Hearing Voices

Doug Paulson goes looking in the spaces between our voices and our identities in his review of Let Me Clear My Throat by Elena Passarello (Sarabande Books).

I take my work as a voice teacher for acting students ridiculously seriously.  I consider it my inestimable responsibility to instill a foundation of solid technique from which to develop healthy habits for expressive vocal production and sustainability, and to awaken in them a profound respect for their own practice and development.  Perhaps one of the most egregious behaviors sitting in direct opposition to my accomplishing these tasks is the students’ unconscious habit of clearing their throats. This simple action causes the vocal folds to smack together abruptly, over and over, in a small space of time (think of clapping so hard and long the palms of your hands turn red).  If unattended to it can wear down the vocal folds, perhaps leading to small calluses or nodules, which have the potential to develop into more serious polyps that may require surgery. If they are at all treatable.  Ahem.

Often, people clear their throats without even realizing they have done so.  In contemporary social circles this subtle action is unconsciously understood as a signifier of preparation.  When about to speak, perhaps you’ve noticed in yourself, a tendency to “gear up” for the task at hand.  Ahem (…here I go…).  Ahem (…is everyone listening…).  Ahem (…I’d better sound smart…).  Physiologically, this particular maneuver functions as a means for the larynx to expel any foreign and unwelcome matter from the vocal tract and esophagus (wind pipe).  What can happen instead, is that the resulting irritations on the vocal folds signal to the brain that something might be stuck in there, and so the brain sends a signal to the musculature in the larynx and respiratory system to try to expel it, causing more irritation, and more reflexive, then chronic, throat clearing.  We inevitably, if unwittingly, become mired in a vicious cycle of vocal self-sabotage.

Through this particular lens the very title of Elena Passarello’s book seemed entirely off the mark and left me dubious.  And so, it was with chip firmly in place on my shoulder that I sat down to read her collection of essays on, ahem… The Voice.

Let me clear my throat, indeed.

Passarello has divided her work into three sections, each centered on a vocal theme.  "Screaming Memes," "Tips on Popular Singing," and "The Thrown."  The first, as you may imagine, directly addresses how the scream has played a part in the history of the public voice, from Marlon Brando’s infamous “STELLA!” to “the Wilhelm scream” (a piece of recorded sound that shows up in numerous films and soundscapes), to the mythic cry of the Confederate soldier, otherwise known as “The Rebel Yell.”  I realized fairly quickly into the first essay that I would need to do some frame readjusting.  Passarello’s fond endorsements of yelling and screaming and throat clearing were raising every red flag my reactionary inner voice-teacher could hold aloft.  The book’s purpose was clearly something other than I had expected.  But what exactly is a book on voice if not an anatomy text or instruction manual?

Gently easing my way out of my practitioner’s seat of judgment was the only course of action to enable my fully receiving Passarello’s fascinating regard for the voice.  It was only after doing so that I began to open myself up to discovering what she and the book hoped to achieve.  As early as page twelve I was chuckling at Passarello’s casual tone in delivering such lines as, “Hello, my sinuses are stuffed with mucus,” and “Man Gets Eaten By Alligator is remarkable.”  Out from under my imposed guise of formal teaching she quickly won my favor.  She found her way directly to the heart of my interest (and our shared passion) through her pointed humor and facilitation of language.  I was drawn to her very unique and individual, well, . . . voice.

The idea of a literary or narrative voice is certainly not a new one.  In his 1940 essay "New Words," George Orwell writes: A writer attempting anything that is not coldly intellectual can do very little with words in their primary meanings.  He gets his effect, if at all, by using words in a tricky roundabout way, relying on their cadences, and so forth, as in speech he would rely on tone and gesture.In this brief musing Orwell reflects on the aural nature of words, and what an author might accomplish by maintaining an awareness of tone and cadence with regard to the written word. Passarello understands these qualities well and uses them effectively throughout these essays. She employs a strong and confidant use of metaphor to communicate the sounds of voice to the reader, which paint pictures on the pages of her book as pretty as any drawn from artists’ palates on a canvas.  In "How to Spell Rebel Yell," for example, she provocatively describes the scream as “essentially, the self trying to move when its body cannot run away.”  With this image, she captures the feelings of helplessness and fear, along with a sense of the adrenaline rush that comes with the act of screaming.  Elsewhere in the book the action of inhaling is described as “stuffing six-thousand cc’s of air down into herself in an uncorked suck.”  A muscular and humorous description of what Passarello no doubt intends to convey as a very muscular and humorous breath.

