I think I have a pretty good idea of my “voice”. This is not me being introspective (in violation of Rule #2), but I’d like to think that I at least have a firm enough grasp of who I am as a person to not try on different writing hats with regards to persona. Not to say I don’t write a bunch of awful crap; but at least when there is a bunch of awful crap I can sniff it and know it’s mine.
I think there is a point, usually around college, wherein writers tend to stumble through various identities brought on by motives both personal and social. These are usually reflections of that one first big writing crush, whether in film, literature, poetry, or music where we wanted so badly to be that person. And in between those broken moments of imitation we floated our alter-egos to see what could sink or swim.
Keep in mind I never really went to college. I attended some community college courses, fell into deep shit in my personal life and dropped out. But I frequented as many workshops, seminars, and speaking engagements as I could absorb. The work passed around in these settings was such a reflection of shrapnel from popular culture you had to keep yourself from blurting out what it was the person next to you was copying. And most of the time you were copying it too. Whether it was that first read of something by Kerouac, a spell of Tarantino, or that tough “out to fight the world” venom you picked up from 8 Mile, your work was usually some kind of sloppy adhesive putty yet to take any coherent form.
And this, for me, was when I had my most embarrassingly awful ideas. Not just awful, but heartfelt, clueless, meandering wastes of time inspired by some ‘crazy’ dream I had or a whim I never actually thought out before deciding to act. My worst run came as as a result of my three-month brush with poetry. “Fuck convention, it’s about what’s in here” I would tell myself, pointing to my chest to indicate having heart. Half an attempt at being an “artist”, half horribly failed scheme to get laid for being an “artist”, it was more like a pathetic cry for help than anything of substance. I was one of those “street” poets, the kind who “tell it like it is” and fist-bump other jackasses to show mutual respect (which never existed, btw)
There probably isn’t ever a good time to do your first open mic night at a poetry slam, but I would caution that you at least practice what you’re going to babble before standing in front of a crowd. Especially if you dress to look tough and plan to read a piece about not caring about what people think. Because when a husky gentleman stands on a stage sweating buckets and stuttering “this wu-wu-wu-world can burn” before choking on his own dry mouth, the black hoodie and sideways cap he chose to wear only add to comically pathetic he looks to other people. It just doesn’t work out in life the way it did in your head.
People often talk about silence following performance as being the worst; this is false. I’ve played music gigs before where people were didn’t clap. If you’re confident this only makes you angrier and more determined to either piss them off or turn them on your side. The worst is meeting a person’s eyes in the front row. That is the absolute nadir of a terrible performance. A confident performer, one who knows what he’s doing, won’t look into the crowd. But a glob of desperate paste will look into the crowd and see awkward feelings of resentment. I locked eyes with a poor woman and saw horror. It was like she was angry that I chose her as my go-to face. She fidgeted and looked away before the host came onstage, asked for a round of applause, and let me go.
I should have quit there. Instead, I decided that the best outlet for all my creative street knowledge was to shoot a video. Not just any video, mind you! This would define the Walnut, California poetry slam culture in all its richness. I found other like-minded nitwits who were down, and set about to videotaping us in various locales throwing down the slam gauntlet. Spliced in would be segments showing just how crazy and complicated our personal lives were. Such activities included driving places. Being in a parking lot at night. And me pointing the camera through a window during rain while adding various bad camera effects to get just the right amount of meaningless wretch. Luckily the tapes were stolen along with the recording equipment when I was car-jacked a short time later. I like to think that somewhere a group of young gang-bangers laughed themselves into a stupor watching it.
After humiliating yourself enough times, you start to realize your capabilities. Not just as far as skill with the craft, but who you can project yourself as to the reader. Are you an artist? A pragmatist? A cynic? Are you bitter? Confident? An asshole like me?
So I ask you, the reader: What was your worst voice? What endeavors taught you what not to do and how did they change you? Be honest. If you make me laugh I just might dig out some truly terrible poetry and post it.