The more faithfully you listen to the voices within you,
the better you will hear what is sounding outside.—Dag Hammerskjöld
As a writer and teacher and singer and human being, much of my life depends on manipulating my voice—of blowing air, both real and imaginary, through my own passageways, some hot, some cold—and in the classroom, hopefully directing my words into students’ brain receptors, telling them stuff to improve their own voices through their written words: voice on the page: voice as ink and text.
Some voices are comfort, some pain. Old friends and enemies, lovers and freckle-faced strangers: I can hear them vibrating inside my head. We orient to one another through our voices, gauging rhythms, gaining bearings. It takes a while to learn when someone is likely to speak—at what volume!—and in the pauses between the interlocutors turns...if there are pauses...something weird is going on. Let’s consider these pictures for a moment:
Fancy Diagram 1b
Fancy Diagram 2a
Fancy Diagram 3d
What’s Thought:What’s Said
We’ll come back to this. Maybe. What is the gap between thought and language, between language and thought, and between thinking something but not saying it? Where does a voice reside within a steamy chamber of bones and blood? What happens to voices that aren’t used? How fleeting are they? What is a voice? Where is it born?
I’m blessed with a thick southern accent—and somewhat cursed, because I can be weird about it. The dialect that I speak is found mainly in north Alabama and has a sandy mix of Floridian; every once in a while, someone thinks I’m British. I haven’t come close to figuring this one out, although I did have a decent Liverpool accent in my middle school days of Beatles obsession in Florida, and used it often, sometimes reading Charles Dickens aloud in class this way. (Once, while reading from Oliver Twist, I came upon a passage involving one Master Bates). Sometimes, I’d slip and pronounce a word with the Liddypool inflection, not meaning to, when a buddy asked me what variety of warmed-over, cardboard-flavored pizza I was going to wash down with Hawaiian Punch, let’s say. In those days, I was known as Big Country, or just Country, a name I acquired on the basketball court. I was tall, skinny—and country.
Going back to my earliest days, I can remember my fellow Alabamians saying, man, that Brooks, his accent’s thick, in their own ways, with little childhood and early-pubescent voices. And so it was. I recognized this from these encounters, but had no sense of my own voice, unless I happened to hear it on an answering machine, or a tape recorder, which I tended to carry around, sometimes making mock interviews as both interviewer and interviewee, sometimes just creating a record of my existence, of what I was doing or thinking, or how the wind felt on my skin, of swallowing sunlight and soaking up what I could through the tops of the trees with the water gurgling and the flowers blooming and the pollen floating.
Accent’s thick, but what of it? This is a question I’ve wondered about all my life. Does it mean anything? People can take it to mean all sorts of things before they get to know me, and probably after, on the purely superficial level. And we all play something of this game with voices, it seems; they’re our first chance at getting to know each other and figuring out Where the hell are you from?, which we’re all strangely curious about. Some of the first questions that are inevitably asked upon meeting someone for the first time are geographical (even where you work). Perhaps it’s our hope that we might find a least common denominator to share in. Maybe we’ve gone to the same burger joint, or heard about it, or seen the same rocky coast. Maybe this suggests something about our humanity. We are creatures of place: of mountains, streams, and desert, of voices and brooks.
When I was very young, just before leaving my hilltop of rambling childhood, where I had twenty-three acres to roam in the north Alabama wilderness and spent my earliest years as an only child, I had a voice in my head, which later developed into full-blown obsessive compulsion after moving to Phenix City, Alabama, and Marianna, Florida, during my exodus, my father’s exodus, of which you will hear more about as my life burns and flickers.