From the collection’s title, I had mistakenly assumed I was going to be reading a theory of practice or perhaps another neophyte pedagog’s literary contribution to the vast, boundless, esoteric world of voice-work.  Just one more self-proclaimed-master’s manifesto full of guided meditations and warm-up exercises.  What I opened instead was a collection of writings tethered to the author’s very personal relationship to her own voice.  These essays reflect her explorations and experiences as an actress, which have refined her view of the expressive voice both on stage and beyond.

Part two of the collection, "Tips on Popular Singing," brings together a sample of pieces that reflect on how the singing voice is regarded in our society.  From the likes of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Chuck Berry to Kurt Cobain, Tom Waits and the eighteenth-century soprano Carlo Broschi, Passarello’s reach is wide, and as such suffers slightly at times from generality.  In the essay “Teach Me Tonight” she dissects a small pamphlet published by The Embassy Music Corporation in the 1950s and aptly, from where Passarello takes the name for this particular section of her book.  The how-to manual, written by Frank Sinatra and his teacher John Quinlan, presents dry exercises in an instructional tone and left me slightly bored and missing Passerello’s voice.  Ironically, having expected this type of writing from the outset, then being seduced by Passarello’s angle, I found it the toughest essay to get through.  It was at some point during this particular essay, less interesting than those written in her own voice, that I put the book down without returning to it for weeks.

That being said, and having found my way back to the essays, Passarello truly hits her stride in "And Your Bird Can Sing," which has her discussing a relationship she develops to some foul-mouthed crows outside her window that hold her focused attention through a long, rough winter, while at the same time examining how singer/songwriters have been writing and singing about crows for ages.  It’s here that her specificity and guileful tack of imparting information, blends effortlessly with the touching delivery of her personal story.  An example of such seemingly competing, but complementary passages:

On a recent morning, both the cat and I stared out the window for what felt like hours watching the loud scene of a crow convalescing, and eventually giving in, before a jury of his peers on the lawn. … When he pitched forward into the water trough, I couldn’t stand to watch him any further.  I left the window and rinsed the breakfast dishes, trying to croon to myself.  When I came back, the cat was asleep and the crow was face down in the brittle snow. Americans have sung about crows nearly as often as we’ve sung about songbirds, flying them through two centuries’ worth of lyrics about courtly devotion, the seasons, and flappy dancing. Since its founding in 1894, Billboard magazine has listed scores of popular tunes with “crow” in the title, like “Sly Little Crow” (trad), “I Dunno Said The Crow” (1917), and “The Blackest Crow” (1899) … But the melodies themselves don’t sound anything like the crows outside my window.

I’ve taken liberties in puling these selections, perhaps less than delicately, in order that I might illustrate the point of Passarello’s deft gear shifting, though certainly not as ably as she does herself in the piece.  When this precarious balance between information and experience is struck, Passarello creates an essay that accomplishes the task of teaching you something, while touching you at the same time.  It is when she is most clearly and enjoyably engaging.

The arcs of these essays as individual pieces are at times a bit incomplete.  More so in the first half of this collection, Passarello takes you up one side of a story slowly, carefully and gingerly guides your experience.  Then, suddenly she pushes you over the hump of the event and drops you somewhat carelessly and directly into an abrupt conclusion.  I was happy to find that by the time I was comfortably settled into part three, "The Thrown," the pieces felt full, fleshed out, and satisfying as single, packaged journeys.  Though some of the more exciting writing happens in earlier essays, the final interview of a ventriloquist’s dummy, "A Monstrous Little Voice (with T. Foley)," is as laugh out loud funny as they come.  In it, HECTOR the dummy is provided a questionnaire to complete so that he may be diagnosed for the appropriate voice of his own.  You can see below HECTOR’s answers in bold to two particular questions:

Which “dummy trope” best describes your persona? The Cheeky Boy The Hayseed Soldier The Grumpy Old Man The Lecherous Spinster OTHER (please elaborate) : None. I don’t care for dummy tropes. Which Voice do you feel is your closest ancestor? A Greek Sybil, drunk on fumes and spilling the secrets of the Fates. A pika, the North American rat known to ward off prey by throwing its voice Mister Potter’s Humble Voice-in-a-Trunk Punch Judy

Through this sly convention, and in the concluding response letter containing HECTOR’s results (which you’ll have to read the book to discover), Passarello explores the point where the technical aspects of voice meet the particulars of human experience.  She nimbly sneaks in a commentary on how our individual experiences shape our unique sounds.

