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bear by san

March 2017



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you kind of evolve into your voice. or maybe your voice is out there, waiting for you to grow up.

This quote, and the news that Jane Russell has passed at the age of 89, got me nattering on twitter about voice and authenticity. I went to look up her famous duet with Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Here, watch this:

And here's bonus! "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend."

And the thing that struck me as I was watching them is how we forget famous artists' very real talents, presence, skill--their art--and collapse them into a simplified version of what they are. I grew up on pop culture, and the Monroe and Russell in my head aren't, you know, the Monroe and Russell who graced the screen. They're Jessica-Rabbit-like pastiches, parodies of themselves.

The version of "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" in my head isn't Monroe at all, but a thousand second-generation copies.

But look at that: these women were funny, sarcastic. They had great chemistry on screen together. Russell had fabulous comic timing. She was a person, and an actor, and (yes) a great beauty.

I was privileged last weekend to stand in the presence of a Van Gogh self-portrait (this one: it lives in Hartford) when we went to see Monet's water lilies and I had the experience I always have with Van Gogh: I don't actually realize how good he was until I'm standing there fixated and my heart rate is accelerating. Because I have an image of Van Gogh and his work, and it's not the real thing. It's not a candle to the moon of the real thing.

I had this experience over and over again writing The Stratford Man: I had to get through the media images of Will and Kit to their real work. What they said themselves, rather than what people said about them.

I suspect all of art is like this. Seeing what's really there, rather than what we expect to be there. Seeing Monroe's awkward, charming, vulnerable self-consciousness rather than a Jessica Rabbit slink; Russell's verve, sly wit, and energy rather than a pinup silhouette.

Some artists eventually become their own parody. (Elvis Presley, I'm looking at you.)

Your voice is out there. Finding it is finding your authenticity, the thing that makes you unique. And it's too easy to turn into a caricature of somebody else in the process--in fact, I suspect, we all have to go through that phase where we're copying to learn to be unique (there's some great early Bowie videos where he's trying so very hard to be Mick Jagger, it's adorable)--but if we keep pressing on past that, we emerge as ourselves again.


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Christian Slater's attempts early in his career to "be Jack Nicholson" also comes to mind.
Yeah, but he was brilliant in Pump Up The Volume (YMMV).
That Tom Waits quote was a part of a longer entry in the story about his induction in to the Rock Hall played on NPR. They were discussing his early career, and how most singers start by being a bad imitation of someone else and then only eventually find their voice and become authentic.

Sort of how some writers do it as well. Personally, I wouldn't mind being a bad imitation of Steven Brust or Douglas Adams, but I'm not very good at it. So I had to find my own thing. While the next project will be an homage to them, I hope it'll be my own voice that sings out their words.

And just in general, until my wife made me watch old Monroe movies, I also had that parody of her in my head. In real life she had infinitely more depth. Same for Jane Russell. Sometimes I think the culture had to make their parodies the way they did so we wouldn't be as challenged by them, which is our loss.
There's a link to the NPR piece in my previous entry.

I think you're probably right about the way the parody works--if you turn something into a cartoon of itself, it's easier to ignore.
I know that, when I started writing my first few (abortive) novels, I was definitely leaning heavily on Douglas Adams, RAW, Dennis Miller and Richard Bach for what could amusingly be referred to as my voice.

These days, there seems to be a much more jumbled collection of influences, including Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Heinlein, PKD, Richard Curtis, Steven Moffat, Ian Fleming (yeah, I know), Dashiell Hammett, Tad Williams, Jack Whyte and Guy Gavriel Kay (hmmn... too many white men... might explain why I've been reading so many woman writers of late).

I don't know if I've actually truly achieved a 'unique' voice, but I find that, very often, even when I don't know precisely how I'm going to write a thing, if I just shut up and start typing, something starts coming out that doesn't immediately inspire me to hit the backspace key repeatedly.

