What is “Real?”
A writer (or a singer or dancer or songwriter or filmmaker) searches for his or her voice. Hemingway. Quentin Tarantino. Beyonce. But what is voice? And what makes it “real?”
There’s an exercise, a guided meditation that a friend might take you through.
It starts with the question, “Who are you?” You’re lying down, eyes closed, relaxed. Your friend asks you, “Are you your name?” Silently (or maybe with a nod) you answer, “No.”
Your friend says, “Release it.”
And you release your name. That’s not who you are.
The exercise continues through, “Are you the place where you live, i.e. a Texan, an Irishwoman?” and on through nationality, gender, age.
You release these too.
Are you your personal history? Your family? Your sexual orientation? Your traumas? Your joys? Your dreams?
Are you your body?
Are you your religion?
At each juncture, when you think deeply and answer with absolute honesty, you find yourself saying no. “No, I’m not this. No, I’m not that.”
You release each one.
Yet “you” remain.
Where do you wind up finally? For me, I was floating in space, without a body, without a name, without a country or a family. I wasn’t even an Earthling.
What was I?
What remained, for me, was a consciousness. That hadn’t altered. I was a consciousness that saw things through a very specific lens. My sense of humor remained. My curiosity remained. My specific, idiosyncratic appreciation of beauty and awareness and intellectual expression remained.
What form did that consciousness take?
For me, it was a vibration. I was a frequency. I could almost see it, like a wave on an oscilloscope.
That frequency was unique to me, as every other being’s frequency was unique to it.
Now, said my friend who was guiding me through this exercise, “You’re floating in space. Can you hear the cosmic Om? The sound vibration that undergirds all creation?”
“Okay,” he said. “Now make your vibration harmonize with that sound.”
That’s the voice. That’s the answer to “Who are you?”
An actress over the course of her career may play dozens of roles. In each she’ll be different. Meryl Streep as Linda in The Deer Hunter, as Karen Silkwood in Silkwood, as Francesca in The Bridges of Madison County, as Karen Blxen in Out of Africa. Each role is different, each “voice” is unique. Yet in each the actress remains the same, doesn’t she?
Ms. Streep is being true to something. But what? How can it be “true” if it changes from role to role (and even evolves as her chronological age advances?)
If we were viewing this from a Buddhist perspective, we might say that Meryl Streep the actress actually has no personal identity. Personal identity, we might declare, is an illusion. The actress is adapting role-to-role and assuming the personality of the character she is playing.
But that wouldn’t be true, would it? There IS an identity that is Meryl Streep, even Meryl-Streep-the-chameleon-actress who adapts to each new professional challenge.
A case could be made that those individuals who stand out in their professional or spiritual fields (and whom you and I can’t help but admire) are those who have found that vibration that is unique to them … and who operate out of it exclusively.
Think of a singer. A quarterback. A writer. The great ones sing and play and compose out of an epicenter, a consciousness, a point of view, don’t they? A unique epicenter and consciousness and point of view that is theirs and no one else’s.
Is that artifice?
The way Edith Piaf sings. Or Yo-Yo Ma plays. Or Bob Dylan writes.
I will make a yes/no case.
Yes, it’s artifice in that it has risen into awareness and the artist, recognizing it the way a hunter recognizes a bird on the wing, has seized upon it and made it his or her signature.
But no, it’s not artifice in the sense of being artificial. There was a moment, I would suggest, when that voice rose out of Edith Piaf like a cry out of a she-wolf. Without intention or artifice or contrivance.
I would venture further that that moment was one of agony and surrender and self-annihilation (in the best sense), perhaps heartbreaking, perhaps ecstatic. We’ll never know. Edith herself may not have known.
No one has said it better than Henry Miller:
I didn’t dare to think of anything then except the “facts.” To get beneath the facts I would have had to be an artist, and one doesn’t become an artist overnight. First you have to be crushed, to have your conflicting points of view annihilated. You have to be wiped out as a human being in order to be born again an individual. You have to be carbonized and mineralized in order to work upwards from the last common denominator of the self. You have to get beyond pity in order to feel from the very roots of your being.