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June 26, 2012

Finding your voice vs. finding what your work is trying to say

by Howard Suber

Some of the responses I’ve received to my piece “Finding Your Authentic Voice” have exhibited a touch of anguish because several people clearly feel they should have a voice but didn’t know what it was or how to find it, or they feel have a voice but no one will listen to it.

As one person pointed out, the word “vocation” comes from the same root as “voice,” and it refers to something that has the status of the sacred – a higher calling. Finding your voice for many people is indeed like finding your vocation, your “calling.”

“What does it mean to find your voice?” The customary answer is that your voice is the “authentic” you. But I’ve now suggested that perhaps your voice is one of many voices you have, that it is akin to the concept of roles, and each of us is capable of having different ones as we go through our lives.

The search for “authenticity” is a major concern in all the arts, both in terms of artists’ lives and in terms of the art they create. There’s a related concept, equally paradoxical, found when artists say they are seeking to find “what the work is trying to say.”

Robert Flaherty, often called “the father of the documentary,” lived among the Inuit, or Eskimos, and made the classic and influential film, Nanook of the North (1922). He developed an approach to filmmaking he called “non-preconception.”

The western approach to art, Flaherty said, is to decide what you want to create and then find a medium that will contain your preconception. So, Michelangelo went to a quarry and found a giant piece of granite from which he could chisel the image he had in his head of a giant-sized King David. Filmmakers and other artists who talk about their “vision” demonstrate this approach, emphasizing what they are trying to say.

The Inuit, Flaherty said, does it differently. They find a rock in nature and try to figure what’s already inside the rock, and they chip away at it until its essence, soul, spirit or whatever-you-call-it is liberated – what the rock is trying to say. Flaherty (and many other documentary filmmakers since) claimed he made his films on this principle – that he allowed the subject to shape itself. (Filmmakers who say they let the film “emerge” demonstrate this approach.)

But if you look at Inuit art, it’s full of seals and walruses, without a single lion or giraffe to be found. Evidently, the rocks in the Arctic all contain the souls of amphibious animals.

Many filmmakers speak as though the medium they work in has a spirit and will of its own. “The film wanted….” is a phrase you sometimes hear from filmmakers. But a film doesn’t want anything. It possesses elements from many different arts, media, and technologies, but one thing it doesn’t possess is a will or consciousness. It’s the filmmaker who wants.

You can approach finding your “authentic voice” the way Inuits in Flaherty’s romanticized view were said to discover the essential form that wanted to liberate from the rock. That is, you can chip away until suddenly your “voice” emerges.

Or you can look at the idea of your “voice” as something you create. Whether it emerges on its own or is consciously fabricated, it is just one of many creations you are capable of producing in your life.


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