To further this idea of voice as a function of identity, the entire book is interspersed with excerpts from interviews with people each talking about specific memories and experiences of their own voice.  These vignettes were like small intermezzos, for if Passarello’s essays are the acts of an opera, these slices of the human vocal experience are the other entertainments, though none are light of character.  Personality is abundant. These revelatory and extremely effective moments, deftly curated by Passarello, anchor the essays by providing them context and specific touchstones for their broader themes. Titled by type of vocalist, i.e.: The Starlet, The Zealot, The Novice, The Frontman, The Interpreter, etc, and without reference to name, age or gender, we are given each anecdote in the crystal clear voice of the singular human being telling their story.

It seems that for the common man (by which I mean to say creatively-deficient or training-deprived), the very awareness of one’s own voice is something seemingly and too often lacking.  Let Me Clear My Throat (though the title will most likely forever make my reactionary-voice-teacher-self cringe a little) does a fine job of broadening the accessibility of voice theory on stage and off by generously sharing these stories, and by making us more attune to the sounds we humans make.  Passarello succeeds precisely because she does not actually intend to instruct.  She and her collection, as its title suggests, are quite simply asking to be heard.


Doug Paulson has taught Voice and Speech to actors at NYU and Brooklyn College for the past eight years. He has worked as a dialect coach on numerous productions in New York City for The New Group, LaMama, and Atlantic Theater Company, among others. He is an actor and singer himself, currently living in London, pursuing a masters degree in Voice Studies at the Central School of Speech as Drama.

When Does the Personal Essay Become More Than Memoir?

In reviewing two new collections,  If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter and Small Fires by Julie Marie Wade (Sarabande Books), James Polchin asks how the memoir differs from the personal essay in capturing the essence of a life.

In the introduction to his anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, Philip Lopate reflects on the distinct differences between memoir and the personal essay, drawing a wavy line in the sand between the linear narrative structure that autobiographies (and publishers) often demand, and the more recursive moves of the essayist. Lopate writes:

"the essay form allows the writer to circle around one particular autobiographical piece, squeezing all possible meaning out of it while leaving the greater part of his life story available for later milking.  It may even be that the personal essayist is more temperamentally suited to this circling procedure, diving into the volcano of self and extracting a single hot coal to consider and shape, either because of laziness or because of an aesthetic impulse to control a smaller frame."

There is no better term than “circling procedure” to describe the essays in both Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now and Julie Marie Wade’s Small Fires. Both collections were nominated for a Lambda Literary Award this year in the category of “Gay Memoir/Biography” and “Lesbian Memoir/Biography” respectively.   It would seem an odd place to put these two books.  Yes, both collections illuminate the experiences of their writers, recounting personal histories, childhood memories, and the difficult and mysterious emotions of sexual awakenings.  But each writer chose the complexities and creativity of the personal essay form—its ability to anchor experiences in a reality but still transgress with imaginative freedom—as the genre to give shape to their lives.

In thinking about these collections in their nominated categories, I wondered when does an essay become more than memoir?

Van Meter’s essays often begin somewhere in the middle of a moment, like walking into the movie ten minutes after it has started. This is the opening from the title essay:  “In your sixth-grad social studies class, fourth hour, when Mrs. Perry assigns the group project on European World Capitals, don’t look at Mark.  Don’t look at Jared.”  We are of course confused for Van Meter throws us into a world that we know nothing about, and manages to keep us there.  The writing is immediate, engaging, asking us to be with the writer in these moments, to make sense of these experiences as he wanders through childhood towards the present.  The opening confusions are part of the play, part of the force of his storytelling.

Consider the essay “First," which was selected for the Best American Essays in 2009, recalls a moment when he was quite young, and, holding hands with his best friend in the backseat of the family car, he asks the boy to marry him.  The impending rebuke from his mother is imminent:  “Only boys and girls get married to each other.” But the essay moves not towards the startled panic of the mother, but rather remains anchored in the confused affections of two young boys in the back of a car.  Van Meter has the talent of storytelling throughout these essays, but they always end in the subtlety of insights.  Whether in the essay “Specimen” where he relates his childhood fears of alien abductions that turn out to be fears of his own otherness in the world, or “To Bear, To Carry:  Notes on ‘Faggot’” that reflects on the meaning and contradictions of the word faggot, these essays stretch not for resolutions (that is too easy) but rather a certain kind of clarity that make more questions possible.

In each turn, Van Meter plays with form, embracing the casual freedom that the essay allows for.  For example, in “Things I Will Want to Tell You on Our First Date But Won’t,” which brilliantly conceives of a nameless man he will (may?) meet through a deeply, Montaigne-like exploration of his own uncertainties, Van Meter turns the private swirl of human contradictions into a public reflection, an essay that is acutely attentive to the power of its creativity as both imagined letter and essay. The collection is not so much coming-of-age, or even the coming-out (the “and-then-I-realized-what-I-desired” genre), but rather it holds in suspension any real conclusions at all.  We are left with just small moments without the determined end.

