For years, I didn't realize I had a distinctive voice. It seemed to be like everyone else's. It's certainly like my sisters' and my mother's voice. I began to understand that people recognized my voice when I called on the phone. A few years ago I was performing in a small town in Kansas and reconnected with a former library patron from Connecticut who knew me mainly by my voice. Listeners who have heard me only on CD or DVD are surprised that the same voice comes out of my mouth. I guess it's distinctive.
About my accent: I don't sound like I'm from Kansas. Though I grew up in Rhode Island and Vermont, I don't have a strong accent from either place. In the past few years, people have asked me more often if I'm Canadian. I answer that though I'm not, my grandmother was and my mother went to school in Toronto, so I've inherited some of that. Listen to The Ghost with the One Black Eye and you'll hear some of this (my sister-in-law laughs--nicely--at how I say "room").
Then there's the quality. I don't know how to describe this. My sister Mary and I have discussed a slight whispery undertone we seem to have. We hear it in our siblings and some cousins as well. Whatever it is, people who are losing their hearing have trouble understanding me--when I tell stories at retirement centers or nursing homes, I always bring my sound system.
Have you ever heard older singers in interviews? Sometimes their voices are wrecked! There are a few things I do to keep my voice in shape. Many years ago, before I began telling stories full time, I took singing lessons to strengthen my speaking voice. I still have a practice tape (now on CD) which I use in the car. I got lazy for a few years but am now back to practicing almost every day. Even fifteen minutes of singing helps.
I also keep hydrated. Water is the best drink for the voice. Especially when I'm performing, I down lots and lots of water. At times even this isn't enough, so I reach into my bag for an elderberry cough drop. I try to remember what a speech therapist told me once: it's better to cough a little than to clear the throat.
I use a microphone when I have more than about 45 listeners and/or if the venue has bad acoustics. I don't strain if I can help it.
This is the voice I have, distinctive or not, and I want it to last a lifetime.