I developed a real love for putting my thoughts on paper at a relatively early age. By age nine, I was spending hours and hours every week writing stories in a notebook. Soon, writing stories became a part of my daily to-do list. They would read: “TO DO: 1. Read” (here I would draw a small empty box beside my task), “2. Write” (and again I would scribble an empty box), “3. Organize ‘xyz,’” where ‘xyz’ was any of the many rotating items I hoarded in my childhood bedroom (and yet again, an empty box was drawn, just waiting to be ticked).
My best friend Caitrin appeared to both eat books and write, a productivity level of which I was always so jealous. The writing eventually became a task for me, something I did just to have something over her, just for once. But for a long time, we wrote, danced, sang, and put on plays and musicals like no one was watching. Or, rather, like they were watching, and they adored us no matter what we did. We shone as absolutely bright as we could.
Caitrin and I, along with our three other friends, began passing around a diary — equipped with an unbreakable lock and key — every day to record our deepest, darkest secrets and thoughts (mostly about our respective crushes) and to navigate the objectively horrible world of bloating, stretching, and bumping bodies into which we were beginning to enter. Every five days, I would pore over “The Book,” as we called it, drinking in all I could from my friends’ streams of consciousness, and it would give me the space and the comfort to write as freely as they did. When middle school started, “The Book” ended, and so did our friendship. The four other girls were put in a different class and a sourness grew between us because of the separation. Likely other things too.
All of a sudden, forced to make new friends in this new, weird body, I became aware of myself. And so, in the same ways that I tweaked my appearance and speech, I changed my writing. The combination of middle school — a Catholic one, no less — puberty, and uncertain friendships was a toxic cocktail. Did I mention that I was overweight?
By this point in my life, each expressive action became an opportunity for self-loathing. I wanted to erase everything that my younger self had loved and make myself anew. I lost 30 pounds. I worked to expunge the things I deemed to be part of the old me, who no one seemed to like, including myself, and I become a clone of everyone else, anonymous and indiscernible amid a sea of middle schoolers in uniform tartan skirts and polo tees.
Fast forward through an arts program at Canterbury High School, where I did very little writing, to September 2012, when I entered George Brown Theatre School. The unofficial mission of George Brown, and many other theatre schools, seems to be of breaking down students completely as individuals in order to build them back up in their own image. I was naïve to think that this was okay. The competitive audition process made the offer that much more enticing. How could a 19-year-old have known what that entailed?
While at theatre school, I learned two things. The first thing I learned was from my voice teacher, Deborah, about the growth of the voice inside the human body. She told us that as babies, we speak, sing, and cry with open vocal chords. The flow of air is unobstructed in our voice boxes, passing through seamlessly enough that we can cry — or sing or speak — for the whole day without losing our voices.
As we grow older and things happen to us, most of us develop vocal tics, habits, and ways of speaking that reflect our life experiences. For instance, many of us press on our vocal cords without noticing, making it more difficult for air to pass through and tiring out our voice boxes.
It’s why stage actors do so much vocal training; they must free their voices in order to manipulate them effectively and safely and have the endurance to do the work of acting on a stage every night. In other words, many of us have altered our ‘true’ voice, which is unhindered by the extra things we have added to it as we have aged, instead holding what we should deal with externally in our vocal cords.
And this leads to the other thing I learned from another teacher, Leslie. Though she assigned movement journals in which we described what the alignment work that we did that day was and how it was changing us, she asked us to not write a stream of consciousness right after doing the work for a character. She explained that, for her, writing something down put it out of the body, and the nature of the work we were doing required that it be kept inside of us to be used to its full potential.
I never got to the ‘build you back up’ part of George Brown. I was in too many pieces at the end of first year to return to theatre school. One of my acting teachers asked me why I was so presumptuous to believe that people wanted to listen to me talk, and — in front of 30 of my peers — told me that I needed to be more interesting. He told me to think about what I was about to say before I said it because no one wanted to hear me figure it out. I believed him; my youth and Catholic school background were perfect breeding grounds for that kind of language. My peers and I heard things like this from our teachers regularly. We were, for that year, a great mass of throbbing pain, a dysfunctional organism, and none of us seemed to exist without the rest of the group.
It was no surprise when one of my teachers recommended I try — on top of our 50–60 hour school week — a 12-week program for damaged creatives called “The Artist’s Way.” This program is largely centred around a tool called “Morning Pages,” wherein participants record three handwritten pages of their thoughts each day. Through this and other tasks, the broken artist comes to understand the useless rhetoric that inhibits them from creating, and then systematically dismantles it to free the ‘artist child’ within. The pages did help me start to find a voice; I used them to tell the theatre school that I would not be returning, but I never used it to act again.
When I met my partner, he helped me understand that I was good. I get some of the credit, too, but he made the path easy. And then, slowly, more expressive actions flowed. I talked about things that I didn’t know about; I became curious and comfortable with the fact that I would never know everything.
By the time I got around to my undergrad, I had tackled some of the self-confidence problems socially — still working on some of them as I write this, of course — and vocally, but when I needed to type out an essay, I couldn’t overcome the voice of my acting teacher inside me. Writing for other eyes was paralyzing. I spent so many hours typing and then hitting backspace, afraid to let what I had in me flow through my fingers like they did with the morning pages. Instead, I heard my acting teacher loud and clear in my head. For a long time, I couldn’t write a thing.
I went to an event honouring the life and legacy of my great-uncle Joseph one night. I had forgotten about him completely — he had passed away very suddenly at 57 when I was four years old — so it was surprising to be reminded that he had been the food editor for Toronto Life magazine for many years, and had gotten started there writing food reviews. I had, at that point, begun writing recipes and restaurant reviews. I felt a strange connection with him, though we hadn’t really known each other, and became fascinated by his life.
Naturally, the first place I checked for information about him was the internet. To my absolute shock, there was pretty much nothing on my uncle Joseph out there. This horrified me a little bit, only because it caused me to face my own mortality; we all disappear eventually. Though he’s relatively obscure in ways I am still not comfortable with, at the time, it felt like Joseph had reached through history and grabbed me by my shoulders to remind me of the four-year-old great-niece whom he used to watch running around the lawn in front of the family cottage.
In January, I turned 25. It was the first birthday I felt melancholy about and I was caught off guard when this blueness swelled up inside me. The blue continued to grow, making my throat feel sticky and heavy and my eyes sting. It grew so big and intrusive that it had to exit my body. I belted blue from my deepest, in a song and a conversation I needed to have that would change my whole life. The quality of this new voice, that of a grown woman, is uniquely my own.
Perhaps, for the first time in my life, it occurs to me that I am okay with that, even thrilled by it. It makes me think of the little girl who would dance, sing, write, and scream with such reckless abandon. Going forward, especially in those moments of sticky insecurity, she is the person and the voice I want to channel.
Funny how life is circular like that.