Of all the commonplaces that deserve to be treated briskly with the business end a baseball bat, the “writer’s voice” might not rank up there on everybody’s list. It ranks up on mine, though, perhaps because it combines the half truth of the cliché with the snobbish mysticism of the sentimentalist, which is a thing I can't abide.
I am surrounded, all day, by reading and writing – texts to edit (as a freelancer), texts to write, books to read. After A. goes to work and Adam goes to school, this is the world I fall into. There’s one thing about it: it is silent. No page speaks to me, not the one I read, not the one I write. I’ve been doing freelance full time since 2003, and – as any freelancer will admit – the missing element is the human voice. Any voice. I go out to coffee shops sometimes to catch the human voice – the person telling his girlfriend, “he has five go-to conversations”. The old man telling the other old man, “the deal, when you do the math, brings in 9 percent a year – but I want 90.” The woman explaining to her friend,” they have a secret society and they chose who wins. So it doesn’t matter how you vote, cause they goin chose the winner.”
Historians of reading speculate that silent reading was uncommon in the ancient world. Our first description of a man reading silently comes in Augustine’s Confessions, where he wrote about meeting Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan:
« When he read his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud."
It is impressive that Augustine goes to such length to describe an act of reading which, today, would pass utterly unnoticed – today, it is reading aloud that is unusual enough that it is usually staged in some way – as the parent reading to the child, or the author giving a reading to an audience. Texts at that time were mostly bare of punctuation, and of course the convenient form of the book, which allows one to read and write in the margins or on a notebook or when eating, etc., was still uninvented. As Jesper Svenbro has pointed out, we have examples in Aristophenes play The Knight s of silent reading, which takes us back to 400 B.C., but everything we read about rhetoric or poetics from the ancients, and everything we know about the technology of the « page » points to a culture that saw the text as a medium for the voice, a transitional object, even if a cumbersome one, something come down from clay tablets and stone walls to lodge on papyrus or vellum – a change no doubt as shocking to the unconscious as the change from metal to paper currency.
But here is the thing for me now. When I write, I am not « finding my voice » - rather, phenomenologically, I am losing it. The transitional object has changed. If there is a voice, here, it is in the special sense of some kind of speaking in my head. The breath that made Aristotle speak of the voice as having ‘soul’ is reduced to the barest possible pulse, an electic discharge on the microscale – or so the scientists say. To me, it is like a voice. I walk down the street or sit at a table and I am turned towards these words that seem almost said before I put them down on a surface.
This is one sense in which the « finding your voice » trope actually inverses the process of writing.
There’s another, stronger sense in which « finding your voice » is exactly what doesn’t happen for me in writing, since I write very much for that moment of loss, of voluntary disarmament. I dislike being the captive of my voice. I would much rather be a mockingbird than a nightingale, a thief of voices rather than a developer of my own. It’s mimic joys I’m after.