“You have a voice speaking to you?”
“About me. Accurately, and with a better vocabulary.” – Stranger Than Fiction
A student brings a TED talk to class, in which the presenter started hearing a seemingly innocuous voice narrating her life. The voice is nothing more than an annoyance until she tells her friend that she is hearing it. The friend freaks out, the hearer feels embarrassed, the voice starts to get upset, doctors get involved, and it all rolls down hill from there. The hearer drops out of school, gets admitted, gets control, comes back, starts a foundation and gives a TED talk.
The student asks the class, “What would you have said to your friend?” And my immediate thought, which I hold until after their first few responses, comes out as, “I thought we all heard voices. No?” Silence. A room full of college freshmen is trying to figure out what they have stumbled into. Is their professor mad? Is he trying to be contrary, to bring up another point of view? A voice in my head says, “Well… you brought the students this far. Keep going.”
There have always been voices. Voices describing the world around me. Voices commenting on how Kathrin’s hair looked in the light coming through the window in math class in high school. Voices running scenarios for conversations that need to happen with co-workers or friends. Voices just a few seconds ahead of what I am saying (or writing), digging through the thesaurus in my mind for a better, more accurate, more erudite word. In my writing, when I compose a list of three alternative ways of saying the same thing (see previous sentence) it is a voice that was trying to find the one right way to say it. There are voices asking me big questions. Voices offering alternative answers to big questions. Voices asking “what if” to lesson plans, and product roll-outs, and hypothetical situations. There is always a voice with something mean and wicked to say. Always a voice with some sarcastic retort. And somewhere there is a voice in the background, most often asleep and snoring, who only yells, who when it is awake, only howls.
They have always been there. Sometimes a new one emerges. None have ever gone away.
I have often described my head as a stage with a single microphone, and whoever runs up on stage gets their say. But that’s not my head. That’s my mouth. In my head, all the voices are backstage practicing. All are paying close attention to the action before the curtain. None knows when they will be needed. And whom am I in all this? It’s easy, and partly true, to say I am all of them. It’s more accurate to say I am the sound engineer (the sarcastic voice in my head just said, “Even in your head you’re an AV geek”). I’m the one who runs the board and controls the volume of the voices.
When I was younger I had less control of those sliders. When a woman I was drawn to would walk into the room a sexist, a poet, a comic, and a gentlemen would all pop-up and vie for attention.
“Look at her body! How the curve of her neck bends down into her shoulder. She has such awesome shoulders. She is so hot!”
“Hey, here’s a great line: The room was a vacuum/of air and light/until you turned the handle/to day from night. Write that down, man. Write her a poem.”
“Make her laugh. Tell her the one about the string walking into the bar. A frayed knot. Afraid not. It’s hilarious”
“Take her coat. Clear a seat. Compliment her hair. Ask her about her day. Really listen.”
It was a lot to process in the moment. But I’ve learned control. I no longer rage when someone irritates me. I no longer flinch at every accomplished, attractive woman who walks in the room. I no longer write down every questionable line of poetry. Well, to be more accurate, I no longer do those things outwardly. As I said, all the voices still exist. I now simply have control of the volume.
When I sit down to write, you will often see me cock my head to one side. My mouth tightens and my eyes close. It’s an odd tick. But it’s not a tick. I am trying to push some voice aside and bring another to the fore. I am trying to hear something amid the noise. I am reaching for the voice that has the next line, this line.
I thought (“Say think. Keep it present tense.”) every one had some sort of voiceover in their head, some narrator. When I saw it in movies, I did not consider it to be a plot device or metaphor. Am I wrong? Should I stop teaching college freshmen and get some medication? Or, is it enough that I have learned control, that whatever damage I was going to do in my life is behind me, that the voices are now managed and helpful and useful? Should I keep this to myself and not publish it?
“You’ve come this far. Seriously, what kind of damage can telling the truth do? Copy, paste, publish. Keep going.”