About a year ago I was invited to contribute a verbal essay to a Wisconsin Public Radio program about writing spaces. I had zero desire to do it but hated to say no, so I wrote the essay. Polished it. Sent it off. That was followed by some back-and-forth with the director. The material had to be exactly three minutes on the dot. Then we had to record it. That took quite a bit of coordinating because Wisconsin Public Radio is in Madison, and I'm far from there. So it was arranged for me to go to Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul to record the piece. But it was actually recorded in Madison, and MPR somehow patched me in. There was a computer glitch that took about an hour to resolve, and then I was given the green light to read my essay.
I'm feeling pretty damn cool with my mic and headphones. The real deal. A star, baby! You're a star!
Fifteen seconds in, the director stops me. There's a long, long pause. Then, through the headphones, I hear both her and the engineer laughing. I imagine them in a similar studio, staring at each other, mouths hanging open, hugging their stomachs as tears stream.
Then the director finally says something about my poor delivery. I can't remember her exact words.
"That's how I talk," I say.
She says: "Try it again, and this time think WONDER. Put WONDER in your voice."
I didn't want to do this in the first place, but now I'm thinking it's funny as hell. I'm in the middle of an SNL/public radio skit. And the other thing that's just hit me is the realization that they make people talk like that. Overly expressive. I always wondered how that happened.
I knew someone who decided to change her voice. One day she just started talking in a completely different voice. Kind of high and from her mouth; a girly, breathless whisper. I laughed, thinking she was kidding. But she wasn't. And she kept doing it and never stopped. Today she still talks in what I think of as her new voice even though it's been thirty years.
I've always been self-conscious of my accent, but I've never tried to change it. Nope. Not gonna do it.
Nobody asked what I sounded like when inviting me to write the essay. Nobody said: "Hey, do you sound like a hillbilly? Because we don't like that."
People always want to know where I'm from because my accent is such a weird mix of different kinds of hillbilly. I grew up in southeast Iowa, almost Missouri, and I lived in southern New Mexico for those very spongy high-school years. I absorbed the twang and the drawl and the weird, slow/fast cadence. Combine that with my almost Missouri accent, and well… It ain't purty, let me tell you. But still, when I was asked to CHANGE HOW I TALK, I though, No. This is who I am. I'm going to be myself. But I also understood that she and I had already put a lot of time into this project. She asked for a cup of wonder, and I think I gave her a couple of spoonfuls because I could already hear myself sounding like some bad high-school play. This time she didn't stop me, and I made it through the entire essay thinking I'd done an okay job. She didn't ask for a second take. I imagined her mouthing OH, MY GOD to the engineer. I left knowing the recording would never air. I felt like a silent-movie actress forced to do a talkie. The audience howled with laughter. And it was a dramatic role.
A year later, I'm still struck by the pomposity of the whole event. I was invited to do the essay because of my…well, I guess writing credentials, but because I didn't have a radio voice, I was hooked off the stage. It was a creepy and disturbing experience, y'all.
I'm reminded of this again because I have a lot of speaking engagements taking place over the next three months, some in pretty prestigious places. My friend, Bonnie, tells me I should sing instead of talk. Remember Gomer Pyle? Where he's as hillbilly as a guy can get, then he starts singing and the hillbilly falls away? I'm just like that.