We know now that a baby comes out of the womb with a rather sophisticated understanding of language -- enough to recognize the particular music of the mother's speech, distinguishing it from the voice of the other parent, and his or her voice from the voice of the stranger. Language is our original art form, formed as we ourselves are being formed, rooted in the genius that is in every human being. The ancient Hebrew poets said it best: We are created in the image of the creator. If that is true, we, too, are creators, and language, voice, is our first, our primary artistic creation.
Sadly, here and in many places on earth, this still is not understood. Once I was invited to be writer-in-residence in a prestigious school in France. The ninth-grader in whose home I lived proudly showed me his perfect Shakespearean sonnet written in Shakespearean English. But when I tried to get him to write in his own voice, he was terrified. He wouldn't even try. An entire roomful of teenagers -- in fact, room after room -- would not try. Finally, one girl was brave enough to risk reading aloud what she had just written. Halfway through she broke into tears.
One of my last assignments was to have a one-day writing workshop with the school's six English teachers. I reminded them of my experience with their students, how they were skilled at mimicking famous writers, but unable to do original work in their own voices. I challenged the teachers to try using the voice they used around the kitchen table or with best friends. I put out a group of objects as a prompt: a stained wooden spoon, a well-used baseball, an old, empty whiskey bottle -- perhaps 50 familiar objects. There were three men and three women. It was easier for the women, but they read tentatively, anxiously. One man refused to read; the other two broke into tears as they read. One said in a choked voice, "This is the first time anyone ever asked me to write in my own voice."
As teachers, it has been said, we teach best what we ourselves are still learning. I have had a hard time claiming my own voice. As a kid in a two-room apartment in a St. Louis tenement with a single mother who said frequently, we're gonna get out of here and education is the way to get out, I understood that the power to get out was somewhere in school. My teacher said T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, and that he was, in 1948, when I was a ninth-grader, America's greatest poet. I wanted to be T.S. Eliot. I desperately wanted to get out, and didn't Eliot get out? Poetry was the way. Somewhat like the French students, it would never have occurred to me to write openly about my own life. Eliot was educated at Harvard; he wrote his own lived images: In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo. No way could I write about standing in line in a dark hallway behind an old man with his pee in a milkbottle waiting for the bathroom where no one cleaned. Or about the roaches under the sink, the dirty milkbottles piled in the pantry, or the rats that came up the broken furnace duct. I was taught subtly -- and so very well -- that the only good writers were those with privilege. I couldn't stop trying to write like someone else until I was in my 40s. And not until I was 70 could I claim my own voice as my spiritual practice.
When will we stop considering as art only the voices of the privileged? The flaw we hear in "bad writing" is not absence of knowing Shakespeare. The flaw is hiding our first, deepest voices, suppressing them and coming to believe they don't exist. It may not sound at all like Shakespeare, but it is the only platform solid enough to support learning craft -- using other voices, which may include writing a Shakespearean sonnet. The voice that has listened in the womb and practiced every day all day and even while dreaming at night is absolutely original, powerful and, therefore, the stuff of genius.