Speaking Lessons

A writer finds her voice in an unlikely place.

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The Voice Coach lives in a tall pink house on Highgate Hill. When she opens her front door to greet me for the first time, she steps back, hands pressed to her heart, and gasps. "Oh, you came." Her expression is that of a mother receiving an unplanned-but-hoped-for visit from a grown-up child. "Nell," she says, still not stepping aside or asking me in, "you are here."

I am here. I am here because I am worried about my voice and have decided I need professional help. My first book is about to come out, and in a few months' time I am due to record the audio version. I have had enough traumatic experiences hearing recordings of myself to know action is required. The weedy, high-pitched noise I seem to make in place of talking like a normal person needs immediate correction. An actor friend recommended Vivian, a woman in her 70s who used to teach voice at one of the big London drama schools and who now takes private clients. I called her and explained my situation, and now, well, I am here.

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She leads me into a book-lined room where the cat-to-chair ratio is about two to one, dislodges the occupants of a couple of seats, and gestures to me to take one.

"Let's do a role-play," she says, settling herself beside me. "Let's pretend that you are on a train, and the conductor is coming, and you've lost your ticket. I'm the conductor. I want you to explain to me what has happened."

"Right," I say. I stammer my way through a long-winded explanation about how and where and why I might have mislaid my ticket. "I definitely paid for it. I had it just now. I'm so sorry. I just don't know what I've done with it."

"Right," says Vivian, when I have run out of apologetic steam. "Listen very carefully to me, darling. I need you to understand that there is a bit of I'm-frightfully-sorry-I've-mislaid-my-ticket-please-don't-be-angry-with-me in your voice at all times. You speak like a lost little girl."

"Sorry," I say.

"Exactly," she says.

****

Later, I am on all fours on Vivian's rug, lowing like a cow in labor. "Huh, huh, huh."

"Darker! Lower! Broader!" she bellows. "More!"

After that, I lie on my back, staring up at the ceiling, imagining that I am looking at the open sky, and saying, "I want to find my voice; I want to find my voice; I want to find my voice," while Vivian prods me somewhere near my ovaries and says, "From here. Your voice is in here. Not up there. Not in your throat. Here."

Later still, she asks me to read a section from my book, which is a memoir, and then stops me after about half a paragraph. "But, darling, do you even know the main character of this book? Do you love her?"

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It's awkward. Maybe she thinks it's a novel. "It's a memoir," I say. "It's about me."

"Oh, darling, I know," she says. "But do you?"

***

I leave the pink house after my first lesson feeling deconstructed. I wander into a café in Highgate Village and momentarily forget how to speak altogether. I stand at the counter, mouth hanging open, for an excruciating moment of silence. Then, an entirely new voice comes out of me and says, deeply, raspingly, "Americano, please."

I am shocked by the sound I just made, and this must show on my face, because the man behind the counter says, "Are you sure about that? You don't look sure."

"I'm learning how to speak," I tell him.

He presses his lips together and widens his mouth in a gesture that implies an acknowledgment that I've said something and no interest whatsoever in learning what I meant by it. He moves off to make my drink and releases a jet of steam from the espresso machine.

For the rest of the day I sound like a pubescent boy, the pitch of my words veering from gruff to falsetto as I try to alight on the voice that is actually mine. "Is this my voice?" I ask my reflection. "Is this?" In the mirror, my face is a mask: familiar but blank, giving nothing away.

"You sound different," says my friend Gabrielle when I meet her for drinks in the evening. "You sound like Margaret Thatcher."

"Oh, God," I say. "That's awful."

"Oh, wait, no, it's OK," she says. "You sound normal again now."

***

"It is such a problem with young women," Vivian sighs. "You're taught to be so unobtrusive, so unthreatening, so you all speak as though you're nine years old. I had a client who was CEO of a huge company, and she couldn't get anyone at work to listen to a word she said because she sounded like Matilda."

"Matilda?"

"Matilda. Roald Dahl. 'Sometimes, you have to be a little bit naughty!'"

"Oh."

"And you, darling, use your voice as a disguise. Your voice says you haven't written a book, wouldn't dream of it, just want everyone to be comfortable. But your bio says otherwise, and it's time to admit it. You are a writer. You are not a child. You are the mother of your characters, and when you speak, you must speak from your womb."

***

On the day after the UK voted to leave the European Union, I, like almost everyone else I know, go on Twitter and vent some heartbreak. Xenophobia and nationalism have won over reason, and my country seems suddenly ugly to me. As I walk around London that evening, I realize I am looking at other people suspiciously, wondering which way they voted. A German friend calls me in tears: "They don't want us here. They hate us."

A couple of days later, I look at my phone and see that someone has replied to one of my sad Brexit tweets. "@nellstevens," writes the stranger, "you are an arrogant cunt #brexit #wewon #getoverit." It's Twitter, I know, and there is guaranteed to be a degree of venom directed toward any political opinion. I have friends who are journalists who deal with it on a daily basis. And yet, still, I'm unsettled by this droplet of hostility; I'm on edge: people, strangers, are angry and antagonistic.

When I go to my voice lesson later that day and say "Hello," Vivian swoops down on me.

"My darling," she says. "Who has attacked you?"

She can hear the contents of my day just in the way I greet her. I don't bother to dispute the fact that I do feel attacked. "It's stupid," I say. "It's just that someone called me an arrogant cunt on Twitter. It's not a big deal."

"You have retreated into your little-girl voice, asking the world for protection."

"Have I?" I say. I try to adjust my tone to something deeper and more authoritative but end up back at Margaret Thatcher.

Later, when I am reading aloud from my book, she stops me mid-flow in a chapter about loneliness and says, "Remember to speak from your womb, darling. Give it to me from that arrogant cunt of yours."

I think about the stranger on Twitter and attempt to feel sanguine and strong instead of unsettled and self-conscious. I try to imagine that I am forming the words in a private, powerful place and then releasing them into the room. I have written a book and I am proud of it and I am the mother of my characters and I am speaking, now, from my arrogant cunt.

Something happens to my voice, then: it sounds clear and low and unrecognizable, and when Vivian hears it she looks up and beams, and I'm so disconcerted that I lose my place on the page.

"That was it," she says. "Just then. That was your voice."

Nell Stevens has an MFA in fiction from Boston University and lives in London. Her first book, Bleaker House, is on sale now.

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