I could hear the voice in my head in these early years, at least I thought so, though I can’t describe what that sounded like, now. It was like a powerful thought, telling me highly- paranoiac warnings and of tortures that were in store for me if I refused to heed its suggestions, which were the only escapes. I called it “the saying,” barely aware of its abnormality because it was so full-blown in my consciousness, so pronounced...it was a whispery enemy, one that always haunted me. Saying says [something bad will happen] if I don’t [perform a routine task like holding my fingers on the lightswitch for a certain number of seconds]. I’d tell my folks about this. Something bad will happen to your father if you don’t wait a few seconds before leaving the room. Your mother will die and you’ll be left all alone in a pit of smashed glass. To this day, I don’t know what my progenitors thought was going on with me—their way of dealing with the saying was of not dealing, of denial, and laughing it off. But the saying said it was coming—some miniature apocalypse—always.
Looking back, I think this lousy creation, or condition, this voice, was my way of dealing and not dealing with leaving my home and all I’d ever known. And in some way, I could sense a change in my father—he wasn’t happy anymore. He lost a job he’d held for sixteen years at a tire manufacturing plant in that economic depression of the early 90s, in the echoes of bomb shells bursting in the Gulf War and the laughter on Saturday Nite Live; the homestead he’d secured for us, right down the road from Granddaddy Bill’s and the eighty-six acres my father had grown up on, was lost as well. Maybe this was enough to tickle the saying up in my consciousness to become my dark puppeteer.
I got rid of it, along with the OCD, for the most part, halfway through high school. Logical reasoning did the trick—my self-diagnosis, treatment, and prescription for a less murderous black cat of my own.
I fought against this voice for years.
Today, there are different voices inside of me that speak through characters’ voices in creative writing. In my years of academic writing, a different voice rang, one that I wanted to make genuine. I carry all these voices around inside as I carry the voices of those who I’ve known well. Voices are born and some voices die, down in my depository, a windy, abandoned warehouse with cracked windows that clack and echo.
Sometimes my speaking voice is deep, sometimes almost squeaky. In the classroom, I generally talk deeper and louder than I do in the sunshine. I’m more aware of the sound and volume of my voice than ever before, which isn’t saying much, with my skull always twisting and distorting myself to me. Skulls have a way of doing this.
My students sound Southern to me now, and I probably sound muddledly Southern compared to how I once spoke, having spent the last two years in Tucson, Arizona, where my voice has changed significantly, though slightly, it feels. Before long, now that I’m teaching at the University of Georgia, my accent will thicken. I’m sure it already has. Is. Right now, it’s developing a new tendril as I sit here in my office, typing, hearing a fellow teacher’s loud voice through the door, and now, while I put in my earplugs, that tendril is growing tiny tendrils of its own. Soon, I’ll say “fer” instead of “for,” “yer” instead of “your;” “dudn’t” for “didn’t,” “idn’t” for “isn’t.” Perhaps our accents are nothing more than products of taking in a note from everyone else’s voice that we hear, striving for some far-gone, least common denominator of sound. Somehow, it seems, our voices, like us, are always thirsty for change.
As a teacher, I encourage the best students to start experimenting with voice. This is my way of saying: find a way to break the gelatinous mold of standard written English and whatever preconceptions you have about it. Find a way to get your voice in there and filter your subject matter through it. Find a way to harness your creativity, because I know you have it in you. I can see your voice in glimpses on the page. I see it, read it, hear it. I’ve found students to be very sensitive to criticism at times, and this puzzled me for a while, until I realized that, in a way, I am paid, in part, to critique their abilities to use a fundamental part of their consciousnesses: language itself.
Within the walls of the hardwood classrooms, the voices of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, Raymond Carver, and Bob Dylan often sound. What does it take for a voice to become immortal?
I talk to people in different voices. My wife has noticed an extreme shift when I speak to Cousin Jeff, a north Alabama native and permanent resident. And I’ve noticed it, too. In the end, and maybe I’m stretching, but I figure I talk to most everyone I know well with a slightly different tenor and intonation. And even with them, sometimes I’ll shift into one voice, then another. A voice is anything but constant. Sometimes it builds, sometimes falls apart, takes on new framework, loses old frills and columns.
