I just got a message from my friend Sam, who releases music under the name Hooch (I’m not sure if I’m accidentally “outing” him by typing this; he’s a discreet soul) telling me he is surprised that I haven’t already watched the first season of a TV series called Utopia. He added: “If you had taken music very seriously, the soundtrack on that series is how you would’ve sounded if you’ve been the one scoring it.”
It’s a regular in-joke between me and Sam that he’s the musically talented one, and I’m the hack. Which, by the way, is true. Sam’s music is significantly better than mine. It’s not just that he’s actually a trained pianist, and has two academic degrees in music production. He’s also way more serious about focusing on those tiny details that make a big difference. In fact, the only thing Sam lacks that I have in abundance is the trigger-happy irrational energy to keep making music even if it goes horribly wrong. He is a perfectionist. I am not. I like to scream and make noise.
But that’s not the point of this post. The point is I often find myself thinking, while watching a movie or listening to a song, “Hey, Sam could’ve written this” or “This sounds like Matt, it’s as though someone had hired Matt to write a song” or “That’s the kind of synth line Leo might have come up with”. Inevitably, you “find a voice” in your writing, you “find a sound” in your music. Whether you like it or not, some things start to sound like you even if they’re not you, and you get compared to musicians or writers you’ve never heard of. It just happens, eventually. (The whole thing about “finding your voice” is simple: do what you do a lot, and you’ll eventually sound like yourself. You don’t need to buy a how-to book to learn this.)
I wonder, though: how much of your “sound”, or your “voice”, your style, is truly a reflection of what you are like as a person? I think it was FL Lucas who, in his wonderful book Style, said something about a man’s style being a reflection of his character. I don’t have the book with me here, so I can’t check, but I’m fairly sure I’m quoting faithfully enough. Anyway, this idea, which isn’t unique to Lucas, has struck me over the years as fascinating and distressing simultaneously. People tell me that when they read my prose, that is to say, the prose in which I sink back to my “natural” writing voice, it sounds like me. But then, for example, in my opinion the voice I used in Praise of Motherhood — a kind of memoir — doesn’t feel like me at all. And readers who meet me tell me they don’t recognize me as I depicted myself in the book. I wonder, then, whether my intentional misrepresentation of myself in Praise of Motherhood has anything to do with the style in it, which I find as weird as the narrator who is supposed to be me. I suppose I’m conflating “style” and “voice” here, but you get the point.
Can I inadvertently have distorted my own style when I was only attempting to distort myself as a character? Freaky.
To be sure, some of this doesn’t add up. I was definitely finding my own voice when that book was being written. Much of what I would now call my natural writing voice is a direct development of what I was struggling with in Praise of Motherhood, as a person and writer. We’re at version 3.1, if you will.
But I was conscious even then, when I was writing it, that it wasn’t exactly my voice, just as it wasn’t exactly me. And it’s pretty striking to observe the correlation, at least.