A search for a true Voice
Sitting in the second story of a two-story row house in Brooklyn’s South Slope, I searched for the voice that would tell my 21-year old daughter Becky something about living.
She’s laid up with a broken foot that’s keeping her from working at the micro-distillery where she found a job after coming back from Louisiana, where she’d fallen in love with a Cajun wanderer who she’d been living with for a month after abandoning her cross-country trek in frigid San Antonio, even though she hadn’t been home for six months since leaving for Spain. She took a year off from college a couple of years ago. She’s living life right now and a broken foot is more of a cash-flow catastrophe than a minor inconvenience.
The broken foot wasn’t the reason that I was in her apartment for the first time. She’d been drunk dialing me for about a week. We’d finally connected near midnight on Friday. Her boyfriend had gone back to Louisiana to be with a girl he’d gotten pregnant. Becky had been drinking. She was in a club. The noise was loud. She kept saying, over and over, “What the fuck? I mean, what the fuck.” She was trying to be tough, but it sounded hollow.
I got out to Brooklyn on Monday.
When you come up to something important that you want to say, when you experience that sudden click of your neurological fasteners and realize that you have walked into a moment of breathtaking clarity, you want to have your voice right there at your side, practiced and ready. You want to point your voice to the place of clarity, have it rush in and fix the idea into clear and simple words that encompass its every dimension.
It’s a chancy proposition. Clarity is fleeting, and the more important the idea is, the more it shifts and reforms as you try to express it. Say a word and a swarm of others swirl about, and the idea re-shapes, a new question is expressed, the failure of one word creating the opportunity of the next. Even, the truest voice can fall to its knees in frustration.
You don’t just stumble over your true voice. To find it, you’ve got to be inside yourself, listening really hard. You have to say a thing that stays true in that moment that you say it. You have to be able to hear the sound of your voice linger in the atmosphere, wait for the meaning to detach itself and evaporate, and not feel the limpid anxiety of someone who knows they are wrong.
Even all grown up, your child still hurts like a little child. Even when you hold them and tell them that it will be all right, wipe the tears away from their eyes, will the warmth and sturdiness from your being into theres, you know that they are too aware of the complexity and the messiness of real life. You can’t sweep a big hurt under the rug. You can’t tell them that they aren’t going to feel scars, and you can’t pretend that the hurt they are experiencing isn’t ripping apart old scar tissue that they thought was long gone.
If you want to help your child, you will have to speak with the voice of a fellow traveller. Neither of you is immune to the dangers of the road. Both you hope for the safe travels of the other.
When I get to Brooklyn and sit down with Becky, I don’t know what I’m going to say. I just know I want to be able to speak with a true voice. The stark truth that Life defies even the loosest of our plans in the most unlikely ways had smacked my daughter right in the face. I could tell her something about that. But I needed to say it with a voice that she could hear.
“I mean, I don’t believe this shit, but I’m starting to think that there’s a plan, you know. I mean, there’s fate or something. Why don’t we even get to have a chance! I mean, fuck. Like, fuck. This is just stupid.”
We’re drinking some Yuenling beer out of the cans. She’s set herself at a kitchen chair. When I got there she limped around and moved a few things around. She lives with two boys that she went to school with a couple of years ago. They are musicians. They have the larger rooms and pay more rent. They’re finishing up college. The apartment is disorderly and cluttered, but it’s not the untended squalor that says people don’t function here, they just get wrecked and don’t think about things that bother them.
Becky’s cast juts out from under the table. She broke her fifth metatarsal. The cast goes up to her knee. She’s on disability. She can’t run. And she’d been left helpless in love. That’s a megaton blast in anyone’s life.
I have her walk me through what happened. The boy, Matt, had moved up from Louisiana at the beginning of February. He had been in New York for a month or so last summer, but things had ended badly. They had gotten drunk and fought. He’d ridden his dirt bike back down south. They were broken up. Becky had gone to visit him in December. He had bought a ticket north the day after she left. They were going to give it a go. They wanted to be with each other. They knew that they’d made mistakes before, but figured they had learned from them.
Then, a couple of days after he got to New York, he told Becky that he’d slept with a girl before he’d come north. Her name was Brooke.
I have been writing as long as I can remember.
That’s the kind of statement that makes me sound focused, precious, sincere and self-important all at once.
