That’s a Harlan Ellison title; this is not a Harlan Ellison story. But it could be.
On Thursday, June 7th, I lost my voice. I lost my voice like a set of keys.
I was hosting a reading for my students at a bookshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Things were going swimmingly, until I began to drown.
I first noticed what appeared to be a lightening bolt flashing in my right vision. Having run from the car to the bookshop, I assumed I must have stared at the sunset.
Next, I began to drop the clipboard I was holding beneath my chair. I dropped it not once but five times. Still, I was able to introduce the first few students. Only in retrospect were the warning signals approaching faster than an unseen red light. Paraphrasing Robert Johnson, the blue light was the reading, the red light was my mind.
I then stood to introduce my next student, Rafael. Rafael is a name I normally remember with ease, but the name was gone. At the same time, I noticed my vocabulary narrowing to just a few words. After Rafael realized he should simply begin his reading, I sat, nudged my student Martin and asked him to read the rest of the introductions.
At the end of the event, I tried to give a farewell speech. I wanted to say that stories are important, that we need new myths, ones that involve the world as it currently exists, reinterpreting it so that we might stand a better chance of understanding and possibly even surviving the future.
Instead, I spoke a nonexistent foreign language, finally surrendering the night as I saw the confusion and concern amongst the audience members. I stayed long enough to pose for photographs and say a few words to my various supervisors. Apparently, I made no sense whatsoever. I soon left, knowing my condition was deteriorating.
My ex-wife ingeniously snuck me to the hospital via what was to me an unfamiliar route. By that time, I could not figure out how to fasten or even find the safety belt. Still, I thought the occurrence was an anomaly that would pass.
Too late; I was at the hospital where, as my ex-wife reports, I could pronounce vulgarities and nothing else. After my usual attempted escape, I found myself in a bed undergoing the insertion of a catheter. I’ll only say that despite my being home, I’m still not smiling everywhere.
The next day, I still could not speak. The best I can summarize the experience: Despite being thirsty for over twenty hours, I could not express the need for water. Every word I spoke combusted in consonants, as if my language center had gone exploded view. Of course, I wondered (while trying not to) whether I would ever write again. It seemed altogether possible that I would not.
I was subjected to more needles than Keith Richards on a bad day. The tests proved inconclusive. The physicians ruled out a stroke and narrowed their diagnosis to a headache-free migraine, which, they claim, attacked my ability to speak.
By the third day, I was almost back to normal, yet everything had changed. For a while, I thought I might die at any moment, and then I thought I might die soon, and then I realized I could not be sure what the effect on my lifespan would be given the nature of the diagnosis, which seemed as much a guess as a definition.
Perhaps any day now, I will babble permanently, a Tower of Babel six feet tall, lumbering in the yard awaiting the mail to arrive for no other reason than having nothing better to do. Still, I’ve one more novel to write, and I will complete that project if it kills me.
In the meantime, I dropped my MFA courses. Why?
There comes a time when trying to do more equals less. Time to drop wish-fulfillment fantasies that somebody else will instigate one’s rise to the major leagues. Time to realize the corporate mentality that so dominates writing today must be seen for what it is: the assimilation and destruction of every original impulse a writer possesses.
Allow me, then, to complete the speech I intended to read that speechless night.
Fiction is important. Fiction should include the world without necessarily concerning itself with world politics and ideology; however, it shouldn’t be a doll’s house.
We must expand our imaginations, not contract them. We must write as individuals, not as groups. Having seen what “democracy” has brought us, do we wish the same the lowest common denominator upon fiction? Should we poll readers, asking them to name the author with whom they’d most enjoy sharing a barbecue? Or should writers spill their guts, literally, like organ donors, in this case brains or, more accurately, imaginations?
Spill the guts and brains. If we should babble in the end, at least our voices meant something while they lasted. Otherwise, we might as well remain infants, innocent and optimistic no matter what the circumstances, and capable of reflecting only the infantile world that surrounds us with all its objects floating above the crib.