Illustration by Carla Wilson
The Gamut: Little Voice 01
There’s a late 90s film starring Michael Caine titled “Little Voice,” a compact British narrative (these were in vogue at the time) that told the story of LV (Liv, but also Little Voice), a pathological recluse who whispered every word she tried to speak. But at night, when alone and missing her deceased father, she sang in perfect imitation of classic songstresses.
It’s a good movie. I enjoyed it immensely when I first saw it, in no small part due to the fact that I, myself, don’t possess a bellicose speaking voice. In fact, in recent weeks I’ve been reminded by new acquaintances that, when I speak, I do so quietly. It’s not that I mumble or anything, I’m just not a loud guy. My kids would, at this point, tell you that I can actually yell, but this is a skill I had to learn after realizing they just don’t hear me when I calmly say things like, “Please don’t put that fork in the electrical socket.” But the vocal real estate between near-whisper and life-preserving hollerin’? I don’t have it.
My quiet condition used to really bother me, but in recent years, I’ve come to accept some things about myself that younger me worried over, my voice among them. Also, I don’t think of voice in the strict, narrow terms I used to either: Voice is so much more than just the sound waves that issue from my throat when I coax air across vocal cords in a specific way. Hell, that’s just biology.
So here’s the thing. Writers are somewhat obsessed with a bit of information that the general populace is maybe less concerned with: When we write in the way that we write, we call it our “voice.” Every writer has one, even those that aren’t enjoyable to read or are copping somebody else’s voice, and we all want ours to be better than it is at any given time.
Sitting here, typing these words, I still don’t feel like I’ve fully plumbed the depths of my writer’s voice, but I do understand that it’s a lot louder than my speaking voice. To a certain extent, this is quantifiable. You, sitting there reading the words that I, sitting here (in the past no less), wrote are in fact a plurality, conceivably outnumbering the number of people who could hear me use my vocal cords if we were all somehow in a physical space together. And, like learning to yell at my children to not endanger their fragile, little existences, the strength of this other voice is learned through practice. I suspect that if I really wanted a voice that rivaled James Earl Jones’s, I could do vocal exercises every day, overcoming my physiological shortcomings to boom and bluster as the loudest one in the room. But I’d really rather write. I’d rather have a strong writer’s voice than speaking voice; in fact, if a nefarious, cinema-style villain somehow contrived a way to make me choose between the two, I suspect I’d live out the remainder of my days mute.
Words—spoken words I mean—are just so momentary, so insubstantial. Unless you’re a radio personality or actor with a library of audio lines preserved for future reference, the words you spoke over the course of today are just gone, sound waves dispersed into the great nothingness of time and space. Sure, I know that words can have an effect on the emotional life of the hearer, but the words themselves have no physical existence after the echo fades. Sticks and stones and all that.
(But what about texts, social media updates, etc.? Well…I really don’t know.)
While there are writers who possess powerful, buttery intonation—Dylan Thomas is a joy to listen to—I can’t believe that too many scribes would differ from me when facing the imaginary Sophie’s choice of voice or voice. Writing is just too great to ever give up. Frustrating and very often maddening, but great.
Perhaps this is all some immodest defense of the writer as an important role for the ages, but let’s consider one thing in closing: Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president and indispensible historical figure, had a speaking voice that one bystander described as “shrill, squeaking, piping, [and] unpleasant.” As he died over a decade before Edison invented the first audio recorder, we’ve had to use our imaginations when envisioning the words Lincoln carefully crafted to address a broken nation: “Four score and seven years ago…”
I’m sure you’ve read that one.