Monday, 22 January 2018

Valid Voices by Emily Owen

After I’d spoken at an event, a girl came up to me, wanting me to sign her book. 
She was with a family member, who encouraged the girl to tell me the name to write by fingerspelling it out for me (‘Fingerspelling’ is the sign language alphabet; I am deaf).
I was impressed that the girl knew some sign language, and said so, then turned to watch as she spelled out the name.  She formed the shape required for the first letter using her right hand.
I often try and anticipate words people are spelling after the first letter (something to do with liking words, writing, word games?!) so, before she’d spelled the second letter, I’d already narrowed the options down. I knew the second letter would need two hands to make the required shape.
Which is why I was surprised to see her move her right hand towards the top of her left arm, not towards her left hand.
Using her right hand, she made the next shape against her arm, as though her arm was the flat left palm I’d anticipated.

It was only then that I realised.

The arm I’d assumed was under the left sleeve of her coat, the hand I’d assumed was hidden beneath its length, were not there. 
The sleeve was empty.

And yet, I understood every letter she went on to spell. 

Using a method which worked for her, doing what she could do, was enough. 
It was more than enough.

If that girl had compared herself with the vast majority of fingerspellers, the ones who use two hands, she may well have given up.  What was the point? She could never be like them, so why even try?

But she didn’t do that. 
She didn’t compare.

If I were to constantly compare myself with other writers, maybe I would give up.  Not least because I start a fair few sentences with ‘because’, rebelliously ignoring the voice of my school-days English teacher.

To quote from one of my books, Still Emily; ‘Comparison is one of the most unhelpful things I know’.

I won’t go into the reason behind me saying that (it’s in the book), but it still holds true for me today.

Perhaps, though, in terms of writing, I should add a caveat: Negative comparison is one of the most unhelpful things I know.

Yes, compare with other writers.
Learn from them. 
Look at their style, their use of language, their plot structure. 
But never assume that, just because you’re not like them, you can’t write.
Never assume that your voice is not important.

I spent time over New Year with a friend, and she suggested we watch a film.  Her favourite film of all time.  A film I’d never seen: Dead Poets Society.

*If any one is wondering, I thought it was brilliant.*

In the film comes the following:

Image result for find your own voice quote

‘Find your own voice.’

In life, in writing, in whatever it may be….

 Image result for the powerful play goes on quote

As that girl and I hugged (and posed for a selfie),
I knew, 
without a shadow of a doubt,
that her voice is powerful.    
Her contribution is unique. 
It is individual.
And it is beautiful.

The world – and I – would be poorer without her verse in our story.


  1. That's beautiful, Emily. And your own writerly voice is so distinctive.

    1. Thank you, that is really encouraging and I appreciate you commenting.

  2. Thank you, Emily. I have a tendency to compare myself with others and I have to keep reminding myself that God made each one of us unique, he hasn't made me to be like someone else. He wants me to be me. By the way, I watched Dead Poets when I was at Uni and loved it, although I was reduced to tears more than once. It's such a moving film.

    1. Thank you. Yes, 'He wants me to be me' is a good way to put it. The film is so moving, definitely needs tissues nearby. I think I am way behind the times in only just having seen it!

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  4. Explain keeping up with Jones please..... Society based on it. Comparisons. Sorry to be so unhelpful.

    1. You're not unhelpful, thank you for commenting. Here is an explanation I found online of 'keeping up with the Jonses'. I hope it's helpful:
      "Keeping up with the Joneses" is an idiom in many parts of the English-speaking world referring to the comparison to one's neighbor as a benchmark for social caste or the accumulation of material goods. To fail to "keep up with the Joneses" is perceived as demonstrating socio-economic or cultural inferiority.


  5. What a wonderful story to encourage us all. And BTW...I loved Dead Poets Society! x