Voice II

whale tail“If I write that, people will think it’s me.” This quote from Amy Tan, in her spirited TED talk about writing fiction, has been singing to me for days. It struck the place in me that’s so focused on integrity that the idea of representing something that’s not-me, when my name is on it, felt dangerous, dishonest.

So I dove into the idea. Another universe appeared: my fiction writing as art, external to me, not an identity, memoir, or manifesto (or blog).

Even the choices I make about characters and themes are made from within a narrator’s voice, probably not my own. The narrator becomes another character, involved in the plot or not.

Possible voices multiply, and a new freedom enlivens me. I don’t have to anguish over my integrity – only the consistency of a (possibly unreliable) narrator. I (and/or the narrator) can have expansions of consciousness and changes in perspective without losing a narrative voice. I can have a great time as an actress-storyteller, with several styles/roles, without pretending it’s “me.” Yes, I still bear responsibility for distributing the work, yet that feels like a different sphere of integrity – not as intimate or complicated or ethically charged.

Diving deeper, I realized the portrayal of life through deliberately concocted lenses is routine for many, maybe most people. The more I thought about it, the more I saw how I’d “written” sections of my life in disguise. The intention, conscious or not, might be survival in a mismatched or threatening environment. The intention could be generous, in hiding feelings and opinions from children or strangers or people in crisis. The intention might be courageous, in behaving “as if” one felt confident and competent in a new or challenging or high-stakes activity. The intention could be vile, in aiming to deceive and manipulate for personal gain. The intention might be professional, in adopting a demeanor that suits a role – for a host of admirable or odious reasons.

Or the intention may be existential, in conceding that identity and meaning are illusory, that a mask is useful and even inevitable for daily interactions (leaving aside, for the moment, the new culture-altering phenomenon of internet masquerades). This idea that nothing we experience is “real,” much less coming from us individually, is wonderfully captured in Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk, specifically her story about the 90-year-old poet who saw poems arriving from the sky. The idea that no narrator is “reliable” in an ultimate sense is beautifully expressed in Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk about how vulnerable we are to early and limited impressions of “truth.”

So I’m off to create a narrative voice on purpose, like a role for an actress, an invisible personality. Biological personalities are unintentional – a reactive hash of influences – so this will be very centering (“I” am over here, creating the narrator over there), giving me some artful distance so I can relax. And play – the way Nature does.

About Cat and the Gateways