Since we haven’t received any letters to the editor lately, here’s a letter from the editor. But we want to hear from you! Send us your letters, and we’ll publish them in the next issue.
When I was in high school, I wanted to sing. My best friend, Ana, had a voice like liquid gold and was training for the opera. When she sang “O mio babbino caro,” it made people cry. Her voice suffused the room with drama and passion, and since I myself was dramatic and passionate (I was a teenager, after all), it seemed logical that I should become a grand singer too, and possibly star in Les Miserables at some point.
I signed up for a musical theatre class my junior year and listened eagerly to Mrs. Kurtz’s assertion that the voice was the universal musical instrument. “If you can talk, you can sing,” she announced—and I believed it, since every sound that left her mouth was sonorous as a ringing bell.
Our first assignment was to record ourselves reading a passage from Longfellow that began, “How wonderful is the human voice! It is indeed the organ of the soul …” This was supposed to help us analyze the dynamics of our voices and realize the music inherent in everyday speech. Though I tried to make my reading as melodious as possible, my voice sounded ugly to me. But I chalked it up to the anxiety of self-consciousness and set to work following Mrs. Kurtz’s instructions on the fine art of singing.
“EnGAGE your diaphragm!” Mrs. Kurtz would exhort the class. “ReLAX your throat! Make the sound SPOUT from the top of your head!” If you can talk, you can sing—but as I quickly discovered, you can’t necessarily sing well. I tried my best to obey Mrs. Kurtz’s commands, but my voice always sounded reedy and weak, like someone had stepped on it. While practice helped me carry a tune and sing on pitch, it couldn’t make my voice beautiful. I was good enough for the school musical, but a far cry from Les Miserables.
Eventually I recovered from this blow and decided that writing, not singing, would be my means of expression—little realizing that a writer’s voice on the page is just as distinctive and freighted as the sounds from our throats.
In my writing workshops as a graduate student at Sarah Lawrence, I found that even among half-finished stories and essays, I could recognize who wrote what just by nuances of structure and tone. Some writers were graceful, some ironic, some serious and sad. An undercurrent of individuality ran through every sentence, and the best sentences were usually the ones that channeled this ineffable personality most clearly.
It occurred to me that my own voice must be as clear to my classmates as theirs were to me. I could only dimly perceive my writing voice, though from what I could make out it seemed like nothing special—it just sounded like me.
Which, of course, is the whole point. Our voices bear the imprint of our humanity. This is why we love music and art and writing, why we admire the work of activists and innovators and everyone who has found a way to be who they truly are. When people express their individuality with honesty and vigor, they capture the universal indignity and terror and sweetness of being alive.
I still sing. And it still sounds bad, at least by Mrs. Kurtz’s standards. In college I discovered less demanding forms of music (thank you, punk rock), and I’ve been performing, casually, ever since. I don’t expect to sound like Ana anymore; I can’t sound like anyone but myself. If my voice sounds ugly, well, at least it’s mine. And if I really need to express something important, I can always write it down.