REVIEW: Voice First: A Writer’s Manifesto by Sonya Huber

Reviewed by Allison Darcy

The book title voice first a writer's Manifesto are in yellow, white and red agains a dark green backgroundI have a reviewer voice.

I’m aware of this in the same way that people are aware they have a “phone voice” or a “customer service” voice—the only difference is that it’s written. My reviewer voice includes phrases like “the author was wise to” or “readers who do X may think Y.” It’s formal, sticks to a specific structure, and chooses words carefully in an attempt to seem sophisticated. I’m not using my reviewer voice right now on purpose, opting for my “telling a friend over coffee they should get a book” voice.

It seems a fitting choice when talking about Sonya Huber’s newly released craft book, Voice First: A Writer’s Manifesto (University of Nebraska Press, 2022), which asked me early on to create a list of my many voices and to consider using them in unexpected places.

This is just one of the ideas from Voice First that I’ve been playing with since reading it. It’s also prompted me to think about nearly every half-finished writing project I have, overflowing with different ways to go about them that hadn’t really occurred to me before.

This isn’t something that happens for me with most craft books, but there’s something really special about Voice First, which is built on the idea of using voice as a generative engine as opposed to just a stylistic tool. It’s about how we write: not how we approach writing in terms of content and structure, but about how we approach the act of writing itself. It urges us to reach inside ourselves to find the places to speak from, and the ways in which we can expand our work by letting other voices within us take over–or letting the ones we are familiar with be more free.

Huber acknowledges something missed by many craft writers: that she is working from a “sample size of one.” However, I’m not sure that this is true. She spends much of the book honoring many of the luminaries before and beside her, showing why her ideas fit with the existing pedagogy and craft canon. She brings in the words of many others, paying particular attention to the way racialization might impact our voices — which is probably the only way to do that well when you’re white or white-presenting. She also gives prompts and exercises for those who may have one of these marginalized voices, as well as for those of us who do not, encouraging us to reckon with the effects of either. (That’s another thing I love about this book.

Huber is always quick to say “if this doesn’t work for you for such-and-such a reason, then maybe this will, or this, or this.”) She works with ableism from a personal point-of-view, the perspective that led me to her work in the first place with her book Pain Woman Takes Your Keys. She talks about the influences of trauma—even when long past—that may have encouraged us to be quite literally quiet in a way that impacted our writing voices, too.

I think the reason I have few criticisms of this book is that she’s always aware of approaching craft from within her own ideas. That’s part of why she calls it a manifesto. Because it follows her own line of thinking, shown so clearly on the page, criticizing it would feel like saying I know her own methods better than she does herself. Instead, I came away thinking: “Okay, some of these ideas can align with and be added to my own, and some others can’t, but I don’t feel like I’m being judged for that.” It’s chock-full of prompts, places for exploration, all thoughtful and connected to the discussion but open-ended enough to lead to some pretty cool self-discovery.

When I reviewed what I had highlighted in the book, I found that I had more to share with students, or my husband, or just to set aside for my own writing than I did for this review. I feel  that I learned about myself both outside and inside of my writing. It’s a book about mindset as much as it is about writing, as much as it is about life—and how all three of these intertwine in various ways.

Writing about the ways heavy subjects can impact us, Huber says “This is the salvation of someone handing me a toolbox and telling me to go build a house. It doesn’t save me the scrounging for nails and sweating in the sun and swearing and splinters and thinking that I’ll never get it right.” She’s right. It won’t save me these things. But in Voice First, Sonya Huber drew me a map for what’s inside of my toolbox, pointing out the rusted bits in the corners that I didn’t notice were there.

Voice First by Sonya Huber is now available.

Meet the Contributor

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Allison Darcy is a writer, educator, and editor living in North Carolina. Her essays and stories, which largely focus on disability, Judaism, and queerness, have appeared in such publications as Catapult, Alma, Nat. Brut., and the Eastern Iowa Review. She holds an MFA in fiction from North Carolina State University and can be found at allisondarcywrites.com.

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