How to find your voice as a writer

Award-winning slam poet and teaching artist Sophia Walker gives advice on how to become a better writer.

How I got started

Several years ago, I was stuck with no work and fast-dwindling grocery money. One night, watching old episodes of a spoken word TV series with friends, I said, after one admittedly terrible poem had aired, 'I could do better than that in less than ten minutes.' My mates were tired of such arrogance, and handed me a pen and paper. The result took longer than ten minutes, but it wasn’t awful. One friend told me that the next night in a neighbouring town, there was a poetry competition, something called a slam, with a cash prize. Desperate for food money, I entered. Somehow, I won. I must be one of the few people who ever entered spoken word for the money.

What spoken word is

I’m now lucky enough to earn my living through touring the world performing my poems, my three spoken word theatre shows, and writing commissions. Spoken word, performance poetry, and slam poetry are slightly different things, depending on who you’re asking, but they all have the same goal. We stand on a stage and hope to make you feel something: laughter, anger, sadness, or the desire to leap into action. Spoken word is an exchange between writer and listener. We move you, you move us back, and together everyone leaves feeling different, fired up.

You have to earn people's attention

The true force of spoken word is that it is the only genre where anyone at all can say what they want to an audience of strangers and be listened to in silence. You don't need to be a professional; anyone can speak at an open mic night. Singer-songwriters get talked over and comedians get heckled, but spoken word poets experience the extreme privilege of being given the space to be truly heard.

Having a stage brings responsibility

I’m a feminist and I’m gay. I travel through a lot of places where this certainly isn’t safe to speak about, and where it isn’t accepted, even in the UK. But I have to. There is responsibility that comes with being given a stage: what do you do with that chance? If I wanted to be an entertainer, I’d have gone into a better-paying industry. I do this because I truly believe spoken word can change things.

You have to be brave

There are underground feminist spoken word scenes in countries where protest is illegal. I’ve performed at secretive lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) nights in countries where we have had to have security on the door to keep us safe, unable to market the events beyond very careful word of mouth. There are incredibly courageous poets, worldwide, who are fighting for political change. The least I can do is talk about the realities of being beaten up for being gay in front of people who don’t accept where their hate may lead; or even just give them a love poem, to make them see for two minutes that my love is no different and moves them no less.

Write about your own experiences

Being white, with the chance to speak to many other white people, I won’t write about racism. Remember, you must never take other people’s stories: write what you’ve lived, what you know. I frequently write about white privilege, something white people are not often enough confronted with. But it is not my place to stand on a stage and demand applause for showing my politics are where the zeitgeist says they should be, when actually all I’m doing is stealing someone else’s story. Write yours: the stuff of your life is powerful, honest, and worth hearing.

It's not easy to find your 'voice' as a writer

Many poets earn much of their living from teaching workshops, but we don’t all have the training to help someone discover their voice. Finding your voice is the hardest thing you will do, and it is a rare person who can help you. I know that my best work scares me. When I’m nervous to share, that is when I am onto something. That may not be how you work.

How to get better

You write because you have something to say. Trust yourself: say it. Leave it for a day or two. What you don’t like, cut. Over time, you will notice a common style or approach to your pieces, certain topics that you keep exploring. This is your voice. Hone it. Push it. But don’t let anyone else tell you it is wrong. Your best teachers will teach you how to shape your voice, but they will never ask you to change it.

Your identity doesn't have to be clear-cut

I grew up in several countries, never feeling as though I was from anywhere. At a conference I attended recently, a famous poet said you must always write from a sense of place, from where you are from. This almost silenced me, and I spent weeks full of doubt. I am from nowhere. I have no sense of place. My writing is about this very placelessness. But that needs representing, too. I am trying to write my way home.

Sophia won Best UK Spoken Word Show 2014, and the awards for Best Spoken Word Show on the Edinburgh Free Fringe in 2013 and 2014. 

Sophia is part of the International Literature Showcase, an online showcase of contemporary British literature, curated by the Writers’ Centre Norwich with the support of the British Council. 

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