Peter Sellers, best known for his contribution to Blake Edwards movies like The Pink Panther, appeared as a guest on the Muppet Show one time. He was discovered in the dressing room in the process of trying to disguise as Queen Victoria. The disguise was, quite hilariously, not going well.
“Don’t worry,” said a muppet, “on this show you just be yourself.”
“But I can’t be myself, because I’m not myself, you see” said Sellers cautiously.
“Can’t be yourself?”
Sellers lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper and confided,
“There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.”
In an interview for the TIME magazine shortly later, Sellers was asked what his real voice sounded like.
“Something like what you are hearing now I suppose”
“No, maybe I am trying to sound more posh.”
Then he tried out several voices in search of his true voice before he finally gave up and admitted that he had no idea what his voice really sounded like.
Peter Sellers, true to his comic persona, was both funny and tragic in his real life. It seems so strange that a man cannot find his own voice. He was 53 years old and had just completed Being There, a movie that was to give him his second Oscar nomination, and he could not find his own voice. When I read about it I was seventeen years old and I thought the story was somewhat surreal. I am now 52 years old and I still have no idea what my literary voice sounds like.
I have been writing for forty years. I barely have anything published to speak of. Some professional technical book chapters here, translation work there, a stray magazine article or two. None of them literary. My fictional work spans from Ghibli-esque children’s stories through genre comic adventures to erotic rubber reality novels.
What is my voice? Where is my voice? What does it sound like? I am not even sure a writer really needs a distinct voice. I can paint a pastel picture of prepubescent children coming to terms with their fears or an adult-only spray-paint-and-engine-grease mural of sexual obsession and spiraling drop into the rabbit hole. I am sure my voice differs in each piece. Am I to forfeit my other voices in favor of just one?
A friend suggested that it all boils down to what I want to write. But what I want to write shifts with my mood. We read to experience alternate lives. It is the job of the writer to transport the reader to other worlds. I believe it to be inevitable that the writer himself is taking on an alternate identity when he writes. Writing is a disguise habitual story tellers wear. And if you wear disguises, however superficial, for a large part of your life, you lose sight of your own voice. You lose sight of yourself.
Peter Sellers died of heart failure only a short while after I read that interview. But I feel that it was his spiritual heart as much as his physical heart that failed him. He lost sight of it and it stopped beating. Writers beware.
I am sure finding my voice, finding my heart, is important. The failure to find it could be problematic to some degree or another. But the struggle of a fifty something man to find his own voice seems less than surreal to me now. In fact, it seems rather natural and unavoidable that a man who lives in disguise loses grasp of his voice. This cannot be a good thing.