Before I moved to Arizona to finish school and begin my teaching career, an extended family member in Dallas introduced me to someone like this: “He doesn’t sound smart, but he is, I promise.” I can hear her giggle now, almost. This is a woman who lives in an “elite” Dallas neighborhood that’s starting to turn “less elite,” which worries her. She said this after I’d just graduated from Auburn University as an undergrad, as we stood awkwardly in a foyer. Basically, all she knew about me was this: I’d graduated summa cum laude. She was trying to brag on me to somebody, some Upper Class Frontrunner, perhaps, but couldn’t help taking a jab, making her comment more of a jab than anything else. I have to wonder how many people think the Southern accent sounds stupid or uneducated. Oh the South, and the things I’ve heard: but that’s another essay. (But I’m an easy target—I’m Country.).
After I lived in Tucson for a year and re-visited Dallas, this woman sounded more Southern to me than most anybody back home in Alabama. And she’d sounded citified, the opposite of countrifried, to my Alabama ears, originally. The irony and relativity: stupefying.
Another one of these people, an anthropologist and artist, temporarily stationed in Sun City, Arizona, questioned me at the dinner table over wine and cheese last Thanksgiving, intrigued by my origins: “So, what did your family do when you were a child?”
Later, she hopped on an accents database via the internet, trying to pinpoint exactly where my voice had originated, somewhere over in Europe. Luckily, the Alabama vs. Auburn football game was on.
Californians have told me this after talking to me for a bit: “It sounds so casual, real casual...” Westerners, in my own narrow experience, are more fascinated and appreciative of my voice than anyone. New Yorkers have the most difficulty understanding me. Some southerners wish they had more of whatever it is that I have. But it was in Tucson, where most people are from somewhere else, that transient jewel of the Sonoran desert, that people seemed to enjoy my voice. A recording engineer at Wavelab once told me, “Every sentence is like one big word.”
I remember a conversation that I had with a New Yorker after he’d just moved to Tucson, same time as me. The wide-open spaces of the desert frightened him, but put me at peace. And there was something important in that difference, back to the oldest distinction of country and town. You could hear this difference in our voices as we spoke, finding common ground in shared polarity.
Some people don’t think they have an accent. But they’re wrong, linguistically-speaking. While in college, I knew this linguist. She wanted me to talk in class and read aloud so she could listen to my accent with her well-trained ears. It thrilled her. I made an A.
Sometimes the inner voice of thought terrorizes me, sometimes champions me, sometimes bores me until I want to spit it out. And I think it goes back to that old demon, the saying, from my haunted beginnings. Fear has something to do with using my voice. Fear, and conquering it.
After leaving the Hilltop, my father’s spoken voice began crackling and sputtering, saying less, as my inner voice began saying more—some sixteen years ago. He has a condition called spasmodic dysphonia. When he speaks, his vocal chords spasm uncontrollably, and this results in his voice coming out as a weak “croak,” as he calls it, scratchy and sharp. Often times, people can’t understand him. He’s incredibly insecure about it to this day and can’t stand it when people, upon meeting him, ask, “Something wrong with your voice?” or “Ya sick?” No shit, he thinks, isn’t it obvious? But it’s just too easy to ask. Observing his vocal insecurity over most of my life has almost certainly influenced my own vocal insecurity, which is infrequent but recurrent. Voices are giveaways and not giveaways, scars, band-aids, instruments, and cures.
There is nothing built into any sound, in itself, that has meaning, supposedly. So what do regional accents and voices mean? They are, in essence, meaningless, as are all sounds, but they can mean just as much as the finest music, the most seamless shift from minor to major chord, with the vocal folds vibrating at so many different frequencies, the air passing through cool crystal caverns carved through skull.
My singing voice is always changing, sometimes for good, sometimes not—but always toward new land, feeling, and rhythm. And when I play guitar, it’s an extension of my voice— my voice with mathematical notes that can bend and become not so mathematical, space effects and reverb swirling up in orchestras of pitch and notes. Music is a savior, freedom, my greatest chance at redemption and destruction.