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Turning Points Losing My Voice and Finding It
In the quiet forced upon me, I started to hear the voices of other selves.
The intake form at the Beth Israel ENT is long, with a long list of statements you’re meant to react to on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being “I don’t experience that at all” and 5 being “I experience that almost always.” Many of them are medical in nature (“I experience pain in my throat”; “I have trouble swallowing”), but as you go through the list, the questions become rather existential. “My issues with my voice make me feel like I’m not myself.” “My inability to sing makes me sad or depressed.”
“Despondent” was the word that kept rising to the top of my brain as I read the statements. After a year of extreme vocal fatigue, loss of range while singing, and general vocal soreness, I’d come to the doctor for answers. I had thought my lifestyle—teaching all day, doing comedy multiple nights a week, hanging out in loud bars where shouting was often the only way to make yourself heard—was to blame for the damage to my voice. But it was taking longer and longer to bounce back after my more strenuous days, and I found myself looking for ways to avoid talking in class and anticipating my evenings off from comedy. I wasn’t as eager to sing along to my husband’s piano playing—an activity that once brought me great joy—because of how limited my range was and how quickly the pain set in. By the time I finally walked into the ENT’s office, I was feeling something very close to grief.
I started singing early. At five years old I wrote little musicals for myself while sitting up in the giant maple tree whose branches shaded my parents’ front yard, and shortly after that I was up on real stages, singing and dancing in children’s theater productions. Performing came naturally—I never feared the crowds. I took voice lessons in high school, got big parts in the school musicals (although my comedic flair relegated me to the belty or matronly roles rather than the sweet ingénues), and won the award for best choral student my senior year.
By thirty-six, I knew I wasn’t ever going to be a professional singer, but I was still performing regularly, mostly improv comedy and stand up. And still, my singing voice was part of that. In my Second City training I’d purposely written sketches that incorporated singing, and it wasn’t uncommon for an improv scene to require the skill as well if, say, your character ended up being a rock star recording a song or a mother singing a lullaby. Prior to my vocal chord damage, I’d relish those serendipitous opportunities to surprise the audience with my well-trained soprano voice, but now I dreaded a scene that I could feel heading in the direction of song for the limitations it would reveal in my performing.
“I just don’t feel like me,” I cried to the ENT.
“I wish I had a magical solution for you,” he said kindly, “but I don’t.”
The tiny camera attached to the end of a tube shoved down my throat revealed the problem: One of my vocal chords had somehow suffered nerve damage and could not fully close against the other. The resultant gap was causing a buildup of mucus and abrading at the point of contact, and this in turn was causing my rapid vocal fatigue.
The ENT told me he could inject something into the weak chord, but it wasn’t guaranteed to work. And it might cause more damage. “If you were a professional singer, I’d recommend it,” he said, as the tears streamed down my face, “but given that it doesn’t affect your livelihood, I don’t like the risks of surgery.”
It’s strange, and perhaps somewhat arbitrary, what we consider to be at the center of our origin story and what we don’t. We might remember many isolated events in life, but what we choose to tag as “formative” is entirely subjective, and shapes our assumptions about who we are and what we expect ourselves to become. I’ve been writing for as long as I’ve been singing. I remember one day coming back from my in-school violin lesson to a standing ovation from my fifth-grade class; apparently, in my absence, my teacher had read to them an assignment I had written: a boring ten-sentence piece of spelling homework I’d expanded into a ten-page mystery story. While I’d won writing awards before, in my mind writing was still something I did , not something I was . I was proud at that moment when my fifth-grade class stood and clapped for me, but I had never filed it away in my brain under “the moment when I knew.”
Other things, other experiences did get filed there: The softball tournament where my bad attitude kept me on the bench and I vowed ever after that to not let my emotions get in the way of my growth; the time when I tried to tell my mom about how a boyfriend had sexually mistreated me and realized she simply couldn’t handle such conversations; she would never be the kind of confidant I needed her to be. And now, here I was, facing another potentially defining moment, facing a future in which I was unable to sing. I could speak, but even as I did so, I could feel that lackluster chord wearing itself down, leading me to the inevitable point of silence from which the only road of return was rest and time. I still had no idea how my nerves had been damaged. I didn’t feel like myself without full use of my voice, and I was afraid.
Around the time I went to see the ENT, my regular improv team was slowing down our performance schedule, and I was left with more free nights than before. I was antsy for something to do, a creative outlet, and often found myself grabbing my laptop after dinner and sequestering myself in the bedroom to write. Writing was something I’d kept up intermittently; I still enjoyed it, and had published a few humor pieces. Still, I had not seen writing as something that was mine to pursue . Now, with the boundaries of my outward voice narrowed by my body’s physical limitations, I found solace in a voice I couldn’t wear out.
Could it have been that only in that forced quiet, the words that would have flown out into the air instead stayed within me and, rather than disappearing, found their way to the page? It seems strange to imagine my words in this way, as some sort of finite store that I allocate through various means of expression. But something happened to me in that time when I couldn’t perform with my voice as I once had: I became a writer.
The prophet Elijah speaks of the “still, small voice” within. He claims it to be the voice of God. The Transcendentalists agreed, although their sense of the deity was a bit more abstract. Quakers speak of a similar process, accessing that inner voice at meeting time—everyone is silent, and in that silence, someone is moved to speak. That speech is then honored as the will, the voice, of the community.
