Creatives’ On-Going Quest for an Authentic Presence
We homo sapiens are marvels, aren’t we? Since the dawn of our species, through every era, among us have been extraordinarily artistically gifted people. They are blessed or burdened with an unquenchable need to express, to grow, to explore, to create, and to embellish their existence by communicating in their own voice–which is not precisely like any other voice–a presence they wish, rather urgently, to share.
The first subject our artistic forebears chose to leave behind for us to see are impressions of their hands on the walls of caves. There at that site thirty thousand years ago, a man or woman–much shorter than us, with faces different than ours, working alone as artists do–put aside chores, squatted down in darkness, and blew colored pigment through a rod onto their hand, leaving no other trace of their days and nights but that hand. Yet through that hand–that painter’s medium, that subject–we feel their presence, and with it a bond, a caring for them, a love. We hear their voice.
The late composer Marvin Hamlisch–a three-time Academy Award winner, and Pulitzer Prize winner for the composition for the play A Chorus Line–was a friend. Once I told him I’d been watching a movie and a few bars into the music, I knew he had written it. He said, “Is that true?” I said yes, every distinctive piece of music, writing, art, acting, and composing is marked by the recognizable voice of the person who created it.
It is often because of that clear voice that we go on reading the poem, or viewing the painting, or listening to the actor or to the music, and are attentive and respectful. It’s only inferior work that doesn’t take us back to an interesting, stimulating, flexible, and complex mind of the person behind the work. Who a creative is intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually radiates from the creative’s presence in the work and cannot be hidden. Many creatives have recognizable voices because they return again and again to painting or writing about a particular subject matter. Some creatives, such as Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, discovered their authentic voice when they were young; others, such as self-taught American poet Walt Whitman, not until later in life.
So if we’re looking for prescriptions to the creative for finding or authentic voice and presence, the first would be: “Reveal yourself. Let your true identity permeate the work—your sincerity, your honesty, your mind in action, your originality, abilities, and uniqueness, the ‘I’ who you are–for it’s that, above and beyond the other content that your audience will be attracted to. Be interesting, be clever, be skilled, be alive, be true, and be authentic.
Learning to Write In a More Satisfying Voice
American novelist John Hersey said, “The voice is the element over which you have no control.”
Contrary to Hersey’s belief that writers have no control over their voice, they definitely do. Yet many writers have searched their texts for their authentic voice and can’t find it. So they sometimes conclude that while there may be such a thing as a voice, they do not have one, or they might have one but they don’t know what it is, and couldn’t describe it if they were asked to. But their voice is right there in the text, or the right voice can be added to the text. Always be thinking of the voice you want your work to project.
A writer was dissatisfied with the voices she found in her writing. They didn’t seem to be “her.” They were different from what she felt should be the voice of a mature, thirty-five year old mother of two, an assertive, experienced writer of essays and short stories. A few of her stories had been published in a local literary magazine. She hoped to continue writing and seeing her work appear in better magazines. She didn’t like the syntax in her writing. She thought the writing was too formal and stilted, too cold, humorless, bland, business-like, academic, dull, lifeless, and not inviting for readers.
If you have a similar problem, here is an approach you might find helpful: ask experienced writer friends to look through a piece you’ve written. Ask them to identify sentences or passages that sound most like you. Then analyze what they think sounds most like you and identify the salient elements that gave them that impression-when they say, “Right there you were doing something very good. You should get more of that into your writing, you may be onto something.”
Then write a piece in that voice. Then show a draft of the piece to a supportive writer. Ask them what they think. Does it work? If it doesn’t work, write the piece again. If it does sound like you, you’ll be encouraged.
If in your craft you are trying to communicate a particular voice or to avoid communicating another one, you might tell your friends what you would like them to look for as they look at your work. Once when I was working on a book, I left some pages on my desk and went to bed. The next day I noticed my teenage daughter had circled a couple of sentences and written, “Write more like this, Dad. Sounds like you,” and it was my voice loud and clear.
Avoid steering their perceptions in a particular direction, as saying to them, for example, “Is my writing dull?” “Is it too complicated and unclear?” Leave them alone to make their own observations. Be sure to tell them that you want their opinions and that you are giving them your permission to be honest and open.
A competent writer should be able to write in more than one voice, as required by the work at hand, a competent painter to paint in more than one. Who could paint in as many voices as Picasso? But in the creatives’ way of producing works there is one voice that is the most powerful, natural, and suitable to what creatives are trying to accomplish, what author Peter Elbow calls the “juice.” When the quest for an authentic voice is successful, creatives come into their own and do their art better than ever before.
I can’t think of better teachers of voice than writers who have the kind of voice that appeals to you and you would like to learn from. I find the voices of James Agee’s A Death in the Family, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, some passages of Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady With a Dog,” full of instruction for me as I look for the voice I want, thinking, “I’d like my writing to sound that way consistently.” To better understand how Hemingway created the effects he did, I analyzed his work and read what critics and teachers had to say about it, then wrote an essay on techniques he employed to create his voice. It is a voice that in the 1920s marked the start of the “Hemingway Voice” that revolutionized how, ever since, Americans have written and spoken. Whose voices do you admire most?
The lovely art featured in this post is by Regina Valluzzi, a trained scientist and researcher in the Chemical , Physical, and Biological Sciences. The influence of her scientific experience permeates her approach to painting as both an art and a science, and gives her a unique voice. The pieces she has kindly allowed me to display here, she has informed me, “feature mixed media and a combination of “classic” painting techniques, controlled fluid pouring techniques and acrylic extrusion using cake decorating tools to control the three dimensional line shape and forms. In most cases [she has] developed [her] own techniques or versions of techniques through a variety of controlled experiments.”
© 2018 David J. Rogers
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