Wednesday, October 5, 2011

finding my own voice

Beyond the childish dreams of being a fireman or a policeman or a cowboy, I pretty much always wanted to be a writer in some guise or other. I wrote my first story-created-out-of-whole-cloth in the fourth grade. Looking back, I would say I had the credentials for it -- an uncertainty based on upbringing by lotsa-smarts parents and a mother who was, in fact, a writer.

Writing was a secretive, behind-closed-doors business, much like any art. And artists were both weird and elevated: From within of their secrecies, they were forced to rely on the very element from which they shielded themselves ... others. Words and notes and colors were  things others might appreciate or adore or disdain in public ... and thus bring a measure of peace to the one who toiled in secret. Sometimes I too tried out the camouflage line, "I write for myself," but that sort of assertion is flimsy and self-protective in the end.

One of the encouragements I heard as I grew older and wondered how to become a 'writer,' was this: You have to find your own voice. All art is theft, but it must be your very own theft... your very own words, your very own notes, your very own color. Sometimes I wrestled with what this might mean. How the hell do you find your own voice, get honest and stand up straight in practical terms. Read, was one suggestion. Read and imitate. Write and rewrite. Learn the meanings of words -- don't be lazy. Don't believe that words tell the truth, even if you believe words tell the truth. Write some more and rewrite some more and ... throw it away. Find your own voice.

"But what if my voice is not good enough?" something within whined. Wouldn't I be better off mimicking those who have gained acclaim? And the painful answer was, no, you would not be better off. Somehow, in whatever field and whatever interest tableau, each person has to find his or her own voice and know that this is as good as it gets ... and things are OK.

I never did become a 'great' writer. But I did notice that somehow I found my voice. It didn't come in some epiphany, waking up one morning with a bright-light understanding that I had found my voice. It just sort of snuck up and happened -- maybe on account of the practices of the past or maybe because it happened to be Thursday. Explanations and exegeses didn't explain anything. It just happened and it was pleasant enough. Not astounding or earth-shattering in the manner that hope or belief or expectation suggest. It was more along the lines of "so what else did you expect?"

And along with it came some small understanding that the sometimes wildly painful uncertainties that inspired the initial desire to 'find my voice' were a blessing of sorts. Uncertainty dwells in the heart that longs for certainty (perhaps through words or perhaps through writing). The two are woven together like strands of DNA. Trying to escape or eradicate the one in order to assure the other is a mug's game ... like holding your breath to improve breathing or cutting off your big toe in order to preserve it. Dumb and dumber. Looking for certainty when all the time you were certain of the uncertainties you longed to elude.

Wanting to find certainty puts a fire under uncertainty.

Wanting to evade uncertainty puts a fire under certainty.

As far as I can figure out, you've got to bang your head against the wall up to the moment when you stop. It's called practice. But practice for what?

Practice that might lead anyone to recognize s/he was hungry and it was time to stop all the certainty-uncertainty head banging, walk into the kitchen and make a perfectly good peanut-butter sandwich. Isn't this your own voice? And, if it is, is it all that important? Pleasant, sure, but important?

Fame and acclaim and relying on others is the usual way. But what does a perfectly good peanut-butter sandwich say?

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