How I Found My Voice

By Angie Mizzell

I remember exactly where I was when I realized what I wanted to do with my life. I was sitting at a long table in the university library my sophomore year of college, alongside a dozen other undergrads. Each of us stared at computer screens, typing away.

I was revising a personal essay for a creative nonfiction writing class. The professor had instructed us to write a story about something that had happened in our lives. Then, she read our stories and returned them. She didn’t give us a grade; instead, she colored the margins with feedback: “What did you mean here? Write less about this. Tell me more about that.”

At the bottom of my essay she wrote, “How brave of you to tell this story from someone else’s point of view. Now, I’d like to hear it from your perspective.” It’s funny that it hadn’t occurred to me—to write the story through my eyes—even though I was there and lived it, too.

That night, I went back to the library and rewrote the story, incorporating the professor’s notes and edits. That’s when I felt something inside of me come alive. The process of revising, crafting and deepening the story challenged me in a way that felt good. I felt like myself—completely connected, fully present and comfortable in my own skin. I eagerly awaited the next round of edits.

I wrote a total of four essays. At the end of the course, the professor returned our stories in a manila folder with the first and only grade we received all semester. It was the most satisfying “A” I’d ever earned. The professor wrote me one final note. “You could have a career as a writer,” she said. My stomach did a flip-flop. Her words felt so right that it made me nervous.

I justified to myself that I was a broadcast journalism major. Sure, producing TV news scripts would require a different style of writing, but I would, indeed, have a career as a writer. Besides, as much as I enjoyed writing those essays, I didn’t know where, or how, to write like that beyond my time in the classroom.

I wouldn’t know until I was almost 30 years old, when I was going through a life and career transition and was seeking inspiration at every turn. I picked up a copy of Skirt. As I flipped through the pages of the magazine, I found several stories written by women in a style quite similar to the stories I’d written in college. My stomach once again did that familiar flip-flop. I was struck by how interesting these essays were; how effortlessly they pulled me in. I wondered how stories so different from my own could also feel familiar and make me nod my head in recognition. I emailed Skirt’s managing editor and asked her to send me the submission guidelines.

In June 2005, my first essay in Skirt was published. When I got the acceptance email, I literally danced around the room. The following month, I danced again as I celebrated another yes. Then, when I submitted my third essay, I learned the sting of rejection. My essay wouldn’t work this time. My heart sank. I knew it wasn’t personal, even though it felt personal. Because writing is so very personal.

I also knew that I still had a lot to learn about writing for publication. Over time, I found other outlets for my work, but starting and maintaining a blog proved to be the most valuable and one of the best teachers. Blogging forced me to face my inner critic and that vulnerable feeling that comes the second after I hit “publish.” I learned—am still learning—to trust myself and the words I feel compelled to share, as well as the ones I choose to hold back.

A few years ago, I found my way back to Skirt and my essays have been published here on a regular basis. Sometimes I look at my byline and think about my college professor and the impact she made on my life. To be writing this essay for you now, as Skirt celebrates its 25th year, is humbling, really.