When I was younger, I said everything at least twice. It's possible that I mumbled as well. It was necessary to repeat myself a lot because no one listened to me. If they listened, their attention was elsewhere. My words fell on barren ground—they seemed never to have any consequence. But I continued to blather on, long after the persons in question were gone from my presence, or from my life, grasping after the precise words that might have an impact.
This situation persisted well into adulthood. It led to my becoming an actor. People now were compelled to listen to me, and they had to pay for it. I learned to enunciate, to project my words, to Speak Out Loud. I explored the meaning of the words and sought the most effective emphases. I learned the power of focused stillness, a shift of gaze, a small sudden gesture. Acting was an outlet for oceans of long-checked feelings. I could command attention. And I was never at a loss for words.
But all too often, they were dumb words. Words that did not delight, or surprise, or challenge, or take me anywhere. Words I'd heard a thousand times, that didn't add up to anything of value, and belonged far back in a bottom drawer. Dumb! The roles available to an Asian actress in the '70s and '80s were both few and bad. Much as I wanted to get those jobs, and suffered when I did not, they were rarely satisfying in any sense. In real life, I think I still said everything at least twice, and the frustration grew.
It did occur to me that maybe I shouldn't speak so much. Or I shouldn't speak at all if there was nothing in particular I wanted to say. (I learned the blessed relief of silence at a weekend silent retreat.) I thought of all the people I knew who always said the most ridiculous, inconsequential things—and had no problems with it. How could they live with themselves?
Why was it so difficult to speak my mind when there was clearly so much on it? Where was my voice? What was my voice? What did I want to say? What did I have in me to say?
Rage, for one thing. Lots of rage. The frustration of not being heard, became over time, rage and outrage. The rage in search of a resolution and outlet gave birth to a writer. All that internal blather had been the germ, a form of "practice" perhaps. Rage and pain came pouring out. Also pouring out were playfulness and mischief and irony. Fascinating and useful for me but not necessarily something I would ask others to sit through. The work, the crafting, making it ready for the outside world—that was another five or 10 years. But that's another subject.
I would guess that the effects of not being heard lie at the root of many writers' chosen paths. We want—we have a deep human need—to tell our story and have it heard and understood. We love to receive accolades, praise, sympathy—we sop them up like a sponge in the desert. But often they're given for the wrong reasons. What we really need are recognition, understanding and respect. For the fact that we struggle with life, and make a mess, and survive, or not, just like everyone else. For the fact of our common humanity.
We need to hear stories too. They take us out of our narrow lives and connect us to our fellow creatures. They teach and encourage, they caution and delight and move us. They open us up to other lives and worlds.
In our media-crazy world, everybody and their pets think they have a story worthy of being heard. I think they should go home and think it through for five or 10 years, ask rigorous questions, work and rework and rework. Then maybe we'll be compelled to sit up and listen.
Where am I now? I've written the "things you simply have to write or you'll die." Much of the rage and pain have abated. I have some detachment and some maturity. I've given myself a sabbatical from writing. As of this moment, I haven't written in a while. I worry that I've become too mature and content. Without the fuel of rage and pain, will I be able to write?
I'll have to wait and see. There's still a deep reservoir of outrage. Lots of mischief. I probably still say everything twice. But when I do, I can go back and cut one out.