Be Thou The Voice

By Dinah Lenney

on memoirists, actors, musicians, and other cover artists.

The difference between classical music and jazz, said the well-known conductor, is that with classical, the music is always greater than the performance. He’d been invited to talk about “Vulgarization” in a lecture series called Categorically Not, and to illustrate his point, he played a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth on kazoos. Not vulgar exactly, but point taken: with the classics, we can pretty much agree that the genius at work belongs to the creator, the originator. If we’re Bach fans, it’s secondary who’s playing at Carnegie Hall; Bach is the reason to buy a ticket, and the musicians are there to serve the composer. Renowned artists like Yo Yo Ma and Midori, Domingo and Upshaw, are considered greats by virtue of virtuosity, but their real talent is for getting to the heart of the music-as-written, for somehow intuiting and revealing all that is already there.

It’s much the same for classical theater — or it used to be. Before the culture of celebrity, we went to see Shakespeare or Shaw or Chekhov or Ibsen to hear the words themselves, regardless of who was saying them, the assumption being that the actors would be up to the task. This isn’t always true, of course; musicians can ruin a symphony and actors can destroy the best plays. But when they’re talented and trained, grateful as we are, we don’t often credit interpretive artists with elevating classical material. We assume (and rightly so in most cases) that the material elevates them.

What’s easier to accept is that with jazz, the soloist can transcend the composition for moments at a time: he’s supposed to in fact. The individual performance — nuanced and singular — is the reward for performer and fan alike. First person narrative, memoir in particular, is like jazz; largely about the player, about where he riffs and scats, and how and why, and whether or not we come away from the material — the narrative, that is — feeling different for having read. As with jazz, the more specific and heartfelt the performance, the deeper and wider its impact. As with jazz, the composition matters, but we’re looking to see how the artist filters it, how she handles the melody line. So the memoirist shares elements of craft and compulsion — even temperament — with the performer.

We might think of memoirists, then, not as composers or creators per se but as cover artists, and memoir itself as a performance that, although grounded in actual events (or existing material), is driven by the “voice” of the writer. Memoirists “cover” the events of their lives; as writers of nonfiction in the first person, we get to play, to scat, to take the solo, to emphasize the elements that ring true for us, to slide past the ones that don’t. A writer of memoir takes on personal history — that’s her script, her score — and uses her voice to inform those remembered events and to make them her own. She’s obligated to tell the truth, and she’s obligated to tell it her way.


It’s commonly believed that actors transform themselves, but this is mostly not the case. Only the most divinely gifted or troubled actually disappear into a role. The rest of us work for a kind of absorption; the journeyman actor aims to pour himself into a character, or to pull it over his head, depending. Essential to the actor’s craft, therefore, is deep and exercised self-knowledge — the ability to access our singular repertoire of feelings and experience to inform the part, whatever it is. A beginner, in a misguided attempt at some miracle of metamorphosis, may actually distance himself from a role. When asked about his part — Hamlet, for instance — he’s inclined at first to answer in the third person. “He’s angry at his mother,” the young man might say. “He’s confused and depressed.” Up to his teacher to remind the actor to use the first person instead, as in: I want, I love, I hate, I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, I’m happy, I’m sad, I’m furious.

So it is for the memoirist. It’s her job to look, listen, remember, and respond personally, to bring the subject to life as she perceives it. In both acting and writing this is when strategies get a bit murky. Both actors and writers are instructed, “less is more,” and “be specific,” and “show don’t tell.” But according to memoirist Patricia Hampl, memoir at its best is actually equal parts show and tell, narration and reflection. The writer is allowed — even encouraged — to interpret, to shade and color after the fact. Hers isn’t a court report; it’s nuanced by her processing, her understanding of events as they happened, and afterward. She’s compelled to be as accurate as possible about the narrative of her story, but the more subjective her reflections, the more they then resonate with her reader — her audience.

This notion of overlap — the idea that acting and writing are linked and that the compulsion to do one or other comes from a similar place — isn’t a new one. Joan Didion, who wanted to be an actor first, comes straight out and says that the impulse to write or to act is one and the same. Either way, she concluded, we’re talking about “performance.” And if writing — like all the arts — comes from an impulse to communicate our essential selves via our talent or passion, writing the memoir might be closest of all to what Gilbert Seldes called “the lively arts.”

Actors and memoirists, compelled as we are to focus on ourselves, are subject to the same kinds of derision. The subject of a memoir is the writer himself, which is why memoirists — like actors — are accused of being narcissistic, opportunistic, disloyal, and boring; of exhibitionism at best, betrayal at worst; of mining personal pain for profit; of a kind of pathological self-involvement which makes our investment in our real lives and relationships somehow suspect.

