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Personal Essays

Learning to Talk

When a voiceover artist temporarily loses the use of her primary asset, the struggle back to speaking unearths what’s gone unsaid for too long.

Andrei Roiter, Unload, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Regina Gallery, London & Moscow.

When I was growing up, dreaming loftily of greatness, one of my fears was that I would end up a talented nobody. All those stories about artists who tried and tried to get their works known, but still ended up dying in obscurity, some never even to achieve posthumous recognition: Those stories still break my heart. It would wither the spirit to feel you had a sense of purpose, something to live for and pour your heart into, and have people ignore you—or encourage you to stop. It must have made those artists wonder if they were delusional, thinking they were any good, that it was remotely worth it to try.

In 1999, I graduated with a BFA in drama from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. You will be shocked to hear that despite the existence of photographs proving I had in fact processed into an auditorium donning a purple satin robe, I was not showered with job offers upon graduation.

Though I had lots of ideas for how to make a living—teaching English or becoming a vocal coach—what I wanted fundamentally was to be heard. I wanted to write and say things that were worth people paying attention to, that did some good. Vague perhaps, but I still think it’s a more or less legit pursuit.

For the first few years after college, that pursuit looked a lot like holding down what turned out to be a vastly under-paying freelance job reading scripts for a film company and working in a bookstore for less than $7 an hour. Then it looked like a six-month stint overseeing the post-production of a film that ended up going straight to video for a company that ended up tanking. Then it looked like temping, which led to a full-time job as an administrative assistant at a college.

Then one day I got a call from my mom and stepdad. They had just attended the wedding of a distant cousin of mine, where they’d met one of her friends who did voiceovers in Atlanta. Well aware of my feelings of ennui about my administrative job and remembering how much I loved the voice-and-speech classes at college, they’d had a hunch that what she did might be right up my alley—and surely there was a market for it in New York. So they’d gotten her number and exuberantly encouraged me to call her.

Isn’t that what we all really want? For our days not to suck?

Hope started digesting my heart immediately.

I called my cousin’s friend the next day. She was sweet and reassuring and said in a very kind, Southern way that I could do it. She also said that she doesn’t make her living talking, but gets the odd voiceover job here and there and that it still thrills her. I thought, “Yeah, even if I could do it on the side, maybe I could scale back my admin job to part-time and enjoy my days more.” Isn’t that what we all really want? For our days not to suck?

I started asking around to see if anyone knew anyone who did voiceover work, and if I could talk with them for a few minutes. A playwright I’d met through a friend had a friend who did cartoon voices for a living. He gave me his number. I went home and dialed.

Griffin, the cartoon-voice performer, was very gracious. Not remotely the stereotypical cutthroat actor. He did not mince words about the competitiveness of the industry, but—like the cousin’s friend—was of the school that it’s worth pursuing anything you really want, and that an important first step was to take voiceover classes with the best coach in the business. It turned out the best coach in the business made in an hour what I made in seven hours. But she was decidedly not a huckster, and I decided that I needed to commit to and doggedly pursue this if it was going to work.

After maybe 12 weeks of classes, I found that I did not suck. Actually, I did suck at the super-high-energy Starburst-type ad copy, but I was good at serious reads, which appealed to me much more anyway. I put together a reel and sent it out to agents. I also scoured the Tisch alumni listserv, which delivered job openings to my inbox daily. I pored over the possibilities on my lunch breaks.

For months, nothing turned up.

Then, one afternoon I saw a posting from WQXR, the classical radio station owned by the New York Times, saying they needed a new evening host. It sounded like a thrilling job. Why not try? I thought. So I wrote as convincing a letter as I could, citing my years of saxophone study (I’d started college as a music major) and my experience running technical theater equipment. It was a comically long shot.

Two weeks later, I got out of the subway to a voicemail from WQXR. When I called back, they asked me to come in for an audition in three weeks’ time. I quaked thinking about it. When I walked into the station, my hands were freezing and sweating and the quaking had become more than figurative.

My auditioner, one of the hosts, bounded into the lobby and ushered me into a sound booth, where he handed me a playlist from that day’s show and a giant binder full of ad copy. “Here’s your music sheet and you’ll read those ads where I indicated,” he said cheerfully and left the room.

I’d never seen a playlist before, and this one had names on it like Mstislav Rostropovich and Einojuhani Rautavaara. Luckily, at least one unfamiliar name was readable: Christopher Hogwood. And thank God Leonard Bernstein was on there. I’d heard of him—more importantly, I could pronounce him.

Through a window in the booth, I could see my auditioner standing at a control board pushing some buttons and adjusting the faders. His voice came through speakers into the booth, “Whenever you’re ready.”

