Everybody’s hurt. What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what drives you, torments you, is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive. This is all you have to do it with. You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other people’s pain; and insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it works the other way around too; insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less. Then, you make — oh, fifteen years later, several thousand drinks later, two or three divorces, God knows how many broken friendships and an exile of one kind or another — some kind of breakthrough, which is your first articulation of who you are: that is to say, your first articulation of who you suspect we all are.
That’s a quote from a James Baldwin anthology The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, from the essay The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.
So, I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there? Hope all is well.
This is Episode 31 of my series of episodes on the Imagination, based around my book Create. Also, if this is your first time to the podcast please go back and listen to some of the earlier episodes to get an idea about where I’m coming from on process and everything else and especially as regards to the differentiation between Walls and Doors towards and away from the Imagination and creativity.
Last time I spoke about play and humor, but today I want to talk about voice and the idea of vocation.
So if I’m going to get into voice I feel like I need to get into the literal first, that is, my Irish voice. The thing is, if you were to ask Irish people about my accent they’d probably say I sound like an Irish fella speaking like a yank. The truth though is I’ve been gone from Ireland nearly as long as I lived there now so it’s bound to have had an effect on my voice. Especially when you consider the fact of being in France for nearly twenty years speaking southern mountain French. Serving on the municipal council meetings meant not understanding anything for the first two to three years or so, what with the bureaurcratic acronyms, mad Occitanie accent, and the fact that I had atrocious French back then. Connected to all this is the fact of where I was born, on the borders of Meath and Dublin, two of the most urban and rural counties in Ireland, sitting right beside one another, and then the fact that I went to Louth to school, which is a place nearer to northern Ireland than southern Ireland. The Meath, Dub, and Drogheda accents turned my voice into that of a cameleon. When I first listened to it on my first episode it sounded very like what I associate a Dublin accent to be, a kind of lazy unease, almost bordering, pardon the pun, on a mumble, as opposed to a Meath or Drogheda accent, but in end it doesn’t sound like a very strong Irish accent anymore, to me. Which is another part of this. Others think me very Irish even though I see my voice as a watered down one, and thereby ascribe associtions to it when my experience of different locales makes me feel completely like more of a mongrel, Irish, French and now American. But you can’t hear that in a voice.
Anyway, I ramble on about this to draw attention to the fact that even in the sound of our voice is our voice, with different associations for ourselves and others. Someone like James Joyce or Brendan Behan was able to represent that Dublin voice onto the page. So how we sound when we speak gives us a certain presence just like my voice gives you associations about me linked to Irishness. Voice is hard to get away from, and there are many subtleties that can create very nuanced presences. For example, I try in my novels to transfer that voice to the page when I can, because it’s distinctive, and a reflection of where I come from and who I partly am. So voice is a root, literally, one where you can use your cultural, familial roots as a way to color or populate your creations, in your songs, your books, your videos.
From another angle though: we’ve all heard what I now think has become a pretty tired question: How do I find my creative voice? How do I find my creative voice? Which is usually followed by scrolling through blogposts with optimized words of five or ten or whatever amount of tips on how to hook into or connect with your original voice. Well, as I said in a previous episode on difference, we all arrive at this in different ways and of course we all have different voices, and in real life oftentimes different ones for different people, so it’s often very hard to comprehend or recognize our own specific voice or what we’re actually talking about when we talk about voice, what Baldwin named “your first articulation of who you suspect we all are.”
As I always do I want to start by investigating the word itself a little first because many things come out of it. For example, in grammar even a verb has a voice. It describes the relationship between active and passive states. You can have a passive voice, a middle one or an active one. Subjects, us, in the real world alternate our voice, like I said earlier, to the situation.
But there’s a big difference between voice and vocation, or how society often demeans vocation, by calling what we love doing: an avocation, or hobby. Personally, I think avocation demeans vocation, your voice. And this is normal. It’s simply something society does the minute you try to express, to use your voice. It wants you to think your imagination and creations are avocations, not part of a vocation. This goes back to what I talked about in many of the previous episodes on walls and especially in my long earlier episode on captialism and the imagination, how it tries to value your creation from capitalistic, individualistic perspectives. But in reality, irrespective of financial gain, we have to find our voice by passing through that low wall into the garden of imagination by first becoming an apprentice then journeyman, and finally honing our creations until we’ve become a master. Again, these are stages and nomenclature I talked about before in episode 19, Mentors and how Talent Borrows and Genius Steals.
But getting back to the word itself, vocation. In Ireland when we use the word it usually means someone in the family is going into the priesthood. As most people know, Ireland is mostly Catholic, so it makes sense. Of course it’s not used in the context much any more because hardly anyone goes into the priesthood in Ireland now.
However, from a broader Christian ideology Christianity would see each individual created with talents which they harness to create a living, and from an even bigger perspective that love itself is the vocation of all Christians, especially when committed to the common good of all. So, vocation has a positive religious connotation on a few levels in Christianity but it can also be reflected in other religions too.
