There was an inexplicable pipe sticking out of the ground in my best friend Elizabeth Stein’s backyard. We decided there were little people living underground just below. We proclaimed ourselves their rulers, and as their rulers, it was our job to inform them about the state of the world above ground. We would dress up for our co-queenly duties and then spend endless afternoons yelling down into the pipe, mostly about the weather, as if it were make-or-break for tiny people living underground to know whether the sun was shining.
Thus began my lifelong effort to develop my voice. I’m still working on it. I’m not quite as cute as I was then, and wear significantly fewer sequins, but I still often manufacture imaginary people in my head to talk to about the state of things in my world. I find it helps me make sense of myself.
Writers, whether they write fiction or non-fiction, are always in the process of developing their voice, or they should be. When I read, even if it’s a type of story I’ve read a thousand times, I am hooked knowing I’ve never, ever heard the story told quite the way that author tells it. Sure, there’s something to be said for being well-read, having an expansive vocabulary, and a talent for turning a phrase, but all of the word acrobatics that anyone has been trained to perform are nothing without that ring of authentic voice, the embrace of perspective and particularity layered on top of a meaty core of emotional presence and honesty.
Even if you’re not a writer, developing your voice is a necessary part of your integrity practice. By your voice, I mean your own particular, authentic perspective. Have you ever encountered someone who only seems to be capable of parroting the perspectives of others? It might be political, or social, or even emotional, but you can feel when someone is simply marching in step to someone else’s drum. There’s no self-reflection. There’s no complexity. There’s no there there.
Some might argue that integrity is simply the willingness to act in accordance with your beliefs, and whether or not you’ve ever reflected deeply on those beliefs is beside the point. I disagree. Integrity demands not just discernment about what is right based on your beliefs, but also deep reflection on who you are. Integrity is the integration of self, beliefs, and behavior. It involves an ongoing assessment regarding how your life speaks to who you are and the values you hold dear.
There are plenty of ways to engage in this sort of reflection. Journaling is a reliable one. Talk therapy has been my primary go-to since my early twenties. Long conversations with good friends can often do the trick. I also often interview myself. Let me explain…
I am a fan of long-form, audio interviews. Before the explosion of podcasts, I was a huge fan of Fresh Air, the classic radio interview show with Teri Gross. How many hours did I spend in my car listening to that one over the years? Now, I listen to OnBeing, Armchair Expert, Unlocking Us, and any number of other interview podcasts. Basically, if there are two people sitting in a studio somewhere recording a conversation in which they dive into the complications of being a human trying to make sense of the world, I am rapt with attention.
Increasingly, however, what I find I’m also doing is inserting myself into the conversation. As they discuss, I discuss with them. When the host asks the guest a question, I find myself answering it. Often the questions are ones I’ve never had anyone ask me before, and formulating an answer to them forces me to reflect on my life in unexpected and thought-provoking ways.
Technically, the host and guest aren’t imaginary people, but they might as well be. I’m never likely to meet them. Inserting myself into the conversation in my mind is not unlike yelling down into the pipe when I was a kid. I imagine there are people that need me to tell them what’s going on in my world, what the emotional, or psychological, or political weather is like. In my mind, they wait with rapt attention to hear my thoughts and feelings on it all.
The whole exercise, albeit imaginary, is more conversational than therapy, but still largely about someone giving me their undivided attention. How often do you actually get someone’s undivided attention for longer than a few moments?
Since no one is actually listening in on these imaginary interviews I can be honest and vulnerable. I can say all the things I’ve always wanted to say and admit all the things I’m not sure about or don’t know. I also can be, since it’s my imagination, consistently funny and charming, never awkward or prone to tripping over my words. Let me tell you, in my mind, I’m a great interview.
In reality, I’m less charming, though reliably thoughtful. I’ve only been interviewed once, for a local public radio show called Made of Clay. Maybe I’ll get to do something similar again someday.
I’d encourage you to give this exercise a try. Imagine your favorite interviewer. What would they ask you that you’ve always wanted to be asked? What might they ask you that scares you just a bit to answer? Now, answer. This is all inside your head. You don’t have to tell your answers to anyone. You can be honest and thoughtful, vulnerable and brave. And if you’re like me, feel free to pretend that you are delightful, inspiring, and funny as well. No one will tell.