I was not ready. I knew music, but I didn’t know the contemporary players, and the pronunciations of these names seemed to require a decoder. Plus, I was still trying to figure out how to tell who was the performer and who was the conductor. And then what do you say on the radio even after you’ve decided who’s who?

I stumbled through it, guessing at pronunciations and fudging titles of works. I had no idea what some of the numbers next to the titles meant. “Op. 1, No. 2” was comprehensible, but what was “K. 496?”

Mercifully, I did not stutter or start to cry. And I managed to find the right page all three times in the giant binder.

When I got to the bottom of the playlist, I walked out of the booth on gelatin legs, past photographs and caricatures of classical music’s masters, to the station’s conference room. “Have you been reading Harry Potter?” the host asked. Unsure why he was asking, I admitted that I had. “You called Christopher Hogwood ‘Christopher Hogwart.’”

We sat down at a giant table that had seated some of the world’s greatest musicians and he told me that I had no broadcasting experience, and they couldn’t hire anyone without broadcasting experience, but that my ad copy was the best he’d heard, and if I wanted to train with him, he’d teach me how to be a radio announcer. “To do this job, you need to have ice in your veins, and I think you do.”

When we shook hands on my way out, he noticed how cold they were. “You are nervous. I had no idea. You’ll do well at this.”

Every couple of weeks, I’d wake up four hours earlier than usual, so that before I went off to my admin job I could spend a few hours sitting in the studio during the morning show. I learned to negotiate the myriad buttons and faders on the board. I learned to time out an hour and decide which ads should go where. I learned how to work a mike and toss to newscasters.

And I read like crazy. I bought music-history textbooks with accompanying CDs. I memorized the phonetic rules of every major language. I bought rush tickets to concerts and a waterproof radio so I could listen to the morning show every day, even in the shower.

 

Six months after I began my ad-hoc apprenticeship, I compiled my demo tape and sent it along with a follow-up email to WNYC Radio, again calling on friends of friends for advice on who to approach and how. The station’s program director passed along my reel to the operations manager, who hired fill-in announcers and board operators. He called me in for an interview and offered me a job on the spot, then started chatting with me about which hot sauces he likes on his Thai takeout lunches.

My first job at the station was voicing a fundraising spot. It took only a take or two and I was in and out of the booth in a few minutes. I still have the pay stub framed in my home—the check was for $18.47 after taxes. I wish I’d framed the check with the stub, but when you’re making $18.47, you need to deposit it.

Later, when I heard the fundraising spot on my radio at home, I thought, “Oh no, they’ve hired someone else to do it.” I was crestfallen—she was better than me. Then I realized it was me.

After that, every time the station called and asked me to come in, I said yes. Between that and my job at the college, I would sometimes work 36 hours at a stretch.

Around this same time, satellite radio entered the scene. When one of WNYC’s hosts asked me if I’d applied to Sirius, I said I hadn’t but agreed that it was a great idea. She gave me the name and email of the classical people there. I thanked her, pretending to know what Sirius was. With some internet research, I figured that out and applied. After a few weeks of avid follow-up on my part, they hired me.

By that point, I had enough radio work that I could scale back to part-time at the college. Within the next year, I resigned from the administrative job altogether.

WNYC had me voicing their station announcements, which turned out to be the best of party tricks. “Oh God, I wake up to you!” “Ha, I shower with you talking to me!” hardened New Yorkers would squeal.

The PBS host David Brancaccio had also heard me doing those spots and hired me to be the announcer on his national show, NOW. After years of all-nighters and half-sandwich lunches, it was coming together. All the jobs were part-time, so I wasn’t making much of a fortune, but I did feel that I was making something of myself.

And then I lost my voice.

 

I’d gotten sick. Not life-threatening illness sick, just a cold. I started to sound like Kathleen Turner. Work was OK with that, but when Kathleen Turner gave way to Bobcat Goldthwait, it didn’t exactly fly with the management.

Friends suggested extra sleep and rosehip tea with honey and zinc tablets and chalky, cherry-ish throat lozenges from the health-food store. But none of it worked. It hurt when I talked and I tasted blood.

I found a doctor who took my freelancer’s insurance and who was reputed to be a world-class ENT specializing in the voice. He saw a slight bump on one of my cords, which he said was not a node, but something less serious and treatable by voice therapy. He passed me along to his voice-and-speech pathologist, who would theoretically nurse me back to health. She told me to eat dried papaya and take olive extract in pill form, among other dubious cures.

“And you’ll need to be on total vocal rest,” she added.

