‘Yes,’ the teacher said, ‘But now I’d like to hear it in your voice.’
I laughed as if I understood what he meant. As if, up until now, I had just been playing around, but now I would sing it as myself, with my own unique voice, with its signature sound that anyone would recognise as mine. In reality, I had no idea what to do next.
When I was a child, I marvelled at people’s handwriting. I pored over the handwritings of my classmates, my sister, my parents, at how they thoughtlessly seemed to convey their very essence to the paper whenever they wrote something down.
In search of my own handwriting — the one that would commit my identity to the paper with every word — I tried out all kinds of styles.
I wrote in neat, upright letters.
Then I wrote in cursive.
I tried the girly loops of my classmates, and then the broad, uncompromising horizontals my father jotted down.
I tried a handwriting that leaned backwards instead of forwards, which was pretty but too difficult to read.
I tried calligraphy, with its expressive sweeps, and I tried that masculine stenography that made me feel like I could be good at maths.
I tried incorporating strange ways of writing specific letters, like a q with the downwards line crossed like a t, or an e that always looked like it was uppercase.
My notebooks had different handwritings on every page, sometimes on every line. To my disappointment, I never found a handwriting that I instinctively recognised as mine. I decided that a certain amount of regularity looked nice, and would often choose, and then stick with, one specific handwriting for a notebook. People would see it and exclaim that it was beautiful, that it looked like it was printed. I would feel momentarily gratified, and then, suddenly, sad. It wasn’t my essence they were seeing. What they liked was someone else’s handwriting, artificially reproduced by someone who had no identity of her own.
Had I, in searching for this authenticity, actually done the opposite and killed it? Or was there never any authenticity to me to begin with, and was I just one of those parasite-like people who can only imitate others?
I’m starting to fear it’s the same with singing. I’m an excellent mimic — I can temporarily morph my voice into the light soprano or the warm alto. I can sing like a man, change the timbre completely and make my voice reach so low that, to the untrained ear, it’s nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. I can do the popstar’s sharp belt, the jazz cat’s breathy croon, the scream of the rock babe. But they all feel like impersonations. And apparently, others can tell.
Is that why that one comment on my exam hurt so much?
‘We don’t feel like we get to see you,’ one teacher had said, ‘and therefore it fails to move us.’
The message had been to be more vulnerable, to not be so afraid to fail, to relinquish control and let people see me for who I truly am. Openness, authenticity, vulnerability — that’s what moves people.
But what if there is no true me? What if I’m just a collection of personas, a void, an uninhabited island waiting for some driftwood to wash up on its shores?
A thought that often bothered me as a kid: if you put two mirrors in a room and make them face each other, what would you see if you were invisible and stood in between them? What does the essence of something look like, if it always reflects what’s put in front of it?
‘People hate their own art because it looks like they made it,’ Elicia Donze recently wrote on Twitter. ‘But there’s no skill level at which you stop being you.’
I wish my art sounded like I made it. That it had a unique signature to it that would define me. That I could finally know who I truly am, through finding this unshakeable core.
I’ve been looking all over for it. If you find it, please get in touch.