"I know how important voice is, but how can we define it?"
Writer Jacqueline Haskell was taught that her voice was one of the most important things to get right when she started her literary career. In a heartwarming piece she talks about what it took for her to understand what that meant for her, especially as a person who is profoundly deaf.
Jacqueline Haskell is a poet and writer of literary fiction. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London (2009), and in 2016 was mentored by novelist Tim Pears in the Gold Dust scheme for emerging writers. She has just completed her first novel, The Auspice and is working on her second, Earthquake Practice. Jacqueline’s work has been published in various anthologies including This Line is Not for Turning: An Anthology of Contemporary British Prose Poetry, by Jane Monson (ed), Cinnamon Press (2011), and 'try to build a house of words’ an essay on transreading poetic re-writings inspired by one Krystyna Miłobędzka poem, published by the Poetry School. She has won The Saturday Telegraph Short Story Contest, and has been placed in numerous other competitions, including Canterbury Cathedral Poet of the Year, the Ilkley Literature Festival, the FISH Publishing Poetry Prize, the Bridport Prize, and the Asham Short Story Award. She divides her time between Glastonbury, Somerset, where she works as a healer, and Tenerife, where she simply enjoys the sun.
I once had a dog called Betty and she was my voice and my familiar – for by day I am a healer. Perhaps most importantly, she was my hearing dog. People asked her if I took sugar; Betty was fond of sweet things, so she almost always said ‘yes’.
This is not my voice you are hearing, it’s that of my very dear friend who has stepped in to read this for me; it is not my voice because I cannot hear mine – it’s volume, inflection, pitch, and so on.
But I know how important voice is. On the first day of a Creative Writing MA at a well-known London university, the course director proclaimed that by the end of the first year we would all find that most elusive of attributes, our writer’s voice (if we were any good that is, he added darkly).
He explained how the quality and individuality of that voice could make or break us as writers.
So I know how important voice is, but how can we define it? How important is it that you hear my voice reading this, and not someone else’s? Wherein lies its power? In the sense and argument, the beauty and the meaning, of the words themselves? The connection they forge between people of different cultures, religions and continents? The projection of our inner soul? It is, I believe, a combination of all of these, and more.
I now have a piece of metal, a cochlear implant, inserted deep inside my skull that does the work of my diseased inner ear: some hearing is restored; voices now resonate, Dalek-like inside my head. I can hear birdsong, traffic, even music, which I was told might take years to become audible, and for some unlucky people, might never do so.
In the beginning though, I didn’t wear the implant – it triggered headaches, I told people – and it did, and does – but also, through my return to the clamour of the modern world, I came to appreciate the erstwhile silence.
I came to appreciate just how many of my true achievements occurred when I couldn’t hear at all. Curse it though I did; my deafness – endured against the fizz of several other chronic health conditions – sparked a creativity inside me: the writer’s voice, the spiritual voice, the attention to the contemplative moment, that I have not experienced either before or since. Would I have become a poet if I could hear? Written my first novel? Started my second? Would I have left a lucrative career to retrain as a healer?
The science of the implant is, of course, nothing short of a miracle, and I am eternally grateful for it, and for the enormous achievements of all those who have made it possible, and who strive for its continued excellence, but if you cannot hear, you must learn to endure, and then like, your own company; to become everything to yourself that others cannot; you must learn to carry your own dreams.
In truth, we all have a voice, even if we cannot hear it.
Everybody loved Betty – even those people who professed to dislike, or even to be afraid of, dogs.
Sadly, she eventually developed a health condition that meant she could no longer work as an assistance dog, and she was rehomed as a ‘fallen angel’ with a new family, as a pet.
These days, four years on from the operation, and three years from the loss of the dog, I am back in the world, and I wear the implant most of the time, but sometimes, I long for Betty and the silence.