She’d talk and then sit patiently for a painfully long time while I wrote down a response. It should have been comforting that at one point Beethoven communicated this way as well.

“No talking at all?” I struggled to utter.

“Yes. For two weeks, to start.”

The prospect was more than daunting, both financially and emotionally. At home alone, out of work and unable to speak with anyone, I tried to alleviate the fear and sadness and to keep questions of how to make a living at bay by spending my days emailing excessively. And about once a week, I’d meet up with one of my oldest friends. She’d talk and then sit patiently for a painfully long time while I wrote down a response. It should have been comforting that at one point Beethoven communicated this way as well.

After two weeks of silence and papaya, I was no better. I sought a second opinion.

Years before, when I had been studying saxophone, I had pain in my arms. It had started as a tingling in my fingertips, then an ache in my wrist and eventually, the inside of one of my entire arms would go numb. I’d seen four different doctors, and received diagnoses ranging from carpel tunnel to De Quervain’s to tendonitis. Finally, I was referred to a doctor at an institute that specialized in ailments related to the performing arts. Within minutes of meeting him, he diagnosed the nerve pain in my arms as a restriction in the vertebrae of my upper back—all the other doctors looked solely at the places where the symptoms were manifesting, rather than tracing the pain to its cause. He referred me to exactly the kind of physical therapy that set me right, and within two months my chronic pain had ended.

I called that institute again. One of its affiliated ENTs with a specialty in voice was willing to see me that week. My mother accompanied me and, following the examination—he too saw the nick on my cords, but unlike the other doctor, thought it was no big deal—he said my case was one for his voice-and-speech pathologist, Sarah Lerner. A tiny powerhouse, she was both scary and comforting.

“Your problem is caused by tension,” she told me. “Your larynx and the hyoid cartilage are clamped together.” I didn’t fully understand the details, yet I trusted her diagnosis: She was palpably competent, and something in what she said registered as true.

The cure was “laryngeal massage.” It involved staring at a mirror and making a face like an unintelligent puppy, mouth drooping open and looking straight ahead. I was then to shine a flashlight into my mouth, watch and concentrate until my uvula—the little thing that hangs down from the top of the palate—curled up toward the back of the throat. Then I was to wedge my index finger and thumb into either side of my throat right at the base of the larynx where it was clamped against the cartilage. But, I was told, it’s important to stay away from the jugular.

“How will I know if I’m pinching my jugular?” I croaked.

“You’ll know.”

Dr. Lerner taught me to locate the tiny spot in my throat that I was supposed to pinch.

“I will show you,” she said. I made the puppy-dog face and relaxed enough to let my uvula do its thing. And then she dug in. I felt a deep soreness from a place that had not been touched or relaxed in an amount of time that seemed beyond time. I gagged and dry-heaved. She let go, unimpressed with my apparent wussiness.

I sat down to recover, and asked, “Is it possible to pinch too hard?”

Her response: “I want you to feel like you’ve been raped by a thousand vampires.”

My mother looked both fascinated and ashen.

Dr. Lerner let me feel her neck. (It’s not as sexy as it sounds.) I give her tremendous credit for having about an inch of space there. I had not even a millimeter. My anatomy was held shut like the hands of a devout adulterer praying for forgiveness.

I sounded cruddy. I had no income. And now my neck hurt.

That wasn’t all. The second stage of the cure was that I had to say everything I meant. “Look at you,” Dr. Lerner said. “You’re hurting and you’re scared, so your mother is here. You need attention. When you’re hurting, you get it. You’re holding things in. So the part of you that makes sound has shut down.”

She had a point. Though no pushover, I was often polite to a fault, and had the habit of holding imaginary arguments in my head with people to whom I wished I’d spoken my mind.

“You’re babying your voice,” she said. “Go back to work tomorrow—as soon as they’ll have you—do the massage, and start talking out loud.”

I agreed to follow her instructions and thanked her über-sincerely. Had I really been following her advice, I would have told her that even though she was probably right, I didn’t like her military tone and her uncharitable assumptions about me.

On the elevator down to the street level, my mom said, “Well, I think she might be on to something.”

 

Though I did my massage religiously that first evening, I did not sound better overnight. WNYC didn’t want me back yet.

My quest to say what I meant began with the big thing: breaking up with a young man who was wonderfully kind but in almost every other way not compatible with me. There was no way to undertake a campaign of candor with an ill-fated relationship still on the table.

Next came the small but pivotal arguments. To the Amtrak teller who rolled his eyes and huffed when I politely asked to borrow his pen, I said, “I appreciate the pen but I don’t appreciate your attitude.” To the guy at the Indian restaurant who made an ugh sound when I asked to pay by credit card, I said, “You can choose not to take my card, but if you do accept cards, it’s not OK to try to make me feel bad about using one.”