Buddhism sees pain, suffering, as life. Life is suffering being a tenet of Buddhism, where we find our vocation like Christianity, through love, but also through joy, compassion, and equanimity. Which brings me back to Baldwin. In the opening quote he spoke of this pain, again and again. Pain. Not to allow pain to beat us down. To use it. To understand that pain is what we all have in common, that we’re not as individualistic as modern society would have us think and that we have to come to “some kind of breakthrough, which is your first articulation of who you are: that is to say, your first articulation of who you suspect we all are.” This is voice. This is vocation.
Society says we’re all apart, when quite simply we’re not. This is something I’ll explore more in the next episode, that we basically need each other. But we’re taught through junk morals, junk ethics, blue screens and social media that we are the exact opposite, divided, alone. We’re not. It’s a lie. And the lies lead to disconnection from each other so that the ego is no longer balanced, so that we lose touch with our voices and vocations amidst all the noise.
So, how do you figure out the difference between that loud voice creating all the noise and the quiet little inspirational one? Mostly, the loud one will be telling you how sh*t you are at creating. The quiet one, it’ll be saying to drill a hole here, take out that chapter, put the color blue in there. Yes, I know. This is an oversimplification. But, simple things can be very complex, and very helpful.
So, is the voice telling you to stop creating what you’re doing because you’re useless? Okay, by now you know from listening to earlier episodes that that’s natural. It’s simply a wall your mind/ego creates to stop you doing the work. When you listen to that voice you block out the other quieter voice, the unconscious, the Mind with a capital M, the heart.
What’s inside you has to come out. If it doesn’t then it’s being suppressed, and suppression is unhealthy. But, it’s difficult to listen to the quiet voice inside you when all around you the louder ones outside of you, are constantly vying for your attention. So that idea again of “finding your voice”: it takes practice, work, and hardship to find your voice, the quiet one, the little powerful one. That’s your real voice, your inner creator speaking to you. Emotional scars can be healed, by listening to that quiet voice. If we create from there with the emotional memory I talked about in episode 27, with time and repetition, we will create something beautiful.
The great documentaries of Adam Curtis show this contemporary malaise I mentioned, this strangeness and rigidity of individualism, which has failed us, in that the very compassion Baldwin referred to disappears for conspiracy facts and conspiracy theories as alternative realities to the pain. This pain Baldwin talks of can also be found in many other creators. For example, Beethoven. In a letter known as the Heiligenstadt Testament – Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations – Beethoven wrote about this difficulty of vocation and voice, in October of 1802. The letter was supposed to be read after his death. He was 32 years old at the time and had just finished his 2nd symphony:
Born with a passionate and excitable temperament, keenly susceptible to the pleasures of society, I was yet obliged early in life to isolate myself, and to pass my existence in solitude. If I at any time resolved to surmount all this, oh! how cruelly was I again repelled by the experience, sadder than ever, of my defective hearing! — and yet I found it impossible to say to others: Speak louder; shout! for I am deaf! Alas! how could I proclaim the deficiency of a sense which ought to have been more perfect with me than with other men,–a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, to an extent, indeed, that few of my profession ever enjoyed! Alas, I cannot do this! Forgive me therefore when you see me withdraw from you with whom I would so gladly mingle. My misfortune is doubly severe from causing me to be misunderstood. No longer can I enjoy recreation in social intercourse, refined conversation, or mutual outpourings of thought. Completely isolated, I only enter society when compelled to do so. I must live like an exile. In company I am assailed by the most painful apprehensions, from the dread of being exposed to the risk of my condition being observed… What humiliation when any one beside me heard a flute in the far distance, while I heard nothing, or when others heard a shepherd singing, and I still heard nothing! Such things brought me to the verge of desperation, and wellnigh caused me to put an end to my life. Art! art alone, deterred me. Ah! how could I possibly quit the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?
So, what I suppose I’ve been trying to say through this whole episode is that it’s hard. We suffer. It’s painful to find our voice. And equally painful to find a vocation. And we all suffer when we try to create something, no matter how amazing the creation or creator is or was. Beethoven did. Baldwin did. Van Gogh did – simply read his wonderful letters. And it’s suffering that they transformed into art. By showing up to create every day they learned to listen more and more to that little voice inside them and like a muscle, the more they used it, the stronger it got, using the pain, the hardships to create something beautiful for themselves and ultimately for all the rest of us.
So thanks for listening. I started with what I think is a quote from an Irish writer, but as always I’m going to end the episode with an Irish proverb. This one means:
What pains the heart must be washed away with tears.
An rud a ghoilleas ar an gcroí caithfidh an t-súil é a shilleas.
I love that one because it shows the Irish working at a deeper level than English. What touches the heart has to drain the eye, which is even more literal. What pain we put into our hearts has to be drained out of it. In its constructions Irish is not as detached as English when it comes to emotions, the classic I’m sorry in English becomes “Sorrow is on me”, in Irish. Tá brón orm.
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Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.