Tuesday, July 1, 2008

In Search of Lost Times

At first I believed it was located in a book, a book I had not yet read—one that needed to be found by diligent research.

Accordingly, I moved from libraries to used book stores, searching, browsing, reading, even to the point of taking a job as a shelver at The Beverly Hills Public Library, definitely for the money, but more for the possible target of opportunity.

Then I began to think it was in my room, somewhere in the clutter of manuscript pages, magazines, perhaps books I had not read with as full a concentration as I might have employed. Missed opportunities, you might say. Perhaps next to a series of Remington and Underwood upright typewriters, all of which came my way on the cheap as a consequence of the occasional job with my uncle, the auctioneer.

Even to the time of my shift to the glorious red Olivetti portable, I looked for it as though for misplaced car keys or reading glasses or wallet, thinking it might be near the typewriter.

The shift from the Olivetti to an electric typewriter marked an end to a kind of innocence that only a shift from manual to electric can supply, but it, the equivalent of The Grail, was not to be found and although I had published many things by then, I thought perhaps I should never find the object of my quest. I thought this mordant scenario for some years, shifting in consequence from fiction to nonfiction, imagining myself doomed to live without it. After all, weren't some people born color blind or tone deaf? Didn't some in your acquaintance have a tin ear for the likes of dialog?

By the merest of accidents, I became an editor, devoted myself to that medium, began to feel the results of practice at it, even grudgingly liked it, and began to think, ah, well, better this than so many other things because, after all, I might some day come across the object of quest, might through editing find it.

An editing colleague, actually a competitor (he worked for Bantam, I for Dell) asked me to take his classes at the university while he attended a sales meeting. Why not? It might be found at the university. I have been there for thirty-four years, doing something else I had never thought to do before, and have seen fleeting glimpses of the quested vision, indeed have come to love the university for giving me so much to write about, for having given me my own sense of regionalism of the sort others had with such tangible grasp. Faulkner had his imaginary county. Sarah Orne Jewett had her own region, Flannery O'Connor her people. An entire raft of mystery writers had their venue and their quest. Bradbury and Sturgeon had science fiction. Orwell and Huxley had politics and dystopia.

It would be fun to say that I found it with the introduction into my life of computers, but nothing is that simple. I can remember my first typewriter, a Corona portable, a splendid gift from my parents, as a sort of bottle of champagne broken on the bow of a ship. But I cannot say it came from a computer nor can I remember what my first computer was.

It came some while ago when I turned in copy for a book review and because I'd included a cover letter, apparently had forgotten to append name and address to the copy. A sub-editor was baffled by the lack of proper identification, but Swindell, the editor, took one look at the first paragraph and said, "That's Lowenkopf. You can always tell."

I had probably found it, my voice, some time before that, had even grown used to it and had it begin to matter to me as much as being honest and honestly factual meant to me. In more recent years, I discovered at a remove an editorial challenge that was carried out beyond and without my presence. One editor complained of a review of mine containing a sixty-five-word sentence. "Doesn't he know anything about newspapers?" the editor asked. And another editor answered, "Perhaps too much."

Finding your voice is in some ways like accepting the fact that because you are six feet three inches tall, you may occasionally bump your head if you hang out with trees, get sprayed on your chest if you spend any time at all in cheap motels. You get used to it, even answer it back, which I have to admit does not go too far in the way of distinguishing you from a schizoid street person, particularly if you happen to be answering yourself while swatting at a fly.

You begin by looking for it, admiring the voices of others and trying to imitate them, then feeling the dissatisfaction of knowing you are a mimic but not a voice. You recall the times around ages twelve and thirteen when your speaking voice was at odds with your appearance, or when you squeaked inappropriately, or deliberately tried to lower your voice to some basso profundo level.

Of a sudden, it emerges and you realize you have been using it for some time, with no particular ah-ha moment. It was there as surely as your six three was there, reminding you to duck around trees and not expect too much from motel showers. Nice as it is to have a vocabulary and a wit and a love of poetry, it is nicer still to recognize yourself talking in a roomful of friends or strangers, comforting to be able to edit out the dross in the voices of others, and as a teacher to emphasize the simple truth that it is your voice that makes the story resonate to the point where it is yours.

More than your keys or fountain pens or reading glasses or your goddamned checkbook always going missing, it is as much yours as your fingerprints ever will be and it is your ticket into the auditorium and your place in line and your front row at the parade and your way of telling special persons and animals you love them. If you hear it recorded, you are disturbed at first, thinking it was a trumpet but realizing it is heard as a bassoon. Not to worry. In Beethoven's Third Symphony, The Eroica, a bassoon has an entire conversation with the full orchestra and holds its own quite nicely, thank you.

Practically speaking, it is all you have. You put yourself into it and it into you, then go out to encounter.


z said...

I can't tell you how hard I worked to create another voice and ignoring the one I had, belittling it to myself because it came too easily, it couldn't be good writing. People always told me I was a good writer, but I never could see it. I just said what I had to say. When I had to create something, I tried to find a different way to say it, and that's when I would get completely blocked, when I would ignore my voice and try to project another, a false one, like a false self, a concept in psychiatry, when someone simply tries to offer what they think others want.

Wild Iris said...

Beautiful, Shelley. This was the most profound Ode to the voice that I have ever seen, and is simply marvelous. This was a perfect way to begin my day.