I felt like crud after both these exchanges. Up to this point, I had been walking around with the belief that part of my role in this world was to make everyone who spoke with me feel a little better than before we talked. Even if the people I was talking to were mean, belittling, or worse.

And the more I let myself say, the more I let myself think. I started asking questions that I would not have let myself ask before.

If I can pay myself $75 an hour for the self-analysis I’m about to offer, it seems to me now that I felt I could influence other people’s actions more than is actually possible, that their treatment of me was somehow always about me. Many times, it was about something entirely unrelated. Despite my guilt at calling people out—albeit in a pleasant tone—there was something enlivening, emboldening about it.

And the more I let myself say, the more I let myself think. I started asking questions that I would not have let myself ask before. Some of them led to answers that led to the dissolution of some relationships.

But each day, my voice got better. Within a week, I sounded like myself again. I almost came to enjoy the pain of digging my fingers into my throat: a good hurt, or at least a hurt with good results. And I learned the importance of wearing gloves during the massage so I didn’t, in the end, look like I’d been heavily involved with creatures of the night.

In no way did it feel like a violation, as Dr. Lerner’s directive to me made it sound. Rather, it felt like a bleeding of something that needed out.

That said, the balance between word-swallowing and pathological candor was not an easy one to achieve.

One afternoon, I got into a cab at a red light. When I opened the door, I accidentally tapped the side of an SUV next to it. I was too scared to tell the owner that there was a light-yellow mark on the side of his/her apartment-sized, black vehicle that may or may not have belonged to drug dealers. The owner—who turned out to be a slight woman—came out to inspect the door. She saw the yellow mark, rubbed most of it off with her fingers, and glared at me. I said sincerely, “I’m very sorry. I didn’t mean to cause you any trouble.” She shook her head angrily and got back into the SUV.

As far as I was concerned, that was the end of the exchange. I probably deserved more approbation than I got, but the slate was clean.

But the cab driver then turned around in his seat and yelled—this is not hyperbole; he was actually yelling—“You need to be more careful! That could have been a bad situation!”

I responded, “That goes without saying. I apologized. You don’t have to give me a hard time.”

“Give you a hard time! You give me a hard time when you make trouble like that!” He was gesticulating a lot.

Given that the situation with the SUV owner had come to a peaceful conclusion and the cabbie had not encountered any trouble at all, I decided I didn’t want to engage in this line of conversation, so I said in an even tone, “You know what, just don’t talk to me anymore.” At which point he pulled over and yelled even louder, “You get out of my car! You! Get out of my car!”

I got out of the cab and began walking. The cabbie continued to drive at walking speed, screaming obscenities at me. I remember stating loudly and clearly back, “Stop yelling at me. Stop talking to me.” I said that a few times before he drove ahead into stop-and-go traffic.

I hailed another cab. Unfortunately, because of the traffic, I was frequently riding right alongside the first guy. I broke my doctor’s orders, hiding my face from him and shaking the entire ride.

This was too much. While I didn’t appreciate the cabbie’s behavior, saying what I said to him made the situation worse for me. I’d have done better to stay quiet with dignity. Other times, however, the speaking freely left me with more dignity than I could ever have achieved through deference.

Years later, when it became clear that the writing and performing gig I had on a national, comedic radio show was a poor fit for me, and I for it, I was given 30 days to “shape up.” It was evident that what I did well as a writer and performer was of little use to that show, and that what they wanted me to write was often not something that sat well with me. At the 30-day notice point, my boss said, “We’re hoping you’ll rise to the challenge.”

When I resigned three days later, and she said—maybe half-condescendingly, I’m not sure—“I’m disappointed. We were hoping you’d rise to the challenge,” I responded simply, “It’s not about whether I’m up to a challenge. My work history proves that I am. It’s about finding the right challenge, and this is not it.”

I walked out with something of a mutual respect, and my head high. Not cocked, but confident. My former boss and I keep in touch. In fact, she acted as a source for a recent article I wrote. I like her.

I may still sometimes say words that would not be allowed on the radio when a man pushes into me on the street, and I may other times bite my tongue when I wish I’d let it loose. But ever since that little woman dug into my throat and promised me that silence was eroding my physical health, my income, and my mental well-being—and I vowed to start speaking my thoughts—I have not once lost my voice.

Now, when I step into a TV studio to read words I wrote as they scroll past on a teleprompter, what I really want to say is how thankful I am—for how I’m making a living, and for how it led to a better way of living.