When I was in high school I tried out for a play. Looking back, I've got no clue why I would do such a thing. I loathed the spotlight back then (still do, mostly). Anytime somebody started looking at me I would feel clownish and not know what to do with my hands. But I had been a band geek since 6th grade, and in my junior year I decided it was time for something different and daring. I guess I thought stage drama was the thing.
It was The Crucible--you know, light, whimsical stuff about the horrors of religious paranoia and the crimes against humanity that frequently result from it. To my extreme shock, I landed the part of Reverend Hale--the minister from a district near Salem who comes to fix everything, gets caught up in the frenzy, but then comes to his senses before the end and tries to stop the madness (without success). Truth is, it was a good part for who I was at the time. I was deep into the religious spirit then--the line between light and dark, good and evil, was stark and clear, and those who knew the rules and kept them were the Chosen People. So playing a preacher who knew what was right and knew it better than everyone else wasn't too much of a stretch for me. Now that I think about it, maybe that's why Mr. Sharp (my high school drama teacher and director of said play) gave me that part in particular. Maybe he was trying to tell me something, teach me something, about my propensity for religious arrogance. Well, thanks, Mr. Sharp...I get it. Took 20 years, but I finally get it. Good Lord.
It took a few weeks for the shock to wear off, but soon enough the rehearsals began. And right away, I came up against this problem.
"You're speaking with an affectation," said Mr. Sharp.
"When you say your lines, you're not saying them naturally. You're trying to make it sound important." He spoke the last part like a radio announcer to show me what he meant.
"I am?" I really didn't see it.
"You are," he said.
"I don't hear myself doing that," I confessed, suddenly quite worried over it all. "How am I doing that?"
"You're not speaking with your own voice. You're trying too hard. You've got to relax and just say the lines."
We tried a few passages from the play, but though I really tried, I never could hear the "affectation" in my voice. To me, I was just speaking louder than normal, which was something Mr. Sharp did want us to do. He kept working with me on it for a while, but eventually he got exasperated and I think he just kind of gave up on the whole thing. So what if I made Rev. Hale sound like a game show announcer? -- "Pray you, someone take these!...Great. And now Johnny, tell 'em what they've won..." -- Big deal. It's just a high school play.
Isn't it amazing how, after all these years go by, we still remember subtle moments like that--times when someone's attitude toward you shifted just a little, just enough for you to know they've grown tired of trying to help? I never went to Mr. Sharp for advice of any kind after that.
I remembered that story this morning because, in some ways, I think I'm still wrestling with the same issue Mr. Sharp tried to tackle in me all those years ago. Very often, when I write, I struggle to speak with my own voice. I get sucked into an affectation, but I don't quite see it. Not in the moment, anyway. (I usually do later, though, when I read back through.) It's like somehow, some way, I'm still trying to make myself sound important. And that's mucking the whole thing up.
That's it, isn't it. I'm trying to make myself sound important.
I wonder what would happen if I just...let...that...go.