Karen Salyer McElmurray’s “Voice Lessons” Finds Beauty in the Broken and Redefines the Self

Writing about writing could be considered a taboo. It’s done often, but not often done well. Not only does Karen Salyer McElmurray do it well, but her reflections on writing capture an originality. Voice Lessons is a memoir made up of lyrical essays summoned from the narrator’s memories. Everything written in these essays pulls at the rawness of human emotion. She is recalling her mothers “strange love.” A whole essay is dedicated to the work of hands, more specifically her mother’s hands. She writes, “If I reach for her hands across time and space, pry open her clenched fists, will I find love at last?” The complicated but fierce love between mother and child is examined throughout the book.

When McElmurray talks about writing, she is at times defending memoir, or maybe reflecting on why she writes memoir. She is searching for the purpose of her voice. She writes, “I have translated my wounds into words that bend and drift, true and inexact. I reach inside to feel the pulse of my own heart…. as I write the first draft of a personal essay, then the second draft, I tell myself I am creating a map of scars. If I follow the map long enough, surely I will find the path forward that will make me whole.” She lays out the criticism against memoir, that memoir is self-indulgent, and examines her own intentions. Ultimately what good is anyone if they cannot move forward from the things that hinder them? She writes her pain down to move forward, and offers this growth up to the world. She writes, “the power of memoir as I have come to understand it, is a coming to consciousness.” She also writes, “Memoir, a scar map making a journey toward a truth as yet written.”

At a young age, the author made a decision to surrender her biological son. The topic of giving him up, and then reconnecting with him when they are both adults, is a thread throughout the entire collection of essays. It seems she’s seeking, throughout, to define their love: “What stories did my son know before he opened his eyes that first morning I surrendered him into other arms? His voice is like my voice, I tell myself when I meet him for the first time.”

There’s also a search for identity. McElmurray finds herself in the educated world, but that’s not where she comes from. She was raised in the Appalachian Mountains. Her family was working class and most were not educated. She even recalls the otherness she felt when sharing her mother’s name: “Pearlie Lee… A mountain name, a name no one else had. Mrs. Harned looked confused. I couldn’t tell her what exactly it was that made me so ashamed.” She further illustrates this struggle to define who you are when your roots and future lie at odds when she writes, “When I went back to Eastern Kentucky for visits, I hated both the place and myself in it…. In school again, I worked to learn more, advance more, degree by degree, but I didn’t much fit there either…. Once at a fancy cocktail party, I came with a rough-handed, wind and sun burned boyfriend who worked as a landscaper. A pretty writer in a black satin dress asked me, confidentially, if he beat me.”

In the last chapter, McElmurray literally redefines the word “badass.” The author is subsequently redefining herself and asks the question: what are we becoming if we have not made peace with our pain? And how can we come to peace with it if we do not understand it? As I see it, this is what the author achieves: a new appreciation for the broken life and, ultimately, a redefining of the self.

Voice Lessons
By Karen Salyer McElmurray
Iris Press
Published May 14, 2021