Act normal or act natural, Pt. 2: My body, my health, and my voice

In this post, I’ll be detailing my own work with finding my voice. The next one will be specifically about my attempts at learning to act natural – this one is more technical and physically oriented. Also, thoughts on poetry.

I’m a writer. I started at age 16, and so far I’ve had three books published and am working on number four (and possibly five, time will tell what it turns into). I guess my first five-or-so years of writing were my fumbling years, where I just focused on finding my writing voice and collecting experience – as you do. This was the time when I said yes to everything and anything related to writing just to try it out, and one of those things was poetry readings. Some were special events that I was invited for, some were regular sessions where amateur poets would get together to read to one another, and one time I competed in a poetry slam.

I didn’t have to do many poetry readings before deciding I hated them. I had social anxiety already, and it exploded into full-blown stagefright the moment everybody’s eyes were directed at me. I always have trouble listening to spoken word – I take in words so much better when I read them – and so there really didn’t seem to be a point in me reading something aloud that was already written. I was always fighting the urge to just photocopy the poem 50 times, go onstage, say, “I’ll put these here and then you can read them yourselves”, and walk off. In the end, I decided I wanted to be a silent poet. I saw a lot of writers saying yes to poetry readings just to get their words out to more people, even though they had no idea what they were doing onstage and weren’t really trying to make it a performance, and I consider it unprofessional and disrespectful to the audience. I’ll do poetry readings that are as good as my books, or I won’t do poetry readings. And since performance is probably the thing in the world that I’m least naturally talented at, the obvious conclusion was not to do it. From then on, I said no to poetry readings in the same matter of course as if I had been asked to perform a ballet: “No, sorry, I’m just a writer, not a performer”.

It made sense in relation to who I considered my target audience, too: I felt very ostracized by both pop culture and various subcultures, and I drew my strength and comfort mainly from books written by people who died many years before I was born – or artists who lived in different countries than me and who I probably wouldn’t be socially compatible with. I wanted to write for others who were, in a way, outside of society, and so I didn’t expect them to want to go out (say, to poetry readings), and I figured many of them would be born only after I died.
Also, I really liked (and still do) the idea of silent words, and of communicating with people I’d never meet. Who was it that said that libraries are where you go to speak to the dead?

A few years ago, for several reasons, my priorities changed, and I decided I wanted to learn to be a good performer. I knew that the key to that lay in learning how to enjoy it, because when you enjoy something, you do it all the time until you’re good at it – or at least that’s how I work. I also knew that an institutionalized, full-time education would fuck me up (it was the most important thing I learned in college). So I decided to tailor an education to myself while still keeping my job (my day job is, thank fuck, very flexible, since I’m self-employed).

This means I’m taking various courses and individual sessions with different voice coaches in my spare time – some technical, some more therapeutic – and paying for it myself. It actually works better for me than ordinary therapy, even when it’s just technical stuff, because the body is so practically involved in the process. I understand myself pretty well, so there are limits to what a psychiatrist can help me with. It’s my body, and my connection to my body, that needs work. I also get different kinds of massages to help my muscles become more pliable to the work I’m doing. Most importantly, in each session I get exercises and challenges that I can work on for weeks at home.

After about a year’s work, I realized that my biggest stumbling block wasn’t my stage fright or my lack of conception of what performances were good for, but my physical voice. It was a frail, sickly twig of a whisper, and it was that way (, I learned from my voice coaches,) because a lot of the muscles used to support it were chronically tense (‘locked’), and therefore constantly hard enough to keep my voice from unfolding, but too exhausted to support it right. The reason I always felt uncomfortable performing was simply because my voice wasn’t suited for the job, and that made me feel unprofessional, incompetent. A lot of more-or-less ineffective exercises went into trying to learn to relax those muscles – and then tense them up when I needed support – but in the few instances when I learned to relax, the moment I had to tense up, the muscle would get ‘locked’ again.

I also had and have problems feeling the individual muscles. At a tantric course I took last year, we did a meditation where you lie on your back with your eyes closed and focus on and relax one part of the body at a time. This made me realize that my proprioception was completely picasso – when lying symmetrically, I felt like my limbs were in completely different places, one arm up and one down etc. There were also a lot of muscles I couldn’t tell apart or couldn’t work separately (I think that’s pretty common, though, just maybe a bit more pronounced for me). I’m still working on that.

The more I worked with my body, the more I started feeling the constant tension and pain in it. Especially my back was always hurting, sometimes debilitatingly much. Total relaxation was not possible – I could only relax each muscle slightly one by one by meditating / focusing on it, and they would all tense back up the moment I removed focus.

I felt/feel like my stress and frailty were/are coming almost exclusively from my body being so tense. I got out of a 14-year depression about four years ago and have been getting gradually happier and healthier ever since, but it’s like my body hasn’t caught up with my mind and is still acting out a prolonged, jammed fight-or-flight mechanism.

One of my voice coaches suggested that I start doing pilates. I found a beginner’s dvd online (learning pilates without having to go outside of my apartment and meet a new person? ♫ ooh happy daaay ♪), and after doing the exercises religiously for about six months, my chronic back pains started to go away! I considered it a fucking miracle, because I’m convinced that I’ve always had the back problems I have, and that the only reason I didn’t feel the pain much before these past few years is because I was so completely dislodged from my body, unable to deal with the physical pain on top of the severe mental pain I’ve been dealing with since childhood.

Pilates didn’t cure anything – I still have to do it every or at least every other day to keep from getting back pains. My muscles also still tense up the moment I don’t focus on relaxing them. But doing pilates every day keeps it at a level where I feel healthy, fairly relaxed, and averagely strong.

Especially after I started doing pilates, my health has improved dramatically. I’ve always been in poor health. Nothing serious, just getting sick about 4 times more often that the average person, and being sick about 3 times longer each time. Inexplicable rashes, three day hangovers, debilitating cramps, constant nausea and back pain, that kind of thing. I’ve gotten used to being more physically frail and weaker than others, even though I’ve been working out 3 days a week since I was 16, eat pretty healthy, and generally do ‘the right things’ that should make me strong, healthy, and resilient. But since I started doing pilates, focusing inwards when singing, and getting massages on a regular basis, I’ve reached a near-average rate of illness and ailments. I’m less stressed generally, and I’ve found that if I use those relaxation techniques in everyday life, it relieves stress acutely too. I’ve also noticed that if I work a lot on relaxing the muscles in my face and head, I get a lot less acne in those areas.

My poor health really seems to be stemming almost exclusively from chronic muscle tension – and I’ve found something that relieves the symptoms.

The next step is to find something that cures the cause.

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