The Right to Try on Voices
I have a confession to make. Twenty five years ago I was a woman. No, I didn’t dress like a woman and I didn’t talk like a woman. I wrote like a woman. A local woman’s newspaper had a weekly of column called First Person that encouraged readers to write in and tell of their story. Just as a joke I submitted a piece called the Orgasm Index under the name of Renee Newmarch. In the piece I discussed a recent news report that quoted a study saying married women had more orgasms than single women. In the piece I discussed this report with my husband and we had a silly tiff about it and then my Renee imagined the Orgasm index. where news commentator Peter Jennings says” the Orgasm index is down 5 points today down today, due to moderate to heavy husband swapping.” I didn’t think it was a very good piece of writing. It certainly didn’t have much of a point, but it did have that elusive quality that makes a piece of writing want to be read, It had a voice. A week later there was a gift certificate in the mail and a letter of congratulations. My career as a woman writer had begun.
In the weeks that followed I published at least a dozen articles under the name Renee Newarch. I explored my first attempts at mother hood, a painful abortion in my past, a mice problem, my harrowing experiences hitchhiking, and even my startling discovery that my great grandmother was a prostitute in Victorian England. No subject was too monumental or too trivial for Renee’s pen. She spun philosophical discussions from doing laundry, and wove global issues into a daily trip to the supermarket. and no matter how confusing or mean or crazy life got, she found time to tell the world about it . I loved writing in her voice. It awoke a passion in me for the life I wanted to be living. I was a 27 year old single, lonely man living in a 7x42 foot trailer and Renee was this daredevil young mother in her early 30s. who had just bought her first house and had her first child. I hid from life; Renee embraced it.
The masquerade ended one day with a letter from the editor-in-chief of the magazine. She loved my writing and wanted me to meet with her to discuss writing larger pieces. I toyed with the idea of dressing as a woman or sending a woman friend as a stand in but both ideas seemed equally immoral and ludicrous and I quickly abandoned them. I decided to try a radical new approach I stopped writing in Renee’s voice and wrote three pieces in my own voice. After all, the paper published many columns by men. I had a lot to say about the world and I had “real” experiences to write about, unlike certain other columnists I knew. All three pieces were rejected. I looked at the growing pile of polite rejection letters and decided I needed the truth so I called the newspaper and asked for the editor,
“You’re a good writer,” she said. ”Your clever, but the pieces aren’t quite right in tone for the paper.”
“What tone are you looking for” I asked.
“Funny,” she replied
“Ok,”I said. “I can try funny,” I didn’t let on that I had tried funny in the last 3 pieces.
“By the way,” I said casually, trying to save face, “I’m friends with Renee Newmarch.”
“YOU KNOW RENEE NEWMARCH! WHERE IS SHE! “ The woman could barely contain her enthusiam.
“ I don’t quite know. Last I heard she went to Egypt. I’ll let her know you asked about her when she gets back.”
“Please, please do. We love her writing. Tell her to call me anytime.”
As I hung up the phone I felt a pang of jealously for, Renee Newmarch, the woman I had created. I also came to the sad realization that I could write with more honesty, more humor and more sense of reality in the voice of a fictitious woman than my own man’s voice. What did this say about my sad pathetic lonely existence?
A year later I was married. A month after that I left my trailer. moved to Vermont , bought a house, and started raising my own family. In short, I started living the life of Renee Newmarch had written about. Looking back, I realize that my playful columns were a type of rehearsal for this richer life I had finally begun living.
Putting on masks frees a writer from the fetters of his own existence and can lead to deeper understandings and self realization. Though I wouldn’t encourage my students to deceive editors or readers , I would coax them to explore voices beyond their own. This playful practice can help them to hear the one true voice that lies waiting to be discovered inside them.
( This piece originally appeared in the 9 Rights of Every Writer by Vicki Spandel, Heinemann 2005)