But I always wanted to tell stories. I wanted to get inside my imagination and hang out there. And I had a firm sense that I could find out things that were true and real if I wrote, and then when people read them, they would get to feel the same things.
I had these convictions when I was eight years old. That’s when I wrote my first book in a blue-lined composition pad that my father used to give exams to his college English classes.
By the time I went to college I’d gotten a lot of recognition for my writing. I’d won prizes. I’d workshopped with the writer Jaimy Gordon, who made me feel like what I was doing was good and easy. I’d gotten into Kenneth Koch‘s writing class at Columbia. I had something that made people sit up and take notice. The die was cast. I was going to be a writer.
The whole time I was trying to drown out a cacophony of voices that resounded in my head.
You’re not good. This is bad. You aren’t a writer. You can’t tell a story. You can’t write well enough for people to care. You aren’t really who you think you are.
I was so intent on ignoring the voices that I didn’t let myself hear them out loud. Maybe then I could have faced them down. Instead, I wrote around and around in circles, like a dog driven to distraction by a false scent, and at the end of everything that I did, I came to one profound question: Am I a writer?
I didn’t know how to answer.
Finally, the voices won. I stopped writing. I didn’t write for nearly 15 years.
When Becky was a little girl, she started writing. She liked words and stories came easy to her. Like any budding writer, she read everything she could get her hands on. She was drawn to the stories that happened around the edge of experience, on the outside of the day-to-day, the people who were moving through life without leaving much imprint. Kerouac, Burroughs, Flannery O’Connor.
I didn’t write much after Becky was born. I got divorced from her mother when Becky was three. When I left, her mother told me that I had kept her from writing. “You intimidated me,” she said. I had no idea what she was talking about. As Becky got older, her mother told her three things, over and over: “You are just like your father;” “You will leave me someday, just like your father;” “Your father is a sell-out.”
I never explained why I stopped writing, except to say that I couldn’t write what I wanted to write, so I finally gave up. I had no clue that I was too frightened to write. You might think that unlikely, but all I can tell you is that I was completely convinced that I didn’t have what it took to be a writer. One thing I believed about life is that you shouldn’t bang your head against a wall. That’s how I explained it to myself.
So Becky grew up with a Dad who had BEEN a writer, but didn’t write anymore. Her Dad loved to read and tell stories, turned her on to books that were always a little too hard for her, laughed at her comic tales and cherished the little sparks of talent that flew around her.
By the time she was in high school, she had all the accessories that I remembered from getting started in the writing trade: a notebook, dog-eared books, lots of half-finished stories in folders on her computer, and, most critically, the implicit recognition from everyone around her that she had a gift and they were getting to experience it.
Then she wrote Fallujah. It was a short one-act about a young man who came back from the Middle East crippled and the young girl that he loved. It was raw, spoke to the longing and pain of loves and lives that are finished before they get started, stark and unpitying. It was performed at a school playhouse. The house fell silent. Everyone knew that they’d witnessed something special, something unique. By the time Becky was out of high school, the play had been performed Off-Broadway, she’d won a bunch of writing awards and she’d had some stories published.
She was on her way.
Becky didn’t like that Matt had slept with Brooke. She didn’t get it. He’d already bought his ticket to come to New York. He hadn’t slept with anyone for the four months after he’d left her. So, why did he sleep with a girl right before he was coming to her?
She didn’t want me to think badly of him. He was a good guy, she said.
I said simply, I get that. He’s just a guy. I’m sorry that it happened this way.
She broke her foot right after he got to her apartment. She slipped down the stairs in goofy felt slippers without adhesive grabs on the bottom. She couldn’t stay mad at him. He was carrying her around everywhere, taking care of her. He’s a good guy, she said.
Then one evening he gets up and starts walking back and forth in the living room. He’s wild-eyed. “What’s the matter?” Becky asks. He got a text from Brooke. She was pregnant.
A lot happened in between, but two weeks later he left for Louisiana. He couldn’t let his child grow up without a father. He said goodbye.
When I started out as a writer I wanted to be able to write like this.
