I thought I would hang the next few posts on the idea of “finding a voice” as it’s a phrase which has a variety of meanings for me, and it feels like a good idea to approach this from a number of angles.
In my day job I work with university lecturers on issues to do with their professional development. An anecdote I sometimes use when talking to them about their learners explains how, as a student myself on my first degree, I found seminar groups incredibly stressful. I would sit towards the fringes of the group, head down, hiding behind my shaggy beard (which I had in those days!), hoping that the lecturer wouldn’t make eye contact and ask me any questions. I used to be amazed at the self-confidence of those who didn’t find talking in groups a problem, and often used to mistake some people’s ability to rabbit on without becoming self-conscious for profound insight.
Years later when I did a degree at a distance (partly via conventional post and partly online) I felt much happier because people weren’t looking at me and I had time to think about what I wanted to say, for example before I posted something on the online forums.
There’s a serious point in there about the different ways people like to learn, but there are also issues about self-confidence, feeling able to be “present” in a social space, self-image and more. Nowadays, I concluded the last time I shared this anecdote, it’s hard to shut me up, so I now have the opposite “problem”! How did I get here from there?
As a chld I was quite shy in any case – I hesitate to say “naturally shy” as a lot of behaviour, particularly in childhood, is down to context and the type of encouragement you do, or not, receive. Regardless, the shyness was defnitely there, although I learned to deal with it to some degree by discovering (eventually) how to make jokes and clown around.
However, once I realized I was trans, even though I didn’t understand very much about it in the early days, the feeling that I needed to hide this “secret” about me tipped the balance of my behaviour back towards shyness, especially in groups.
By the time I went to secondary school, aged 12, I spent much of my time by myself, buried in the stuff I like to read, watch, listen to. Tons of comics reading – in particular Marvel Comics because they had an amazing range of characters, a lot of crossover continuity between their different titles, and a recurring preoccupation with outsider heroes – Spider-Man (misunderstood schoolboy!), The Hulk (different personality and physical being hidden inside but brought out by stress!), Daredevil (blind and unlucky in love), Iron Man (shrapnel in his heart, kept alive by his armour) … the list goes on.
Even The Fantastic Four, although they lived in a Manhattan penthouse, were regarded with ambivalence by the citizens of New York. Comes of keeping a portal to another dimension in the guest room, I guess. Nobody likes noisy neighbours …
I wasn’t very confident about drawing (I’m still not) but I could definitely write, and the idea of writing books or comics did occur to me. However it was years before I told anyone, or found other comics fans – I was too shy and solitary. But I did have ambitions to write, and in the early seventies I stumbled across a book by David Gerrold which I found, in equal measure, encouraging and intimidating.
Gerrold wrote an episode of the original Star Trek series, entitled The Trouble with Tribbles. He later wrote a book of the same name, which is not fiction, but which details the unusual way in which that story came about. Most writers for the show were either Hollywood professionals or established science fiction writers. Gerrold was neither – he was still at college and a would-be writer – but through a combination of determination, organisation and creative skill he managed to sell a script on spec to the show’s producers, a rare and impressive achievement today, let alone then.
I read and re-read Gerrold’s book in my teens. It was probably the only non-fiction work that I revisited to the same degree as my favourite fiction, such as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books or the works of Alan Garner. However, the experience of reading Tribbles triggered a more complex response in my than those other books.
At one level, this was a Spider-Man like story. Like Peter Parker, Gerrold was a studious and thoughtful individual changed, by a significant series of events, into a magnificent, superhuman-seeming creature – in Gerrold’s case, an author. Also like Spidey, his life suddenly appeared to become a lot more glamorous.
For those who are not comics obsessives, the early stories were drawn by an artist called Steve Ditko, in an almost surreal style that emphasized the sense of separateness and difference of adolescence. When Ditko departed Marvel he was replaced by John Romita, mainly known hitherto for drawing romance comics. The style and tone of the series changed significantly, and Peter Parker also lost his spectacles and turned hunky.
So when reading Gerrold’s book, I recognized the narrative arc, but also the similarities and the differences. Peter Parker, like me, was a shy schoolboy, but lived in the (seemingly) impossibly different world of New York. Gerrold had the relative advantage of living in the also (seemingly) impossibly different world of California, was taught screenwriting at university, and so on. He was also, like me, a huge science fiction fan.
His book was intended to be very encouraging, and to the degree it hinted at the possibility of transformation and a successful life, it was. But how could I, living in a dull suburb outside London, be anything like him?
As with many aspects of my life, the things I aspired to seemed too removed, exotic, glamorous. So although I read and re-read Gerrold’s book, not least because of my own low opinion of myself, I had no idea how to begin bridging the gap between him and me, let alone to try and forge my own, perhaps differently successful path.
Thinking about this has made me want to read Gerrold’s Tribbles book again, to see what I make of it from my different, adult perspective. So I have dug out my copy (Ballantine Books, first edition, 1973, imported into the UK by Corgi Books and sold to me for the princely sum of 60p). Good to revisit such things, but that will be my journey. I might tell you what I find. What’s important for this post is the pattern my response to the book helped set for me (which incidentally is not David Gerrold’s fault!).
I set a pattern for myself, without talking to others. I harboured creative ambitions, but was reluctant to share those ambitions with others and too naïve to know what to do about fulfilling them. But nonetheless, given my skills, I hovered around the areas I dreamed of working in.
I wanted to write comics and science fiction, but instead went to work for a company that distributed them, too scared to ask about working for the sister publishing company. I edited (rather than wrote) a magazine about comics (rather than comics themselves). I harboured ambitions to write for television, but became a sub-editor on a television listings magazine.
These jobs had their moments, and I managed, sometimes, to do some good work. I even wrote a Star Trek script on spec! Not accepted, story for another day. But like Peter Parker I had a secret identity which no-one could know about, which I needed to keep hidden. He was secretly a super-hero. I was secretly a woman.
Before I started to move towards transition, my brain was my enemy in some ways. It found ways for me to worry, to put myself down, on many occasions to see the worst consequences of taking particular risks. As I came towards crisis point, I finally found positive, constructive, useful ways of thinking through things, and the useful, friendly voice in my head started to become louder than the nervous, worried, negative voice.
In the old days, the most I could say about myself was that I wanted to be, or would like to be a writer. But the situation has improved wonderfully. Today I can say I am a writer. Look, here are some words!