Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Don't Worry About Your 'Voice'; Worry About Your 'Voice' (And What It's Saying About You)"

Early in my career, I would whine about not writing in my own voice. It turns out, this is not really an actual issue. A fact I was reminded about today.

The reminder came in an article I read in the entertainment section of Los Angeles Times. The story was really about something else; it questioned the blending of comedy and sentimentality in the latest crop of network sitcoms, and whether or not it would prove successful. That one is easy. The answer is:

The secret’s entirely in the recipe. Skillfully confected, success is quite possible. See: Modern Family. Unbalance the ingredients, however, and it’s acid with a cherry on top, or it’s Manischewitz wine.

Case closed. Moving on.

What struck me in the article was a quote by a writer named Greg Garcia, who created this season’s Raising Hope, and previously created My Name is Earl (which, I unhappily report, did nothing to enhance the reputation of the people bearing that name.)

Mr. Garcia is quoted as saying,

“I don’t want to do a show that’s just outrageous and funny things and shocking things and at the end of the day, it’s like, ‘Okay, that was funny, but do I want to watch that again?’ It’s important to me to have some heart and emotion to it.”

Lemme go backwards in that statement, starting with

“It’s important to me to have some heart and emotion to it.”

What I say is – and I don’t know Mr. Garcia, but I know me, and in my day, I might have made pronouncements very much along those lines. Hey, I won the Humanitas Prize.

Mr. Garcia opines that it’s important for him to have heart and emotion in his show. But for other writers, it’s equally important not to. To those writers, “heart and emotion” feel jarringly mawkish and finger-down-the-throat.

More significantly, in my view, the question of whether it’s “important” to have certain qualities in your show is seriously beside the point.

Here’s why.

If you’re a writer whose inner “You-ness” includes natural elements of heart and emotion, then “heart and emotion” will inevitably appear in your work. (That’s why worrying about your “voice” is ultimately a non-issue.) It cannot be otherwise. You are what you write. And you write who you are.

As Robert Blake said in Baretta,

“That’s the name of that tune!”

Your writing automatically reflects who you are. Which, depending on “who you are”, may be a blessing or a curse.

If “who you are” is an appealing amalgam of components that produce a series that resonates with a reasonably sized audience of the desired demographic, you will end up with a big house.

However, as “Professor” Irwin Corey used to say at the beginning of his act, if your amalgam of components are, in one way or another, grating and unappetizing, that comes out in your work too. And your house is considerably smaller.

The early part of Mr. Garcia’s quote, is simply a repetition of the same idea, but in the negative.

“I don’t want to do a show that’s just outrageous and funny things and shocking things…”

Here’s my position. Just like you can only write the way that you write, you can only do the show you can do. It’s not a question of not wanting to do a different kind of show. That kind of show is very likely not in you.

Now, a change in fashion or economic necessity may require Mr. Garcia to try that kind of show, and as a professional, his effort, I imagine, would not be without merit. But he’d, at best, be mimicking the style of other writers, writers for whom “a show that’s just outrageous and funny things and shocking things” is the kind of show they naturally do.

This leads me to this final question, which I just thought of, and had no idea I’d be considering.

Let me be clear. I’m talking about myself now, not Greg Garcia, who as I mentioned, I do not know, and have no interest in taking on.

The question that goes to the heart of my – and by extension possibly other people’s – credibility, judgment, opinion and taste.

To wit:

Is everything that comes out of our mouths simply self-serving rationalization? – We like something because we can do it; we don’t like something because we can’t? If that’s the case, why do we even bother opening our mouths? Why not just say,

“I prefer myself to other people”

And leave it at that?

It would be sad it this were true. It would mean thinking is something we imagine we’re doing, when what we’re really saying is,

“I’m me. And being me, this is the only way I can think.”

Which makes it less “thinking” than saying the same thing a thousand different ways.

Hm, he pondered.

It’s interesting, considering where I started, that I ended up in this unexpected place. That could be proof of actual thinking. Or maybe – knowing me – it’s the only place it could have gone.


Neal... said...

Interesting post, as ever.

Isn't it the case though, that sometimes the things that we like are also things that we can't do?

Could it be that thinking comes into the equation when you try and bring the two together?

Woody Allen is an obvious example that springs to mind...

He could do comedy, apparently effortlessly, but he wanted to do serious films about the human condition. Looking at his straightest dramas, it's probably fair to say it's not his strength. But when he's worked to combine what he could do with what he wanted to do, oh boy, then he got good.

Similarly, from what I know about My Name is Earl, I imagine the creator of it would be somebody who could probably do outrageous and shocking and funny things pretty easily, and doing the heart and emotion stuff is what he finds difficult, and why he's focused on it.

Could it be the case that what you're tying to say with your 'voice' says more about you than your 'voice' does on its own?

Gnasche said...

I think we just want a connection with other people. We make a quip, tell a joke, write a screenplay - all of it as a representation of ourselves. "If you like this joke, then you like me." We share our favorite movies with people we like because we want them to like the movie (and, thus, us).

Why write something that doesn't represent you? If I write a Simpson's spec, and a hot girl likes it - her liking of me isn't implied, but her liking of Matt Groening is. Why should he get all the hot girls?