Uruguay, my native land, is held as fleetingly in my head as the demotic Spanish I once unconsciously spoke. I retain an image of a wide brown river with trees clustered on the far bank as dense as broccoli florets. On this river, there is a narrow boat with a single person sitting in the stern. A small outboard motor scratches a dwindling, creamy wake on the turbid surface of the river as the boat moves downstream, the ripple of its progress causing the reeds at the water’s edge to sway and nod and then grow still again as the boat passes on. Am I the person in the boat or am I the observer on the bank? Is this the view of a stretch of the Rio Negro where I used to fish as a child? Or is it a vision of the individual soul’s journey through time, a passage as transient as a boat’s wake on flowing water. I can’t claim it as my first reliable, datable memory, alas. That award goes to the sight of my tutor Roderick Poole’s short and stubby circumcised penis, observed by my overly curious eyes as he emerged naked from the Atlantic surf at Punta del Este, where we two had gone for a summer picnic one June day in 1914. I was eight years old and Roderick Poole had come to Montevideo from England to prepare me for St. Alfred’s, my English prep school. Always swim naked when you can, Logan, was the advice he gave to me that day, and I have tried to adhere to it ever since. Anyway, Roderick was circumcised and I was not — which explains why I was paying such close attention, I suppose, but doesn’t account for that particular day of all others being the one that sticks in my mind. Up until that precise moment, the distant past of my earlier years is all vague swirling images, unified by time and place. I wish I could offer up something more telling, more poetic, something more thematically pertinent to the life that was to follow, but I can’t — and I must be honest, here of all places.
The excerpt is from the first pages of Any Human Heart, by William Boyd. We’re just meeting Logan Mountstuart, an Englishman who comes to age as the Empire begins its decline, a man of compromised bloodlines and easy passions, an eloquent bumbler, and above all a writer who followed an eruption of early success with decades of starting novels and never getting beyond the first page. Mountstuart wrote, though, through each great transition in his life, keeping an intimate journal that was one man’s attempt to present his unvarnished truth.
I’m struck by this early passage in the book. Its words and the images are rich and stately. Ruminations on the nature of the soul are juxtaposed with a public school admonition whimsy , illustrating Mountstuart’s poetics and conformity.
Boyd doesn’t leave Mountstuart’s voice to chance, however. The subtle use of style and technique build the foundation of a key theme of Mountstuart’s life. It’s done through the artful choice of words. Here —
- Sway and nod
Look, Boyd is signaling to us, there is something about Logan that keeps things from enduring. It will lead to his greatest grief. It is impossible to understand. If he were more determined, more defiant, he would be a modern day Job. But instead, he is an Englishman who holds on to his sense of dignity and does, when asked, remarkable things. And then the world continues on.
When she got out of high school, things had started to go sideways for Becky. She’d tailed off badly in the last half of the year and ended up not getting into any college, except The New School in New York, even though she insisted that she hadn’t applied there. Her baseline mode was emotional and cynical. Friends were the core focus, and she dismissed her own needs even while she was growing sentimental about the end of her childhood.
We had a conversation that summer about her work. As long as you keep focused on what is good about writing, you’ll make your way, I said.
“I don’t know if it’s good to get so much recognition,” she said. “I mean, people think that Fallujah is gospel or something. What the fuck do I know. I wrote it when I was a sophomore in high school. I scribbled it out during chem class. What do I know about what it’s like for a kid to get his legs blown off in Iraq? The whole thing is a fake.” I talked about how she needed to trust that the thing that mattered was the writing.
This is what I said:
“When you write you are learning something. You are trying to take something that is lingering just out of your grasp and pull it in, recreate it right in front of you, turn it up and about as it takes form, and understand it. Sometimes it’s going to resonate with people. Sometimes it won’t. But it doesn’t matter what you know or don’t know. You write because you can and you want to. You write for yourself.”
I said it all a few different ways. She listened passively. She pushed back with dissatisfaction and uncertainty. Her doubt was like a fog that had settled in the room. I couldn’t show her the way. She was too disoriented.
And the person who was talking with her wasn’t a writer or an artist. It was her dad, the man who had BEEN a writer. What could he say that would be credible?
What Becky didn’t know was that I was writing again.
The catalyst was a seemingly simple question posed to me by a therapist.
