I can’t speak.  He waits for me to say something… anything. It doesn’t help that my throat feels like my vocal cords look like a frayed piece of twine waiting to break.  “What’s wrong?” he asks again. Tears taste salty and sting the rawness in my throat, but I won’t let them fall.  I watch as he searches me for an answer before I just shake my head and walk to my car.  I don’t talk about how I feel. I don’t say what I’m thinking. I don’t know how. I’ve been a writer on mute much of my life.

It’s a few months later and I’m sitting at dinner with my writing workshop class.  Somehow, I made it to a Yale writers workshop for memoir. My draft has been thoroughly, and appropriately, torn apart. It was my first attempt since failing a year before and suffering six months of the worst writers block I had ever known.  We go around the table at the suggestion of someone to speak what has been the most valuable of lessons from the four long days together.  I haven’t physically lost my voice, but I feel my throat tighten as each person speaks and it gets closer to my turn.  I don’t know what to say. I can’t look at Mishka sitting across from me; he’s been our tour guide and mentor through the savageness that is concentrated workshopping.

It’s my turn. Don’t overthink. Just say what you’re feeling, Nikki; these people know more about you than most people already. You will never see them again after tomorrow.  I feel my voice shake as I speak; I don’t even know what I’m saying but I hear the words float out over melting ice and messy plates: I’ve learned I’m strong enough to write the words I know I need to.  I immediately want to crawl under the table but I hear Tammy say, That’s poetry. I see Mishka put a hand over his heart.

Coming home and being strong is a different story. I haven’t changed, but I’m not the same.  The blank page is standing before me and I launch into the re-write of the opening to my story that I know is needed. It feels like the dragging sting of a tattoo needle. When it’s done, I send a copy to a friend—I can’t read it yet. I take my daily selfie and study it before posting it with the Project365 hashtag.  That girl doesn’t look the same as the one who started this project a few months before.

Every photo I take in the Project reminds me of who I am and who I need to be.  My life has always reflected what I thought was expected of me from everyone around me.  And so I took the photos and studied that girl—figured out who she was and what she wanted. I asked for help; my voice feeling as weak and frail as it had at that dinner in June.

The Project ended in April. As I went back through the days of photos and notes I noticed two things: for the first time in as long as I could remember, I hadn’t succumbed to a physical voice loss that fall or early spring and the best reactions I received from people were when I spoke from the heart.  I don’t think they are unrelated. On my last birthday, somewhere between many a vodka and blowing out the candles I looked at Wonder Woman emblazoned in sugar across the top of the cake and knew I was strong enough to be the person I needed to be.