And so in spite of the genre’s popularity, and our culture’s yawning appetite for true stories, many of us feel that literary memoir needs and deserves defending. Why, we ask ourselves (the likes of James Frey not withstanding) has the form gotten such a bad rap? And how is it we keep writing them anyway? Years ago, in an essay in Slate, Ben Yagoda quoted cultural critic Daphne Merkin, who said we’re “addicted to ‘outing’ ourselves and others.” More recently, Neil Genzlinger wrote a review that he, or The New York Times, decided to title “The Problem with Memoir.” Lorrie Moore, in an essay in the New York Review of Books, pretended to like a couple of memoirs, only to conclude that their authors would have done better by their subjects had they chosen to fictionalize. In a society that feeds on voyeurism, a whole lot of people seem to feel that memoir is a part of the problem not the solution.


But what about the good ones? What about prose for its own sake? A few years ago columnist Meghan Daum directed her weekly piece in The Los Angeles Times to wanna-be writers in the genre. In reference to Ishmael Beah and his book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, she wrote, “Attention solipsistic young scribes, all the bad boyfriends, clueless parents and junior years abroad are no match for the child soldier. Better go back to whatever you were doing before you started writing about yourself. Just don’t go to Starbucks, because Beah’s book is being sold there and you’ll just feel worse.” According to Daum, “most almost-too-young-for-memories memoirists, gifted or not, just don’t have the chops to turn their summer camp reminiscences into This Boy’s Life for the new millennium.”

Well, yes, content matters, of course it does. Having lived a little can’t hurt, if only from the point of view of perspective gained and insight earned. But voice keeps us in the room; voice is the reason we listen on, look on, and read on. It can hook us and sustain our interest until, in the best of all worlds, as with an actor taking on a role, or a singer a song, the voice and the story are seamlessly integrated, and we can’t have one without other. Long before Boy Soldier Ishmael Beah, long before we began to celebrate pathology, came writers like E.B. White, Russell Baker, Eudora Welty, Annie Dillard, Michael Ondaatje, and Calvin Trillin — all of whom wrote about all manner of subject and theme, from the mundane to the exotic, with voice, with chops.

And what are chops? As with the singer and the actor, chops are talent and skill combined, since without one or the other it isn’t possible to achieve that seamless weave, to inhabit the role or the story or the song. Voice, meanwhile, for the actor or the writer, is both requisite and goal. In The Writer’s Voice, A. Alvarez says that memoir seems to have been born from talk therapy: therapists are listening to the details of the narrative, certainly, but also to how it is told, and, literally, to the patient’s tone of voice. Voice is that mysterious quality, most important of all, that, if it can be cultivated, cannot be taught: Miles Davis’s trumpet is immediately identifiable and the sob in the back of Billie’s throat is hers and hers alone. Voice boils down to a pungent roux of self, the truest expression of who we are, blended and seasoned with expertise, with our tools of choice — paint, light, lyrics, melody, choreography, chords, dialogue, sentences — whatever calls us. Voice is not much without chops, but chops without voice, however virtuosic, amounts to little more than elevator music.


In The Bay at Nice, a play by David Hare, the action takes place in an art gallery in Russia, in real time, during which the audience listens in on a power struggle between a mother, Valentina, and her middle-aged daughter, Sophia. Having studied with Matisse when she was a girl, Valentina has been asked to authenticate one of his paintings. She brings Sophia along for company, and early on there’s an exchange between them about the nature of talent, about vocation versus avocation. Sophia makes her living as a school teacher, but paints on the side, as a hobby. Valentina — who was a serious and gifted art student in her time — doesn’t see the point. Sophia says, “I paint simply in order … to show what is there.”

And Valentina answers:
“That is why you can never be good … They said of Picasso that he couldn’t paint a tree. They were wrong. He was painting trees when he was eight. It quickly came to bore him. He had no interest in trees after that. But he could paint the feeling you had when you looked at a tree. And that is more valuable. Painting is ultimately to do with the quality of feeling. That is why you will never be able to paint.”
Whether this is good parenting is debatable, and whether a middle-aged woman should need validation from her mother is an essay unto itself. The point is the playwright’s assertion — via Valentina — that the value of art has everything to do with perception, with feeling, with the personal subtext of an experience as much as with its actual form. So it is with memoir; the facts, while important, take a backseat to the truth of memory, to the quality of feeling.