All of this goes to say that, yeah, finding your voice is absolutely the key to holding an audience, no matter what your medium. It's amazing how many people I meet who don't seem to grasp that.
This is really, really important. Everyone should read this.
You probably read Scalzi's meta-conversation about this a couple weeks back, where he expressed curiosity at the notion of meeting the "him" we keep in our heads, because it's not necessarily even close to a 1:1 map to the real pile of meat.

celebrities get this applied to them even more than regular people, because not only is the audience bigger, leading to a greater array of misconceptions and misperceptions, but also because there is media to focus and, intentionally or not, distort that image, even without the interstitial layer that catvalente lit up yesterday, comprised of publicists and handlers and self-aware bullshit.

(unrelatedly, you received high praise from a non-LJ friend of mine last night; her comment was spurred by the OMG I JUST BOUGHT THAT SAME SQUID TEACUP THAT BEAR POSTED recognition and the notion that "she writes the stuff in her blog that I think if I had words for it.")
I think Scalzi's post was in response to mine on the same topic, actually....

(Aw, that is high praise indeed.)
Van Gogh: I don't actually realize how good he was until I'm standing there fixated and my heart rate is accelerating

I had this experience with Klimt's Kiss and then again last year, when I went to see Monet's Water Lilies in their elliptical rooms in Paris. You get so used to seeing the images splashed onto calendars and cocktails napkins and mouse mats that it is quite literally breathtaking to stand there and turn slowly around, following the light from dawn to dusk and watching the trees brush the water in those amazing paintings. I could have stood there for hours...

Monroe does this, yes, but get your hands on a couple of Joan Crawford's early pictures - Mommie Dearest really gets in the way of appreciating what a talented (and gorgeous!) actress she was.
This turning of ourselves and others we admire into pastiche strikes me as rooted in our status-seeking ape's contempt for the common and familiar - taking both words in their fullest sense - and a longing to abstract the unique and glamorous qualities of Greatness.

So there are many funny, bantering, beautiful women, and even quite a few with magnificent comic timing. And I, Ozymandias, have many well-received styles and skills, and even several which I and other persons I care about think pretty distinguished. And there are many admirable cakes on that banquet-table, too, and several that make my mouth water just to look at them.

But there is only one Monroe and one Russell and one Ozymandias, and we each have that special minimal set of things that makes a caricature or impression of us instantly recognizable. And there is only one Death By Gustasm cake, and you shall know it by the signature asterisk of cherries on the top.

And common things are beneath notice, because they are everywhere; but greatness is special, and a taste for it much to be cultivated.

So in each case we get this fatal instinct to scrape off the cherries, and throw away the cake.
That's a fabulous turn of phrase, by the way: So in each case we get this fatal instinct to scrape off the cherries, and throw away the cake.
One of the most stunning experiences in my life was going to Amsterdam. Not just for seeing the marvelous paintings in the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum (totally concur...reproductions DO NOT give the feel of the Real Thing. The Vermeer milkmaid painting? Light you absolutely cannot catch in a repro), but for the marvelous experience of looking out my hotel window, on a canal, staring across the canal at Real Garretts and ZOMG that sunset! Now I understand where the Dutch masters got their eye for the light....

Just spent this morning watching a Spanish Riding School clip from 1952 with Podhajsky riding. Wow. Just--wow. The man could ride. Stills don't show it like even an old and spotty clip from the 50s does.
I have thought for years that Monroe was had a real comic genius (even her tiny little bit in All About Eve is rivetting--not because she's detracting from the film, but because she adds to it and makes a person out of what the screenplay had given her (a walk-on bimbo). But I'd forgotten how wonderful Russell was. Thank you. (It's also interesting to me that, in an era where musical comedy voices were big and brassy, both of these women had sweet, tuneful, breathy voices with very little brass in them.)

