By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 8, 2012
To say that a voice (or a look or a sound) is “real” in art requires quotation marks. We will never speak in our “real” voice because the very act of speaking in a compelling and interesting manner requires, first, a point of view—and every point of view implies a voice that is dictated, and thus made “true,” by the context in which that point of view is taken.
Was Churchill’s voice “real?”
Our “real” voice, when we’re lucky enough to find it, becomes the voice of that point of view. The more closely the voice coincides with that point of view, the more “real” it sounds.
But that “real” is always artifice.
Is Lady Gaga real? Are her lyrics “true?” Yes, but only to degree that they are authentically contrived—in other words, more fakely real.
Was Hemingway’s voice “real?” Did he really talk like that? Does Gaga walk around her Mom’s living room wearing a bra that mounts two AK-47 rifle barrels?
We can never speak or write in a real voice. But we can write in a voice that sounds real and feels real and works better than real.
So what we’re looking for is not real-real, but a “real” that rings true to a point of view.
In my experience, it’s a form of sleight of hand. Only instead of fooling the audience or the reader, we’re fooling ourselves.
Have you ever watched early episodes of Seinfeld? George wasn’t George yet. Jason Alexander hadn’t found him. And Kramer was way, way away from being the Kramer that Michael Richards finally found.
But when Jason and Michael found those characters, they found them completely. They inhabited them to the point that they could never, ever be false in them from then on.
I saw a documentary once on Joan Crawford. The film detailed the “looks” that the actress tried on during her early years. There were literally hundreds.
She looked sweet, she looked threatening, she looked angelic; she was the girl next door, the vamp, the hard-bitten D.A. The eyebrows were plucked, they were shaped; some in the 20s were pencil lines so faint you could barely see them.
When Joan finally found a look, she stuck with it.
Was that “her?” Was that the “real” Joan Crawford?
Do we ourselves even care about being real in the sense of our in-our-bathrobe, in-front-of-the-TV selves?
That’s not the “real” we’re looking for. The real Hemingway was the Hemingway that Hemingway-the-experimenter-with-himself found in that voice on the page (which, by the way, he stole largely from Gertrude Stein.)
Buddhists believe there’s no such thing as the self. You and I do not possess a “personality.” The nature of the human mind in its highest state, Buddhists believe, is no-mind. Everything that you and I believe is “us” is nothing more than chatter and baggage.
If we believe that (and there’s a lot to it, if you ask me), then what is our “real” self? What is our “real” voice?
What I’m trying to achieve as a writer is to find a voice that works. That voice changes from book to book and piece to piece. I grope for it like an actor trying to find a character. I know less about what it is than what it isn’t. I can hear it when it’s wrong.
What’s fascinating to me about the process is the aspect of exploration and of surrender. What I’m trying to do as I write this sentence is to let go of what I think a sentence should look like, or how I ought to sound, or who I “am,” and instead let the sentence find its own truth.
When I read pieces I’ve written, they rarely sound like “me.” I’m not interested in “me.” I’m looking for what’s real and for what works. “Me” is the enemy of that.
The process becomes an effacement of “me,” i.e. the conscious ego. The harder we try to “be ourselves,” the more fake we sound. And conversely, the more we let go, the more real our voice becomes.
Do I know what I’m talking about? No. I’m making it up as I go along. But it sounds true, doesn’t it?
Even I believe it, and I know how not-real it is.