Take Calvin Trillin’s memoir, Messages from my Father: In this small book (a valentine to an ostensibly ordinary guy), Trillin remembers a family road trip from childhood, when, he writes, they “covered miles in great gulps of driving.”
Occasionally my father would point out some sight — maybe a butte, maybe a Burma-Shave sign. My capacity to take in the splendors visible from the car was hampered, of course, by the concentration required to defend half of the backseat from Sukey’s incursions, the imaginary line down the seat having created a situation that I later compared to the border tension between Finland and the Soviet Union. In this comparison I thought of myself as Finland. At one point, probably after what foreign correspondents might describe as a skirmish along the disputed border, my father handed down a ruling that fairly reflected his traditionalist views on how males and females should interact but was deeply damaging to my side. “We do not hit girls,” he said. “You will never hit Sukey again.” Sukey, of course, was not visited with a similar injunction, and I became what amounted to a unilaterally disarmed Finland.
Trillin’s voice — warm, funny, self-deprecating — is unmistakable. Messages from My Father doesn’t involve high drama. No terrible hardships explored, no awful family secrets revealed. But Trillin manages to make the reader feel as though she is sitting across from him at the kitchen table and he’s telling the story just for her. That’s the real wonder and mystery of voice: that the reader — the audience — comes to feel she knows the writer, as though some confidence has been exchanged between them. The conceit is a conspiracy of familiarity; we understand each other, and mutual understanding (we convince ourselves that it’s mutual) — in any of the arts — causes the gasp of recognition.

However, in fiction, we might forget the author — that might even be part of what he or she is trying to make us do. In memoir that’s never so; we can’t forget the writer, and her voice makes or breaks the piece. The risks in memoir, therefore, are the same as those of performance: affectation and pretension, over-playing and over-emoting. As for the goal in both cases, to engage the audience — it’s often a matter of the strength of the artist’s objective, another acting term. At the core of every good turn, and necessarily what an actor asks herself when she takes on a part, is the question “What’s my objective?” In other words, “What do I want?” And what we want — on stage, on the page, in life — can’t help but reveal why and who we are. Calvin Trillin achieves his objective — to remember his father — in a voice that is thoughtful, affectionate, and respectful, and that consequently tells us a great deal about the author himself.


Meanwhile, what happens when the cover is covered? Is memoir perhaps less elastic, less malleable and translatable, than other forms? Julia, the film based on Lilian Hellman’s Pentimento, won Oscars for Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda, as well as an award for best screenplay. Still, the water gets muddy here, as was seen recently, again with Redgrave, in the Broadway production of Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. The business of adaptation is always delicate, but this was a particularly fraught instance. John Lahr wrote in The New Yorker, “In the translation from the page to the stage … there is an essential change of chemistry, as well as a new vulgarity.” Vulgarity! What about the conductor and his kazoos? Isn’t Joan Didion a classic of sorts?

The production was spare and tasteful, true in that way to the spirit of the book. But to take Joan Didion’s voice — that perfectly-modulated grief-stricken whisper — and to amplify it on a Broadway stage, appears, for some, to have cheapened it somehow, to have broken the pact of intimacy established between reader and writer. On some level, this is a case of classics in collision. We feel we know what to expect from Vanessa Redgrave; if she’s any less than herself on stage, she’ll disappoint — do herself, Didion, and the audience a grave disservice. Would Dame Judi Dench have been better suited to the role? Meryl Streep, who’s known for transforming herself? Seems to me we’re obliged, harking back to David Hare’s Valentina and her ideas about painting, to admit that some of the least successful adaptations are the most true to the source. Vanessa Redgrave wisely chose to play the role for her own truth and, regardless of the critics, the audience rose to its feet in ovation after every single performance.

The bombing of Guernica is forever imprinted in our memories by Picasso; the presence of Mark Twain has been evoked for the rest of time in the person of actor Hal Holbrook; Anthony Minghella’s version of The English Patient is every bit as resonant as Michael Ondaatje’s original novel; Bob Dylan himself prefers the Hendrix version of “All Along the Watchtower.” Always, it’s a matter of a successful personalizing of the material, of giving it new voice. Consider jazz artist Diana Krall’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” originally recorded for the album, Blue, in 1971. Her job as a cover artist is to personalize the lyric, to make us believe she has discovered the words in the moment and is singing them as if for the first time. What Krall brings to the song is not just her lusty, throaty sound, not only her chops, but a sullen, flirty, sexy sensibility, and profound emotional vulnerability; in short, the ability to get naked in order to access her inner life — her voice.

Master teacher David Craig authored On Singing, On Stage, a book directed at musical theatre performers: actors who sing. At one point he writes, “The singer, under all circumstances, must be more interesting than the songs he sings.” And, later he adds, “Since there is no hiding place in the songs you sing, always be sure it is YOU singing them.” He might as well be talking about successful memoir — about all successful first-person narrative — and the reason we keep reading and writing and celebrating the genre.


“The past is radiant,” writes Patricia Hampl. “It sheds the light of lived life.”

