On disappearing

Some of us have a talent to disappear, and it’s a good one if you can control it. Nurture it, because it comes in handy if you’re an artist.

But not always.

Here’s the dilemma: when you’re reading a book, you want to hear the characters’ voices and remain immersed in the story. What you don’t want is to be shaken awake from the fictive dream once per page and told, “HEY! I’m a book written by FamousAuthor! Keep that in mind!”

The author needs to subsume her own voice into the voice of the narrative and remain submerged for the duration of the novel. It’s an even stronger need in poetry than in fiction, where I’m told the first and only thing the author is allowed to say about the poem is the title.

It happens in other art media as well. When I sang in church choir, for example, it was stressed (in every choir I’ve ever participated in) that we need to sing, to get the people to sing, and not be remembered. That the point was to honor God and not to draw attention to oneself.

At some point, however, the goal changes. Take Thomas Kinkaid. You look at his painting and you know it’s his because he’s stylized it to the point where he’s permanently branded. If he creates a forest painting that isn’t bespeckled with light, everyone will be surprised. “But aren’t you Thomas Kinkaid, Painter of Light?”

The week before Christmas, when I’d finally succumbed to the Christmas music for the sake of my children (even though it was still Advent) I had the misfortune of hearing Whitney Houston’s version of “Do You Hear What I Hear,” which is a song I enjoy. Except she’d Whitney-Houstoned it up to a degree where I could not actually hear the song any longer. And it wasn’t even enjoyable. Okay, so you’re Whitney Houston — and what’s the point?

Tightrope there. In some art, we need to disappear. But after we’ve attained a certain following and branded ourselves to a certain point, we need to show up again. While disappearing.

I’m still at the “disappear” point in my career. In fact, I’d like the opportunity to appear a bit more than I have been! But regardless, it’s an interesting balance. At what point does your branding take over and you become the person you claim to be, as opposed to the creator submerging herself, and her audience, in her work?


  1. cricketB

    Sometimes it isn’t the artist’s voice, so much as what the artist sees most strongly. It’s what they believe the world is made of, and what’s important to them.

    Kinkaid saw light. Rockwell saw Americana. Bujold McMaster sees people who don’t realize they’re strong beginning challenging new lives. LR King sees strong emotions in strong people. S King sees horror behind the mundane. Lackey sees fantasy behind the mundane. Moorcock doesn’t even see the mundane. Lebak sees a caring, trust-worthy, complex God and His angels.

    It isn’t always obvious to the new reader, but it’s there. It’s a world-view and focus that we learn to recognize and look forward to. Artists who fight it are fighting themselves. Artists who insist on putting it centre stage all the time stagnate. Have faith, Jane. Your fans can identify your work.

    1. philangelus

      Hah! Thank you — I wasn’t trying to whine. I was just struck by how Whitney Houston had ruined a perfectly good song by trying to make it her own.

      Professor Robert Greenburg says there’s a sea change in the world of music in the 1200s or thereabouts when musicians began signing their work. Prior to that, music was written and performed without reference to the artists. But once their names were associated with certain pieces, each musician wanted to leave something of his person on the music he’d written.

      But clearly there’s a limit to how much “voice” we should put into our work. When you’re telling a story, you want the listeners to remember the story rather than yourself. You wouldn’t go to a performance (is that the right word) wearing a purple wig, a black cocktail dress and glow-in-the-dark slippers, right? No one would hear the story because they’d be staring at you. 🙂 It’s the same in just about any medium, right until the day when people start saying, “Hey, we really want that storyteller with the purple wig,” at which point you can’t take it off any longer.

      1. cricketB

        Agreed, although I associate some stories with a specific teller, usually ones the teller wrote herself. We’re encouraged to tell our own interpretation. Each teller brings new ideas. The amount of personalization depends on the source of the story.

        You want them to think, “That could be me in the story,” and “Gabriel’s got a good point.” Also, “Cricket chooses fun stories that make me think.” You also want them to perk up when it’s your turn next month.

        Removing yourself entirely from the performance is a style — it’s a choice. You also choose the amount of rehearsal, whether it appears memorized or improvised, intimate or public, which adverbs you emphasize, where you pause, where you go quickly. Complete removal doesn’t work — you might as well be a computer.

        Also, some tellers have such strong personalities that chaining it would be distracting. Sit them down, trap their hands, and otherwise let them be themselves. I sometimes try to “be” a different teller while rehearsing. It helps me look at the story and words in a new way. Even more useful is “being” several different tellers.

        As for clothing, some tellers have a vest or talking stick or scarf, usually with special meaning to them. What you choose to wear prepares the audience for your telling style. It can also help them remember you between events, especially if there’s a group. One teller’s clothes remind me of a gypsy, but she varies it to match her story.

  2. Scott

    I think people make (or remake) Christmas songs with their signature style so that they will be immortalized. Listening to the 24 hours of Christmas, how many singers do we hear who’s mainstream music has died out long ago. (Nat King Cole, Whitney Houston, Wham) Our great grandkids will be hearing these Christmas songs, but not knowing (or caring) about all of the others songs they made.

    I think books are different. People don’t specifically write Christmas books so they will be remembered. Authors like S. King, JRR Tolkien, J. Lebak and C. Dickens will be immortalized by writing timeless stories no matter what the genre.

    1. philangelus

      Scott, you’re back! And I kind of wish the Wham! Christmas song would die a merciful death. “Hey, you know what I think about when I think about Christmas? A one-night-stand with a cold-hearted woman!” Why did anyone ever give it a second listen?!

      The key about the way Frank Sinatra or Gene Autry sang Christmas songs was they put their stamp on the song without rendering the song unlistenable. It wasn’t so stamped with their input that you thought, “This is a Frank Sinatra song” instead of “Oh, it’s Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, done by Frank Sinatra.” That’s the deal.

      Tolkien’s work couldn’t have been written by anyone other than Tolkien. I believe some would argue David Eddings tried to do exactly that. But they weren’t overwritten to the point of obfuscation. The story is still there in full force. Same thing with Dickens. Yes, he has a style and a flair, but it doesn’t prevent one from reading and understanding the story. We love what he does, but we can separate the story from the author.