Monday, November 2, 2020


A make-up artist finds her own voice (AKA Johnny Depp) 

Writers are always being told that they have to find their voice. Did I ever have a voice? Wait one moment while I ask Disney’s Ariel.  Is my voice a lost continent that I have to discover through great personal risk, fortitude, special skills, and deprivation? I’m so awesome.

Maybe I left it in the changeroom at the Forever 21 at the mall, or on the seat of that Uber I took coming home from my cousin’s all ukelele metal band. Did my voice float away like that party balloon I let go of when I was five and all I could do was watch it as it rose into the sky. All I could do, except cry and cry. Finally it was tiny as the period at the end of this sentence. And my tears, they were like little punctuation marks, too, rolling down my boycheeks. ; ; ; Oh, I become bitter and cynical for the rest of my life.

I think it is both a lot of pressure and inaccurate to think that we each have one essential “voice,” the one perfect authentic way to express ourselves, our innermost and deepest selves, our unique and necessary perspective on the world. 

Of course, we develop ideas about style, theme, manner, and so on, as we learn to write. We discover things we like to do, things we’re good at. We learn ways of writing that seem to connect with us and with our audience. (And in fact, may help us imagine who that audience might be.) 

But I don’t believe we necessarily have to write in one style or in one mode, or even in one genre. Sure, some writers create a clearly identifiable body of work. Kafka. Samuel Beckett. Alice Munro, Haruki Murakami. Emily Dickinson.

Samuel Beckett spent his long writing life honing his vision as if he were zeroing in on the very most essentials. Man. Muck. Dark. Silence. Life. We can say “Kafkaesque” because ol’ Franz’s world is clearly identifiable. You wouldn’t, for instance, find Lizzo in it. Alice Munro found her subject matter and stayed with it (though she was always inventive with form.) We can tell a novel by Jane Austen or the Brontes several cow-lengths away and without spilling our tea. Reader, I just made a joke. 

But for many writers, writing is a mode of thoughtful engagement with the world or with language that doesn’t result in an identifiable style or “voice.” Many write in entirely different ways at various points in their careers, or throughout it. Each of the novels of English Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro is different. From the Arthurian fantasy of the Buried Giant to the restrained mid-20th century manor house manner of The Remains of the Day. You wouldn’t know it was the same guy who wrote them. Except for how good they are. 

And what about writing in different genres or forms: poetry, fiction, plays etc. Or also creating visuals, music, art, film, dance and so on. There’s often a sense that this is a betrayal, or at the least, a turning away from the “essential” work that one has been put on earth to do. To “find one’s voice.” As if it is one thing. As if you job when you write isn’t to write what you find most interesting but instead be in pursuit of this rare butterfly that is your voice. And then pin it down so it doesn’t get away. Or change.

My voice? Where it it? Personally, I think my dog swallowed it. And, though I’ve been combing the backyard and his very pungent literary leavings, I’ve never found it. But I do know that whatever I do, I implicitly bring something of myself to it. Of course. What else could I do? I have certain concerns. It’s me who makes the choices of even what not to do. I have a certain perspective, certain aesthetic likes and dislikes. There’s a certain shape to my brain so that—great labyrinth, colander, snail shell, neuron-wet mop that it is—everything that is processed by it is affected by it. The way making the same sound in different places sounds different because of the nature of the space. The writer is the space in which the music occurs. 

The experimental composer John Cage used many procedures to try to get out of the way when creating his work. He used elaborate chance systems to make decisions for him. But the thing was, it was always Cage making the choices about what choices he wasn’t going to make and so his work,  was always very characteristically Cage despite its remarkably diverse means and styles and even artform (he wrote music for every conceivable thing that made sound, did visual work, performances, lectures, essays, poetry, and much  else. (He never did design a line of chance-determined underwear for Forever-21, though.)  But Cage wasn’t searching for his “voice.” He just engaged deeply with the things that interested, inspired, moved and intrigued him. 

Which is what I think we should all do. Feel free not to try to define a characteristic voice, but instead be alert to what intrigues us, what moves us. What we find beautiful, or funny, or maddening or compelling. The “voice” will find itself. I want to say, “voice will be voice,” but of course, I won’t because I’m far too subtle to make a quip like that. 

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