I was seeing the therapist to help me develop strategies for managing my time and energy better. She was a woman who my wife and I had consulted at the suggestion of a casual acquaintance to help us work through the issues of blending our families together when we married. During the conversations with the therapist, I’d become fascinated with her approach to the discipline of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. When we’d wound down the sessions related to our family, I set off on my own exploration.
At the end of one session, the therapist asked me, “What is your purpose in life?”
That was a question that I thought would be easy to answer. When I tried to articulate the things that came to mind — raising my children, helping people find ways to do things that they didn’t think they could do, being stimulated and excited about the things that I worked on — I fumbled. When I was done, she looked at me and said, “Those things aren’t your purpose. Maybe you should ask yourself why you stopped writing.”
I’ve got pages and pages of notes in the first notebook that I’d started in 15 years from the sessions that followed. I quickly realized that when I put my explanations for why I didn’t write up to the light, they all looked pretty flimsy. When I cringed at the term “writer’s block,” the therapist explained to me that I was suffering from a phobia. I was afraid of how I felt when I wrote. That gave me a place to go. How did I feel? Why did it stop me? And then, what did I need to say to myself to immunize myself from the pain of that fear.
There’s a page in the notebook that’s covered with looping scribbles. I was taking notes quickly. The therapist was on a roll. In the middle of the page there’s a couple of inches of scribbles that are framed by a box drawn in bold strokes. This was the key that I needed, a simple statement that I could use to break my way out of the bind of the fear.
Treat yourself like a child, she said. Be kind to yourself. Let yourself play. When the voice says that you’re not good enough, or you are doing something worthless, admonish it, “Be nice. Leave the child alone.”
Now I could write. And I did. The shell of fifteen years softened and cracked. I started to work on the craft again. I wrote stories. I wrote exercises. I reflected. I went in search of my voice. I was so happy.
But I didn’t tell anyone except my wife. I wasn’t strong enough. I knew that if I opened myself up to the expectations, the examinations, the commentary of people around me that I’d lose the conviction to be gentle and generous with myself. I kept my recovery secret. It was mine.
That doesn’t explain why I didn’t tell my kids. I should have. They needed to know that their father wasn’t a has-been writer, but that he was a right-now writer, and that he understood that the joy and pleasure that came with creating outstripped any of the pressure and constraint that the judgments of others — either good or bad — could possibly place on him. They needed to know that he’d recognized that he was wrong, that he’d pretended to be in control of something that was actually in control of him, and that he’d done the work to push through it and go back.
I didn’t tell Becky and her brothers because I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed that I had been derailed by a phantom fear. I was embarrassed that I’d been so wrong.
When Becky wound down the story about Matt, Brooke, the premature betrayal, the unexpected pregnancy and the stand-up trek back to Lake Charles, she said again, “We didn’t have a chance.”
It was time for me to do find my voice.
“Listen, there’s one thing that is really important that you understand. There is no plan. There isn’t any fate. You’ll drive yourself mad trying to find some order to your life. That isn’t our job. Our job is to accept that we don’t control the things that happen to us, try to learn from them and move ahead. We just need to move ahead.”
“He’s not a bad guy, Dad.”
“I don’t think he is. I think he’s a guy who’s been dealt a tough hand and can’t work through it that smoothly. Maybe one thing that the pain you’re feeling now will tell you is that you won’t want to open your heart to someone who can’t put themselves in the same place as you. Maybe it won’t. You had a crappy thing happen. So did he. It sucks. It’s life.”
We talked a little more about the relationship. I tried to keep what I said simple and honest. I didn’t do a very good job of being twenty-one, and I can’t insist that my daughter to do much better, but I want her to know that life is a big canvas and we have to paint it one bit at a time.
When I started writing again, I needed to go back and find my voice. I didn’t know what it would sound like nor how I would recognize it. But I needed to go in search of it.
I got into the habit of waking up early and doing a writing exercise: a morning meditation. I sat at my laptop and started to type whatever came to mind. I used a technique that I had learned from Transcendental Meditation to empty my mind. I didn’t focus on any one thing, and let the words fall one after another. I was stringing beads, word by word, and building a therapeutic train. Every sentence that I finished, every page that I turned, every day that I wrote was one more instance of turning aside the fear that had paralyzed me for so long.
When I did these exercises, I listened. What did I hear in those places in my mind where the thoughts were emptying out. That was where I would find my voice, I thought. I just had to hear it.
