For most of my childhood, I was painfully shy.
At least, I remember being that way since the age of four, when I was tasked with dancing in an imaginary club scene with my peers at a conference involving all of our parents. The thing was, I was a pasty white kid with blaze-orange hair, and all my friends happened to be Sierra Leonean nationals with some really amazing dance moves. I chickened out at the last minute and privately vowed never to stand out again.
In my teen years, my classmates played a game to see who could make Mark blush the quickest, or who could make him turn the deepest shade of red. Many of them loved this game, because in actuality, everyone had the likelihood of being a winner.
In the midst of my shyness, I developed this unusual habit of speaking to my close friends in a wide variety of character voices, depending on the tone of the situation. I was terrible at impersonations, mind you, so my characters were simply made-up people who could more adequately display silliness or joy, or condescension.
I got into this habit so much that, between the voices and my default choice of silence, I woke up one day with the genuine crisis of not remembering what my real voice actually sounded like!
A few months back, I was reading through Neil Gaiman’s brilliant, way-before-its-time Sandman series of graphic novels, and I was instantly reminded of the power of one’s voice. Gaiman has certainly made a name for himself in an eclectic variety of literary circles as the guy with that dark, sensual tone in his mythic tales. These tales often hint at his rich appreciation for literary classics, much like Ray Bradbury’s short stories did before him.
One of Gaiman’s Sandman stories (“The Hunt,” which can be found in his Fables & Reflections collection) takes the storyteller’s voice to another level. It deconstructs the idea of the storyteller in the playful banter between an East European grandfather and his MTV-obsessed ‘90s granddaughter. At times, it’s reminiscent of the Peter Falk/Fred Savage dynamic of The Princess Bride, which is fun in itself. What I like most, though, is that it wonderfully conveys the fact that so much of a story’s success or failure goes back to how the storyteller sees the story.
Hence my very-real-though-silly childhood trauma of “losing my voice.” It didn’t help matters that, whenever I heard my recorded voice, I was in complete denial that this self-depiction was authentic.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the reason we bristle when hearing our recorded voices is because it actually does sound different to us than what others hear. When we talk, our ears are in closer proximity to the vocal chords forming the words. As speakers, we have a stronger perception of our subtle throat vibrations than our listeners, while we hear only an indirect version of our voices (on account of our ears being slightly above and behind the sound waves we create).
So how does a human who doesn’t really hear his or her voice in the purest form go on living? For me, the answer (as it often happens to be) was “Get over yourself.”
Sure, it was a great philosophical idea to ponder about authentic identity, but there was some point when I realized that my identity didn’t really amount to a hill of beans as long as I stewed on it in silence and kept my irrelevant voice from engaging with a society of those who, somehow, managed to use voices (whether authentic or not) to live the lives they chose.
Jim Jarmusch, that quirky king of independent film, really explores the nuance of one’s voice in the short film “Cousins,” which can be found in his oft-overlooked anthology film, Coffee & Cigarettes. In the film, Cate Blanchett (played convincingly by… Cate Blanchett) sits in a hotel lobby, enjoying her fame while her indie-rocker cousin (also played by Cate Blanchett) stops by for a chat after a few years of taking very different career paths.
For the writer/viewer, the whole thing is a great meta experience. Blanchett completely nails both characters in tone, body language and subtle nuances that make each character more than just “Cate Blanchett.” Jarmusch, too, nails the City Mouse/Country Mouse dynamic of the whole scene when two now-disjointed subcultures collide.
As a writer, I’m not only hypercritical of my speaking voice, but I’m also conscious of the authenticity of my characters. If they all sound just as shy and self-deprecating as their author, we certainly have a problem. If they all believe in the same political ideals or religious tenets as me, what a boring and entirely inauthentic world I’ve created! You can bet your readers will pick up on that. The same applies if you’re a painter or actor as well—or any other purveyor of artistic expression.
Whatever the vehicle for your form of storytelling, an authentic voice is key to believably connecting with your audience.
In finding authentic voices for each of my characters, I’m conveying an overarching voice for the whole piece that can ring true with my audience. Whether consciously or unconsciously, your audience will be able to connect the dots between the themes or streams of thought present in your work. Tim Burton didn’t necessarily start off with overt messages about the father-son dynamic, but when you start piecing his films together, you see this relationship being wrestled with in a variety of different ways throughout his stories.
Maybe your authentic voice is tough to pinpoint within a single story itself, but if you keep putting your work out there, the patterns will form, and you might be just as surprised as your audience with what you find.
Your actionable task this week for improving your creative craft:
Write truthful stories that are truthful to the characters that inhabit those stories. Don’t hold back. Let these characters be at odds, and let each truly believe he/she is right. Let them roam free, and after letting them rest for the night, look back through the piece and see if your voice is stronger than the characters’. If so, start over. Intentionally write them as distinctly different than you. Do this until the characters are as unique from you and from each other as you can handle.
At that point, you’re done, and you’re well on your way to discovering that elusive special voice that only you possess.
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