Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tell us in your own words



There’s a delightful moment in the musical “Guys and Dolls” when self-righteous missionary General Cartwright declaims in operatic tones to gangster Nicely Nicely Johnson, “Tell us in your own words.”

She's referring to the personal story of salvation he's purporting to have. And "tell us" is exactly what Nicely proceeds to do, not just with words, but with rhyme, rhythm, melody, harmony, and a full choreographed dance routine alongside a bunch of sin-riddled gamblers.

Could the character have stated his story simply, a la group therapy? Sure. But this being a Broadway musical, he was beholden by the laws of his theatrical universe to make it big. Different. Memorable. So memorable, in fact, that twenty years after I first listened to the "Guys and Dolls" cast recording in my parents’ car, I can still recite “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” by heart.

Yesterday I channeled a bit of General Cartwright when a poet friend shared how unhappy she was with her verse of late. “I want to be like Robert Frost,” she told me. “He has these perfect images, and he just drops this wisdom in … but everything I write comes out coy or arch.”

“Is that your voice, though? What if instead of fighting it, you embraced it?”

She considered that for half a second. “But I don’t like it. I want to be like Frost.”

I tried again. “But why be a second Frost when you can be a first you? I want to hear your voice. What do you have to say?”

She, however, had none of it. Which means -- to my great sorrow -- that I will have none of her for the foreseeable future. None of her wit, none of her creativity, none of her unique, specific, compelling worldview.

Talk about wasting one's most valuable asset. What do I have if not my own voice? Who else has my exact senses and sensibilities? Who else has my mix of experiences, my list of desires, my raft of dreams? No one. Only me. And for you, only you.

The man who gave us the classic lines "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference" would never in a million years want a writer to follow his well-trod path. Let's plot our own instead and explore a wilderness not yet charted.

Prayer #288: My Own Course

Rock your own boat. Plow your own field. Tilt at your own windwills, the ones that in steady thrums claim you cannot defeat them, that you are doomed to stand before them forever, disarmed.

God of voice and character, speak through the conflicted cacophony in my own mind. Endow what I have to say with confidence. Help me leave my windwills far in my past, twirling listlessly against an empty sky, while I carry my message farther than I thought possible.

Amen.

3 comments:

  1. Julia,
    I am not sure that my first comment went through so here goes again!

    A great post and observation!

    And this holds true for clergy who give weekly sermons as they too try to sometimes (early in their careers, I think) mimic someone else.

    I talked about this very issue yesterday with a pastoral colleague!

    Regards and blessings

    Jim

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  2. A good reminder, for new writers and veterans. While I have many muses and favorites, I never find myself trying to write like them -- I'm only inspired by their authenticity, wit, and compassionate nature. To that end, I hope that my own traits as a person come through in my writing. Although if I had to sit down and look at my work from an objective perspective, I'd perhaps struggle to find key examples of my voice -- makes me wonder if I have one or if it's generic? Ha. Anyway, I hope your poet friend soon realizes how to be the first "her" and lets that take her to new levels.

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  3. my favorite line of your post was, “But why be a second Frost when you can be a first you? I want to hear your voice. What do you have to say?”

    Love your blog, Julia! keep writing!

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