While I searched, I doubted myself. Maybe the voice that I was looking for wasn’t going to be a good enough voice. Maybe I needed to buckle down, dig into the words, build unique metaphors, tight and winding sentences like Boyd writes. If I was going to be a writer I needed to have a writer’s voice.
Around that time I came across Orhan Pamuk’s speech accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature. He talks of a briefcase his father left with him full of his writing. The work wasn’t good and the father had always kept it private. But it was his work, the writing that he had done, and the very existence of the work was a commentary on how valid the need to write was.
If I wanted to find my voice, it had to be one that I could live with, because I intended to be listening to it for a very long time.
I wrote about the path to that voice in one of my morning exercises.
Which voice do you want to use?
Reduce stimuli: take out the hearing aid, take off the glasses. The world around you dims. You enter the tunnel. That is where the walking forward voice is that you can follow one step after another. The story is what you leave out. The story is what you put in. The story is how you follow them along their path. The story is inside you and outside you and you need the two parts to join and then you need to step aside.
You are Pamuk’s father’s briefcase. Accept the image in humility and purpose.
When your voice is quiet you need to still yourself and give it a path to find its way back on.
My voice was the walking voice. I could follow it.
“Are you writing?”
“My computer is broken.”
“There’s paper and pencil.”
“I know. I try to write about what’s happened over the last year, but I’m like, this sucks. I can’t write any stories.”
“You shouldn’t stop writing.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Maybe you’re not going to be a writer. Who knows what you are. But you liked to write. You shouldn’t stop.”
“I know. Maybe I should just write about what’s going on with Matt.”
“Are you writing in a journal?”
“That’s too bad.”
“I keep looking at what I’m doing and it sucks. And I go back and look at the things that I wrote and maybe half of it is any good and the rest I’m looking at wondering why anyone would think that it was any good. I don’t know.”
“Listen, that doesn’t have anything to do with whether you write or not. Those are just voices. They don’t have anything to do with it. You felt good when you wrote. It’s how you’re wired. Don’t listen to voices that tell you that what you’re doing isn’t any good.”
Six months after I started writing again I finished my first story in almost 15 years. I gave it to my wife to read.
I came out to help her unload the car when she came home that afternoon. There was something about the way that she looked at me that sent shivers down my spine. The look was different.
She told me that she had read the story.
She knew something that I didn’t want her to know. I had made a world come alive with words. I’d written into a place that I didn’t know had existed until I went to look for it. I found the soft, sorrowful center of a man who had lost his way. The story was good. She knew I could write.
I couldn’t handle it.
Don’t expect anything from me, I wanted to say. I can’t handle you expecting anything from me.
I stopped writing. I had to start at the beginning again. It took another year, but I made my way back.
I’m a writer again.
I offered to bring Becky home for a couple of days. She deferred. There are a lot of stairs in the house and she’d be all alone. She was all right. Her friends were taking care of her.
I walked down the street to where I had parked my car. I wondered about the things that I had said to her, whether they would help her, whether she would make any changes in what she was doing, whether she would start writing more and more freely. My pride wanted that, the pride that you feel when you’ve made a difference as a parent, the pride that you feel when you tell someone something that they hold on to and mull over.
The thing is that that pride is rooted in the conviction that things are fixed, that there is a set of principles that apply to any circumstance, and that once you’ve mastered the principles you’re home free.
I know those assumptions are wrong.
Language isn’t fixed. It isn’t unified. It isn’t universal. It shifts and changes, it bends and warps, it holds and it releases. Every time that I sit down to write I fix a set of words in that moment, I give a story shape, I make people come into being. I do this by reducing the dimensions, fixing time, cementing words, unifying the world into something that coheres and resonates.
Then I move on to more words. Even if I tell the same story, it changes. The illusion of art is that it has captured something when all that it has done is create a pause.
Life doesn’t stop for a young woman whose boyfriend has left her to go back to the deep South so he can be a father to his unborn child by a woman he barely knows. Life doesn’t stop to let her father find his voice, say his piece, steer her back on track. Each of us is destined to wade through the uncertain currents of our experience. Maybe one of us will find the words to tell it, have the strength to bear it and be able to make something of it. I can just hope that both of us find succor in that work and that the magic that words can work on us let us accept whatever comes.