If Van Meter’s essays anchor themselves in storytelling, Julie Marie Wade’s essays are more collage-like compositions that weave together stories, imaginings, and journal entries.  Many of the themes in these essays echo from Wade's earlier book Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures. Here she more clearly embraces those fractures, through the minutiae of life, through movements between philosophy and popular culture, and through the forms of writing. There are essays on objects (“Keepsakes” and “Three Keyes”) and on the body itself as an object (“Bone” and “Skin”).  In “Keepsake” Wade reflects on her younger self's doubts about religion:  “I hear voices on television chime ‘Don’t take my word for it,’ and I wonder precisely whose word we are suppose to take.  God’s? Our parents’?  A school teacher’s or trusted friend’s?  What happens when their words start to contradict each other?”   Later, she writes, “language is not our first language” and turns instead to “innuendo, insinuation, intuition” as vital to a sense of ourselves and those around us.

In “Bones” she explores the struggles with her body image as an adolescent so often euphemized as “good bones” like her mother and grandmother, but, as her mother tells her: “We have to work a little harder.”  This work is a reference to fitting in, to succumbing to the image of the thin, petit beauty queen.   But this consideration of bones leads Wade to a thread that weaves itself through so many of these essays:

Look at the story embedded under the words, like and obscure painting with a notorious one preserved beneath. I have learned the word aesthetic, meaning ‘pleasing to the eye.’  Now I learn its sound-alike word—ascetic.  A smaller word, thinner.  Their resemblance is no accident.  The one leads into the other, and the other corroborates it.   Like the bones of the body, the meaning of words lies underneath the social layers of flesh we wrap around them.  Throughout this collection, Wade wanders through the underneath qualities of language and experiences, exploring what is needed to strip away, to uncover, to get at some deeper meaning about our histories and our present.

The layered painting is a metaphor Wade uses to construct four “triptych” essays of her mother, grandmother, father, and aunt.  Recalling the medieval art of church altars, these essays reach towards the lines between facts and fictions of each family member’s life, such as her grandmother’s emigration to Seattle, or the mysteries of her father’s life before she was born.  These essays, structured in “panels” of narrative, recall facts she knew and those empty spaces of family lore she needed to imagine, allowing Wade something more than mere memoir.  Her essays border between fiction and non-fiction, between lyrical poems and short stories, and, like most powerful personal essays, between experience and larger insights.

Which leads me back to the question I started with:  when does a personal essay become more than memoir.   I raise this question with these two collections for there is a lost history to the gay and lesbian personal essay. To ponder the history of such experiences over the past several decades, leads us again and again to the creative, personal and political possibilities the essay form provided.  Think of James Baldwin’s early and later essays that merge racial and sexual experiences with an acute social critique.  Merging lived experiences with acute insights echo years later in Adrienne Rich’s classic “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience” of the early 1970s, and in the crucial writings in This Bridge Called My Back, an anthology of creative and personal essays by such writers as Barbara Smith, Cherrie Moranga, and Gloria Anzaldúa who used the essay genre as a way of opening up a space for lesbians of color in the sexual politics of the day.  I think also of Andrew Holleran’s deeply personal essays of gay life and the tragedy of AIDS published in the journal Christopher Street in the 1980s and 1990s.   There are many others in this history of the gay and lesbian essay that points to the genre’s importance over the past several decades for writers whose sexual lives were so often unspoken and unwritten secrets.

At the heart of an essay is a kind of fragmented thinking “just as reality is fragmented and gains its unity only by moving through the fissures, rather than by smoothing them over,” wrote German philosophy Theodore Adorno in his celebration of the genre in “The Essay as Form.”  Such fissures have been most important to gay and lesbian essayists over the years, in finding imaginative ways to write of their sexual lives as being creatively and socially meaningful.

There is something that gets lost in calling If You Knew Then What I Know Now and Small Fires memoirs or autobiographies.  It shrinks the form these writers work in, and the possibilities they wish us to imagine.  For Van Meter and Wade, the narrative arc of experience that would give their works a memoir-esque quality is vanquished by each writer’s keen ability to use the essay form to look deeper at the shards of experience and family history.  While both writers represent a new era of essays of gay and lesbian experience—in which the writer’s sexual life is part of a constellation of experiences and not the central one—they each find in the essay form a life constructed in fragments rather than a wholeness of experience. In different ways both remind us that there is a wide gap between memoir and personal essay that we too often ignore. ____