It's amazing how standint in the presence of an image you've seen for years can take your breath away. Mumblety years ago on my first trip to Paris I saw an exhibit of Van Gogh's paintings arranged chronologically--you started at the beginning and walked around the perimeter of the room with nothing in the center to distract you from the sequence. It was extraordinary--both watching the growth of his craft and his vision, and watching as the man was increasingly trapped inside his madness. When I got to this I burst into tears, overwhelmed by the story that the exhibition had told me, the pain in Van Gogh's eyes, and his compulsive honesty. From the reaction of the guard I was not the first to have done so.
Link no worky.

I had a come-to-jesus experience with the sunflowers in London, though. Room full of impressionist masters, and that might as well have been the only painting in it.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is one of my favorite movies, almost entirely because of Jane Russell. I don't know if I've seen anything sexier anywhere. And funny. And smart. *swoon* I'm sorry to hear that she's gone.
Likewise, a strong external force can pull us away from ourselves.

Elvis might have stayed Elvis if it weren't for Tom Parker.
Re: Your experience with Van Gogh: I had that experience with Maxfield Parrish at an exhibit in New York nearly twenty years ago. Mostly what we see are print reproductions of his work because of the kind of work he did. But when you stand in a gallery in front of his painted boards, the thing that strikes you is how the light just pours from the artwork--no other illumination needed. It's breathtaking, and I realized then why he's held in such high regard. He did things with brushes and paint that most people still can't do today.
Uff dah. Yeah.

Funny thing is, Picasso still doesn't work for me in person. *g*
Seeing what's really there, rather than what we expect to be there. Seeing Monroe's awkward, charming, vulnerable self-consciousness rather than a Jessica Rabbit slink; Russell's verve, sly wit, and energy rather than a pinup silhouette.

Yes. And I like the way you see them, too.
Shucks. *g*
I've found myself reading this over more than once as the morning has progressed. It struck me apparently far more forcefully than I thought on first scanning down my friend's list as I had my morning tea. I'm still processing just what has struck me, so perhaps it's too early to be leaving a comment, but the day is swinging into action and it may be hard to get back to LJ, and I wanted to say something.

I think part of it is the Truth of it. As both an actress and a writer, I've taken countless craft classes in both arts, and there are always techniques and critiques and sometimes even in that process you can find yourself losing your uniqueness if your teacher or coach isn't truly aiming to help you find you. Technique can be important to reveal the heart of a piece, or a performance, to convey the authenticity to a wide enough audience, but when you get too caught up in it to let yourself shine through it, you can get lost, as well. I know sometimes I felt stifled (mostly because I was working with people trying to shape me into a "literary" fiction writer, as I kept trying to hand them things with speculative elements, and they couldn't see how anything with genre elements could possibly be written in their classrooms, but. That's an issue for another day).

It seems that even as we crave artists who are unique, artists who are authentic, people we can gravitate to--not only do we parody and forget them in some ways after time has passed, sometimes we try to stifle them as they are creating, to turn them into the image of what we would have them be. It makes the process of becoming, of finding your own voice and then being true to it that much more difficult, and then that much more rewarding.

I suppose the question then becomes how to maintain your voice, your truth, through all the noise which is something artists have struggled with throughout time, and it's the ones who did who we remember and stand in awe in front of their works, and watch their movies and and still read today and marvel at the way they wove words into stories that capture our imaginations. Though, then that brings up questions of what is it about works that makes them become "classics" that stand the test of time--and that probably goes far beyond this post, as well. :-)

But you got me thinking about art and voice and the power of authenticity and the power of self of those who maintain it--and I'll probably end up pondering it most of the day now, which will be far more interesting than what I would have otherwise.
Yeah. There's a lot of knocking the rough edges off things--and at a certain point, you *want* some rough edges.
One can lose one's voice, too, and have to reacquire it, or a new one, by the same process of pastiche and influence.

Although even in pastiche, there is one's own style and there is copy-by-numbers. When 'Omer smote 'is bloomin' lyre, 'e stole all right; but 'e didn't steal in anything like the same way as Kipling.

I say this with feeling, as more of a magpie than most. When the magic wears thin and one looks for rules to recover it... lean times, then.
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