/has earned a night’s repose.”
When I read poetry, I felt myself crack like an egg broken open, the sun coming out yellow in the pan.
When my teen years clamped down on me like the wilding of All Hallows Eve, and I drank beer — either too warm or half-frozen — however we could get it, my writing voice went underfoot like a vole under snow cover. I turned to music and found other voices there. I blew off the dust and dropped the needle onto the shiny, black vinyl records and learned about the Volunteers of America in Jefferson Airplane’s revolution, and oh how I sang the Moody Blues “I know you’re out there somewhere….somewhere…”
I saved money and bought a stereo so I could pick up a real radio station — (not the nearby town’s tinny 9-5 station) — and listened to the voice of radio from Canada that played rock all night long.
The slow ticking began of my release from the constraint of the small town I’d mistaken for home. I was hearing voice from another country.
The drinking took me on a rough detour, but the alchemy of books started bringing me back to my changed self. Books again became food and air, twigs for my robin’s nest. Journal writing very slowly became more than angst and love’s dark corners as I explored voices from a larger world and the natural world. It started when I was writing for a newspaper and took a class in short stories at a local college. It brought me out of the mountains and back to college full-time again, not for a job this time, but to read and write, to wrap myself in words, to build words, to fill my need to build words, like some people need arch support in their shoes, like your boss needs Monday, like a dandelion needs the month of May, like a child needs soap bubbles blown across a lawn.
I dream in paragraphs, and that’s a truth, and I underline words and sentences in books that make me pause or ruminate or sigh, and I turn down the top corners of pages I especially love. Reading helps me turn the corners of my own self, as does writing, and it all finds and upturns voice: mine, yours.
I find worlds in words. I find voice. I am voice.
I am voice.