For all the hoopla about truth-telling in the genre — for all the writers who’ve come out against what they see as the fudging of facts — I’m with Vivian Gornick who aptly defended the effort towards emotional truth as the crux of the form, and David Hare — in the guise of his protagonist, Valentina, who’s after the pulse of life in a work of art as opposed to a frozen likeness; and it was Marcel Proust who wrote that “reality will take shape in the memory alone.” No surprise — no great revelation — to discover that a writer might want to find a story in her life, to chip away at the mass until it has a plot she can “live with.” As a species, we depend on narrative. We find satisfaction and relief in beginnings, middles, and endings, even false endings, with full knowledge that we have created this arc for ourselves only after the fact. We need to believe “this happened to me because…” Or, “it happened to me therefore …” The alternative (nothing matters and then we die) is insupportable. Stories are as essential to living as living is to stories (maybe more so), and it’s the ability to tell them that distinguishes us as a species.

But maybe the difference between us memoirists and other writers, is that our objective is still the truthful representation of the tree, not just the feeling of it. We don’t want to fictionalize our experiences. A memoirist wants perspective, but she also wants to get up close, to carve her initials there in the bark, to claim and control the past, to own her complicity, precisely because it actually happened.

Not that it’s easy. Quoting Montaigne in The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf wrote that he called his efforts to reveal himself in his essays, “a rugged road, more than it seems.” Even so, Wolff is clear about Montaigne’s objective: he wasn’t after fame, short or long term, she insisted. He wanted to communicate his soul. According to Woolf,
Communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness. To share is our duty; to go down boldly and bring to light those hidden thoughts which are the most diseased; to conceal nothing; to pretend nothing; if we are ignorant to say so; if we love our friends to let them know it.
Hefty instructions these, and for the writer of memoir, that’s the compulsion — not just to illuminate, but to connect, whether by revealing the broad sociological and cultural implications of personal events — as in Azar Nafizi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran or David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy — or, in accounts as miniaturist as Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Trillin’s Messages from My Father, rendering the ordinary extraordinary by virtue of taking things personally.


A critically acclaimed exhibition recently featured and compared the works of Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro, who met in the 1860s and decided to paint the same vistas side by side. Pissarro, the elder, was known as the Father of Impressionism, and Cézanne, a post-impressionist and the original cubist, has been called — by Matisse and Picasso — “the Father of us All.” In Orchard, Côte Saint-Denis, each artist — the former with light and movement, the latter with color and shape — evokes the feeling you have when you look at a tree. The viewer is bound to be moved by one picture or the other, but either way, it’s clear, isn’t it? We, the audience, are responding to the equivalent of voice.

It’s worth noting, too, that these great friends sustained this working relationship — this painterly conversation — decade after decade. But if Pissarro and Cézanne were creating for each other, what inspires a solitary writer to the deed? It appears that we do it first and foremost for ourselves — whether to find out what we know, or to leave a print in the asphalt, or both. But who else are we trying to reach? John Steinbeck claimed he read everything to his dogs first. Eudora Welty wrote “for it, for the pleasure of it.” Didion writes, she insists, “entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” Trillin, who dedicates his book to his daughters, must have been writing for them, at least in part, to acquaint them with the grandfather they never knew, but of course he’s told us by now that he wrote everything for Alice, his late wife. Virginia Woolf seems to have said it best: “One writes for a very few people, who understand.”

It’s making that connection, real or imagined, that is the reward of art across the boards — a mysterious outcome certainly, although not, for the most part, accidental. It requires discipline: endless rehearsals for the performer, endless sketching for the artist, endless revising for the writer in order to achieve a feeling of spontaneity and authenticity in the work. In an interview with John Hersey from his book, The Writer’s Craft, Ralph Ellison said, “There are things I can’t imagine my having consciously planned. They materialized as I worked consciously at other things.” The idea being that with honest and focused attention to the script, the score, the tree — the reality of our circumstances then and now — our voice will emerge to reveal unexpected truths in unexpected ways, to our readers and to ourselves.

Finally, though, it’s the writer’s voice that moves and inspires, which is why, just as we mistake an actor for his character, many of us have fallen hard for the guy on the page, only to have to make a sizeable adjustment to the person reading in our bookstore. Fiction or non-, it turns out our inner and outer selves are not one and the same. Woolf, again in The Common Reader, wrote, “[B]eyond the difficulty of communicating oneself, there is the supreme difficulty of being oneself. This soul, or life within us, by no means agrees with the life outside us.” But if that’s a problem for us as people, it’s a phenomenon to be celebrated in the work.

“Poet, be seated at the piano,” Wallace Stevens begins, in “Mozart, 1935.” And further down, he says again:
Be seated at the piano.
That lucid souvenir of the past,
The divertimento;
That airy dream of the future,
The unclouded concerto …
The snow is falling.
Strike the piercing chord.
Be thou the voice,
Not you.