How Can I Tell The Story Of My Life When I Can’t Find My Voice?


I am enjoying having lunch with Colette who has been my friend for 21 years.  We’re at Spenger’s Seafood Restaurant in Berkeley, California near the office where she works as a city planner.

If I were being tortured and forced to pick just one best friend from my many friends and acquaintances, it would be Colette.  If I wasn’t being tortured, but had to pick just one person to spend my life with on a deserted island, and the choices were limited to Sean Penn and Colette, I would still choose Colette. One big reason is because I’ve heard that Sean Penn does not have a sense of humour; I might be able to forgo sex, but not laughter.

Another reason Colette is my favorite friend is because, at times like this, when I have a problem, she accepts the challenge, rolls up her sleeves, and looks for a solution.  My former husband swears that when  “girls” talk to their “girlfriends” about their problems, they are not really looking for answers, they just want someone to commiserate with.  But, he is wrong. I need help, not someone to feel my pain. And with her, I know I have come to the right place.


“So you say you can’t find your voice?

What about telling your life story through the houses or places you have lived in?”


“Well, I tried that, but discovered I was writing upside down on the page.  My house in Edmonton makes me write upside down.  Clearly, I didn’t want to go there.”


“O.K., then tell your life story through the men in your life. Actually, I only suggested houses because sometimes women don’t have a man in their life, but they always live somewhere.”


“Oh, come on!  You know my life story! I could only live at one place at a time, BUT…. So there are way, way too many characters.  Besides, I fear I may have been more into quantity than quality back then, so I don’t want to go there.”


“So you can’t find your voice because you were such a fast and loose woman? What about telling your life story by describing the cars you’ve owned?”


“Good idea!  And, very age-appropriate in a way.  My first car was a sports car and now I have a Granny SUV.  But, I didn’t buy my first car until I was in my 30s, so that leaves out a lot of years.”


“So you can’t find your voice because you put off car ownership?What about telling your life story by talking about your favorite shoes?”


“Not a bad idea.  I guess I could do it by decade.  The first ten years would be my black patent leather Mary Janes.  Then the next decade could be the high-heeled shoes I wore to the University in the middle of winter. (What was I thinking?)  But that is a story without a happy ending.  Now I just deal with flats and bunions, and more flats and bunions.  And all I have to look forward to are comfy house slippers.  Nope, don’t want to go there.”


“So you can’t find your voice because you have bunions and wear flat-heeled shoes?  What about your teeth?  Now that was a story!”


“Been there, done that!  But it only gets me to 45 and the story was only eight pages, double-spaced.  The only way I can expand on it is to have another dental emergency and find another idiot dentist.  Definitely a real possibility, but I don’t want to go there.  I could talk about calling in sick by saying,  “Can’t come to work because I can’t find my teeth.” Novel approach, and you don’t have to cough or sound like you’re very ill.  But at the most, that would only be an additional paragraph. I’ve been healthy all my life, so can’t do one of those illness stories.  I guess I could do imaginary illness, but that’s more pathetic than having an imaginary friend.”


“So you can’t find your voice because you’re physically healthy?

What about all those years in psychotherapy?  You could write about your therapy.”


“That’s interesting, because we laugh in the class about writing memoir as being therapeutic. Writing instead of therapy.  I think to myself, what is this “instead”?  Thirteen years of therapy is not very funny, though.  If I have any voice at all, it’s sort of a dry wit.  I guess I could take the voice of the couch that I laid on, but that’s sort of a limited perspective.”


“So you can’t find your voice because you’re a couch? I saw Paula Poundstone perform last week.  She wrote a memoir called “There is Nothing in this Book I Meant to Say.”  People asked her how she wrote it, and she said she has OCD.  So she would sit down and start writing about, say, famous historical American figures and then get totally sidetracked and end up writing her own story.”


“Great idea!  But I don’t have OCD, and I think it’s probably hard to fake.  However, I’ll get the book and read it.”


“So, you can’t find your voice because you don’t have OCD?

What about comedy?  Didn’t you recently take a class at Book Passage on comedy writing? Did it help?”


“Yes and no.  I took the course, but it didn’t really help. How can anyone teach a course on comedy writing, anyway?”


“Well, you really can’t.  But this is how it went.  The teacher instructed us to make a list of things we loved and things we hated. Then we had to take the list, go from the general to the specific, and using “ comic logic,” play off the list to come up with something unexpected, and hence, funny.”


“Yeah? Give me an example.”


“I started out with the dumbest list of things I loved.  For example, I said I loved a clean car; I mean, where can you go from there?  But here is the one-liner.  I love a clean car.  By this I mean, I’d like to take off all my clothes, get on a conveyor belt, get sprayed with soap and water and then get rubbed down by a group of young Latino men.”


“Not bad, a little racist, though.”


“Ever been to a car wash? So what else did you learn?”


“The teacher made us write down phrases:  “Driving down a freeway is like…” or “Some aspect of a job is like…” and then she asked us to free-associate a thought to our phrases.  So, for example, I ended up with, “Driving down a freeway is like writing.” And then you had to make a joke out of it.  That was hard, but I was good at it, sort of. The instructor left the room for a few minutes, and people were asking me for help.  I was quick at coming up with examples and laughing at my own jokes so when the instructor left the room for a few minutes’ people were asking me for help. One woman wrote that working as a waitress is like having her ears pierced, but she couldn’t find any connection between the two.  I said they both involved pricks; she took that and made it into a great joke.  So maybe, maybe I learned how to write a one-liner, but the problem is, life isn’t an unlimited supply of one-liners.”


“So you can’t find your voice because humour is too confining?”


“Well, yes.  And humour is not very authentic; it’s too fluffy and trivial.  I want to at least pretend that I live a serious, consequential life.”


“But look at Margaret Atwood.  She writes of serious things, but in a humorous way, and from the perspective the first-person narrative, and you’re good at that.”


Well, there you go!  An arcane Canadian expression.  Colette and I are Canadian.

Well, how about this?

I paid for lunch, went to the bookstore, bought three books and sat down to write about my lunch with Colette. That’s why she’s my best friend!




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