Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins was on public television last night. The occasion for the three- or four-minute interview was his latest collection, "Aimless Love."
Although I know little-to-nothing about his poetry, still I have felt drawn to Collins ever since I heard him remark in a radio interview, "Meeting your favorite author is one of life's most reliable disappointments." The observation was made with a gentle, almost-shy tone of voice that employed its perfectly-sharpened stiletto deftly. I liked him.
And one of the topics touched on in the interview was how and when he found his "voice." Collins said he had known early on that he wanted to be a poet, but it took some doing. Poets, when he was growing up, were portrayed as lonely and tortured souls and for a long time he tried to be equally depressed. The problem was that he had had a happy childhood, relatively speaking, and so, between the lines he spoke on TV, there was a disconnect ... poets were depressed; he wanted to be a poet; but he wasn't especially depressed. It took some time to wriggle and squirm and finally arrive at a place that was both honest and poetry... a kind of Norman Rockwell of poets as I see him from an uninformed distance -- plain and accessible as salt and yet in that plainness, not plain at all.
I guess everyone tries to find a "voice." The search may be more imperative for those in the arts, but still I think everyone tries, one way or another. Where is the honesty? Where is the ease? Where is the plain-old plain-old that is fresh as warm bread? Where is the world in which the imitation and awe drop away and, well, it's easy.
It's pretty easy to spot the phonies -- the one's who mask with sincerity their copy-cat cover-ups... so wise, so profound, so peaceful in another man's shoes. But it's also a pleasure to meet up with the real McCoy, someone who speaks with his own voice, someone (perhaps the one in the bathroom mirror) who is neither a coward nor a fool. It's nothing special, and yet ... it's a pleasure.
I wrote my first story in the fourth grade. It came to me as I lay in bed the night before I wrote it and it struck me as marvelous... something drawing on the comic books I read ... something about a heroic mouse, who, in the end, stuffed a rag in a car's gas tank and lit it ... BOOM! My creation! How kool was that? Years and years and years passed. Comic books turned into classics and other more tawdry tales. I wallowed in various writers and wished I could be as good. Hell, I even tried to be as good, only to see or hear or suspect the tinny sounds of someone else's voice. I wanted to be as important and meaningful as those I loved ... and it all came out ... as often as not, as phony as a three-dollar bill. It just wasn't right.
Be yourself. Find your own voice. Live your own life. How the hell do you do that? I wanted to be a writer and yet at every turn, the art got in the way.
The trip-stone, of course, was not so much that I wanted to write well using whatever my own "voice" might be, but the fact that I wanted to be loved. I wanted to create what I wanted to create ... and then be welcomed into some warming social framework which, although it might not make me poet laureate or Nobel Prize winner, at least wouldn't make me feel as lonely as the art/craft of writing could. I wanted to be meaningful and loved, perhaps with the same smiles a group of regulars might greet a late arrival at the corner pub.
I have a hunch it's pretty much the same in any life -- trying to find the easy and pleasing voice that no longer relies on the arts of others... a voice that no longer even relies on itself. Everyone wriggles and squirms, I suspect, when it comes to finding a place of ease. There's no way one (wo)man can tell another. There's no transmissible way.
Everyone wriggles and squirms and tries on meanings and beliefs as they might try on shoes. And when at last the perfect pair is found, well, they're shiny and new for a while and then, what the hell -- it's just a pair of shoes.
Writers aren't "writers" any more than Buddhists are "Buddhists."