As a performer, I almost never made space for that kind of quiet. Based on everything I’d learned and everything I believed about myself, I had determined that silence was meant to be filled: with cleverness, with laughter, with wit, with song. Even off-stage I’d taken this approach, believing that it was my job to keep a conversation going, keep a party fun. It’s extroversion, yes, but it’s something else, too: I had a narrative in my mind, a view of myself as “performer,” and was determined to live that identity fully. It was only when that identity met with an inexorable obstacle, the strain and sometimes-loss of my voice, that I was forced to question that story I had written for myself.
My humor pieces, I saw, had been an extension of the narrative of my performing self—the comedian, skilled with a turn of phrase, a well-placed reference, a perfectly timed punchline. But in the quiet forced upon me, I started to hear the voices of other selves, voices that spoke the kinds of stories one didn’t tell to get a laugh or fill a room—stories told in order to make sense of things, to create meaning. These stories were more personal. They were about me, my family, my life. They weren’t funny, and that was okay. And when I wrote them down, I could tell they often weren’t as good as I wanted them to be, which was okay, too. For the first time in a long time, I felt the humility and pleasure that can accompany a deep desire to grow.
photo via Andreas Hein/flickr
Last May, with a growing commitment to my writing, I attended a Grub Street writing conference. There I had the opportunity to meet with Andy Hunter, the cofounder and editor of Catapult and Electric Literature. I’d sent him twenty pages of my work, and we had ten minutes to discuss it. When I sat down at the table, Andy had nothing in front of him—not a printout of my work nor a pencil nor a phone. He knew each of my pieces by memory; he dismissed one as not as good as the others (he was right), then began to offer feedback on the rest. “Are you a performer?” he asked.
I was shocked. Surely he hadn’t researched before our meeting and found my bio on the local improv theater website? “Yes, I am.”
“I thought so. I can hear it in your writing,” he said. “It’s written the way you’d speak, which is fine. But if you want to write literary essays, you have to learn to use a writing voice.”
This, of course, seems prescient now. At the time, I found it to be excellent advice, but it is only now in the retelling that I can understand its full significance. This is another way memory works on us: Each time the memory is recalled, it is through the lens of a new self, one that has collected a new set of experiences, new ideas, new insights. The memory passes through those layers of experience that didn’t exist when it was first created, and in passing through it is rewritten. Now, when I think about that brief meeting with Andy, I know exactly what happened: He had, perhaps without realizing it, given me the permission I needed to let my inner voice do the talking.
I realized that while I’d made space for those deeper, more personal stories, I was still, by force of habit, filtering them through that outward voice. This process distorted the truth of the story, and what came out on the page was, strangely, less honest for sounding more like natural speech. To reach that other voice, the one inside, required not just quiet, then, but a shutting of the valve of speech itself.
I had to learn to think about an experience and write it as I saw it in my mind—not as I would tell it at a party, but as I would want it read by someone I would never meet. It was not just a quieter voice I sought, but an entirely different mode of expression. To achieve this, I stopped telling and retelling aloud the stories I wished to write, stopped hearing them in my head as I might have told them. Instead, with a vision of them in my mind—images reminiscent of a series of woodcuts, or squares on a quilt—I felt their grooves and textures, and tried to faithfully record what I found there. And it worked.
I keep all my old diaries in a big plastic storage box at the top of my closet. There are at least twenty different books of varying shape and size, with entries dating from first grade all the way through college. I combed through them recently looking for material for an upcoming show I’m performing in, Mortified , at which people will read old diary entries, poems, and stories they wrote as kids.
I flipped first, and by chance, to an entry from my freshman year of college. Some friends and I had gone out to see John Malkovich in The Libertine at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. He was incredible, and his performance moved me so much that I was buzzing with energy when we returned to the dorm. My two best friends at the time tried to calm me, first by telling me that the art could wait for me to get a good night’s sleep, and later by physically sitting on top of me until I calmed down. I remember that night twenty years ago. I remember it as a call from that still, small voice to make art on stage, as Mr. Malkovich did. But when I reread the diary entry about that night, I was stunned to find this conclusion resting at the end of the narrative—a narrative I’d recalled so many times since it happened all those years ago:
I want to take risks, I want to really be happy and love something. My current whim that has chosen to strike my fancy tonight is that I want to write. Because my own talent, the thing I do better than anyone else, I think, or I’d like to think, is understand why people think and feel the way they do. And I always want writers to reflect something that is human and real and maybe I can do that.
As well as I remembered that night, I didn’t remember writing those lines about it. But if I didn’t remember my resolve, I carried its feeling with me. I felt it in my continued desire to make art on stage, as a performer, and off stage, as a director. I felt it as I raised two children who, now teenagers, have artistic aspirations of their own. And I’ve done other meaningful things in those two decades, too, as a teacher, a spouse, a friend. These have all been fulfilling and identity-building experiences. To say I was somehow in error because my life had not followed a linear path toward my eighteen-year-old self’s dream would be untrue. But to have rediscovered this part of the story now, to be reminded of a meaning in that experience that I myself had forgotten, feels like a strange and magical gift—as if the message I sent in a bottle long ago had finally reached the shore.
My vocal damage, which persists, is not a “blessing.” I don’t have enough belief in God or karma or even the assumption that everything, or anything, happens for a reason to see it as some sort of purposeful cosmic tradeoff, a sacrifice that ended in a rich reward. But it did jostle my identity just enough to make space for other truths I always knew about myself. It gave me a reason to try new things, to take on different roles.
Those memories of writing and its importance to me, to who I am, were always part of my story. When I went back to look for them, they were there—waiting for me, reminding me, remaking me. It’s not so much a revision of history as it is a reinterpretation of the story I always had, a reclamation of the self, a never-ending process of becoming. It’s a story told out loud and in silence, in the places in between, and it’s still being written. I’m writing it now.