I know this TED talk went viral awhile back, particularly among the sorts of people I am particular to, but I only just now got around to watching it. And it struck me deep, resonating with my own lived life and the unsettling journey I've been on for the last year or so. (Well, a lot longer than that, of course, but the last year has been a more intentional experience.) Here is Brené Brown on the power of vulnerability:
I do this. I do this to the point of being ashamed of my own shame, distracted by shoulds; my skin tightens and itches. I'm hungry for connection, but I'm more comfortable with your vulnerability than my own. I'm a journalist, after all: I'm in the business of asking you the questions, of empathizing with your story. I ask you about your story because I am curious and because I care and because I believe you are an interesting, meaningful, and profound person whose voice matters. But turn it around and ask me things, particularly about what I feel rather than what I think, and my skin chills. I'd rather tell your story than my own. If I'm honest, I'd admit that this storytelling isn't only art to me, but catharsis.
I think this is why I've been more active, enthused, and successful in narrative nonfiction and journalism than with fiction and poetry.
I've known this about myself for a long time. And for a long time, I put the responsibility on others to recognize my vulnerable self, to draw it out of me with their attention and love, rather than risk taking the space myself. Indeed, I rather prided myself on keeping my self to myself. It seemed the mature thing to do. All my life, I've been rewarded for characteristics that are stereotypically masculine: my intellectualism, my humor, my perfectionism, my independence, my endurance, my fondness for sports; even my preference for dry drinks (gin, please) gets its share of back pats and high-fives. When I was eight, my big appetite for food was noticed: "she eats as much as her dad!" I took this as a compliment. I took to effortfully ensuring that at mealtimes, indeed, I did match my bites to his.
I'll go ahead and name this as my twisted internalized misogyny. Splitting open my bloody heart and laying it heavily in your hands wasn't the habit of the subtle person I fancied myself to be. And when I saw other females do what I didn't, I sometimes caught myself judging them for their tearfulness or their (it seemed to me) affect: this was a shameful way of outsourcing my own shame. Meanwhile, asking for help when I need to be taken care of -- physically or emotionally -- cut against my feeling that it is my self-sufficiency and strength that gives me worth. I fear being your burden. I fear you will say things to me just because you think I want to hear it. I fear you will try to "make it better" when I am not asking you to make anything better; I am not asking to be fixed. I fear my bloody heart bores you.
Writing all of this is to you in a public forum terrifies me more than I can say. In fact, I probably couldn't say it aloud right now if I wanted to: my tightened throat, this silent lamplit room. Writing is my other voice tonight, carrying at once both my power and my vulnerability.
I've been thinking a lot about voice lately. One of the joys of being a writer-in-residence in Detroit high schools this year is that it is pushing me to read a lot more poetry. I'm loitering with Ai, Lucille Clifton, Larry Levis, Langston Hughes, Stephen Dobyns, William Carlos Williams, Pablo Neruda, Sylvia Plath, Kay Ryan, searching for poems to bring with me into the classroom and share with ninth-, tenth-, and eleventh-graders. And then I'm challenged to read the poems aloud to dozens of skeptical teenagers.
Now, I used to do speech competitions: you are--ahem--looking at Michigan's former state champion in oratory. But those words were my own. I wrote them, I memorized them, I rehearsed them: while god knows the performance moment brought its share of the unexpected, I was as in control as I could be. Because I felt confident in the worth of my writing, transitioning into a new way of communicating my words -- out loud -- was an experience nestled in velvet-lining. And while, sure, I did a lot of theater in high school, I settled in enthusiastic mediocrity there, nourished by a vibrant social circle centered on the stage. I was Zaneeta in "The Music Man" (no singing); Auntie Em in "The Wizard of Oz" (only required to channel a single emotion); I was Titania in "A Midsummer's Night Dream" (blankly memorized the long speeches). I didn't put a lot of purpose on my out-loud voice.
The point is, I'm not shy of speaking in public. But reading aloud these poems -- not my own words, though chosen by me -- is utterly different. I'm not making an intellectual argument, or teaching something I know a lot about, or performing as an excuse to hang out with my artsy friends in a creative setting. These poems I'm bringing to the classrooms have all the shades and textures of the most compelling art, and my high school students have only my voice to encounter them. Now, now, there is something I want to say. The stakes are higher. And in risking these poems again and again, I've become acutely aware of my discomfort with my own out-loud voice. It is an underutilized muscle. Slowly, I am beginning to recognize tones I lean on like a crutch when I read; I am surprised by sounds I didn't know I had in me. My voice stilts and tilts, as I learn what it is capable of. I am uncomfortable experiencing this under the watchful eyes of these students. I look to see if they lose interest before I'm done. But I feel purpose in these poems, and I keep speaking up.
Here's a secret. I've wanted to take singing lessons for years and years. I have been embarrassed ashamed to admit this -- because music is not an art native to me, I fear you will see it as somehow grasping or cloyingly cute, or that you will see it as me pretending to be someone I'm not. The act of singing certainly risks me literally amplifying my imperfections in front of you. But I love music. I love being around it. I love how music-making brings people together. And I want to participate in that making, in a substantive and active way.
When I was nineteen, I had a very musical set of friends and lovers. One black night I went out for a jog, and when I came circling back around East Quad, the sounds of piano and flute and guitar met me in the dark. I followed it the way I'd follow the smell of baked bread, and found myself kneeling by the yellow light from one of the windows of the dorm's basement practice rooms. My heart swelled with love to see people I adored in the little room, making music together for the sheer pleasure of it, teaching each other things, conversing in a language I couldn't speak. I settled into the soil for awhile, conscious of myself as a sort of ghost. Later, I wrote a rather melodramatic short poem about it (let's call it a "lyric," for fun) called "The Listener."
So, here I am telling you: I'm starting singing lessons next month, guided by a lovely friend who has agreed to help me set out on this fraught path. And already I've given myself the quiet task to sing one full song each day while -- for now -- safely alone in my apartment. I am curious how what I will learn about my voice will influence my writing, and I am curious about my voice for its own sake. I choose singing because it is physical, because it is communal, because it is (hopefully eventually) artistic, because it is a way to discover my own breath and my own out-loud voice -- which I don't want to be a stranger to me anymore -- and because I'm totally terrified of it. My god, what will you think when you hear me? I want to know. I need to know.