The Emperor Has Nothing On Us

by Jennifer Paros

Finding a voice is speaking and living the truth. Each of you has a distinctive voice. When you find it . . . .You will be heard.

                                        --  John Grisham

My thirteen-year-old son has a habit of saying “of course” when I ask something of him or speak of topics in which he’s not interested. His tone - distant and automated - sets my mind racing with complaints of not being acknowledged. Suddenly he is The Emperor whose attention I am trying to win.  And there’s no winning - I can’t make anyone hear me out.  It is natural to want to be heard, but still my greater desire is to speak authentically, regardless.  And no one’s response or lack thereof determines me realizing that desire. 

When we write, we strive to fill pages with what interests and moves us, speaking as we wish to hear.  Yet the same issues of reception and response can come up.   Now the audience (Agent, Publisher, The Masses) can become The Emperor in our minds – the one we have to win over, rather than the one with whom we’re sharing.   

I have encountered a few “Emperor” types - people with whom I found it hard to express my authentic voice.  One was my high school choir teacher, Mr. Votta – a man rarely able to smile and teach at the same time.    

I came to high school choir auditions with happy memories of being in chorus throughout elementary and junior high, having studied with a teacher I adored.  My peers and I stood before our new leader while he sat at the piano hammering out scales and barking directives.  My friend Kirsten, farm-fresh, strove to let out a few high, soft notes.  He howled for her to remove her small purse, the strap of which she wore on a diagonal across her chest, accusing it of being responsible for her strangled vocalization. “You sound like you’re choking!” My turn was next. 

I was made a Tenor as there were too few boys, and went on to weakly summon forth a voice, in the presence of Mr. Votta, that was never quite my own.   I wanted warmth from him; I looked for encouragement and reassurance and because that was not to be, I was discouraged and in turn often angry.  With his almost black hair, pointy beard and general bitterness, my nickname for him was thedevil. What I had loved about my previous teacher was how encouraging she was - a hand to hold.  Though, in truth, I didn’t need that hand in order to sing freely. 

I care not so much what I am to others as what I am to myself.  I will be rich by myself, and not by borrowing.  

                                                  --  Michel de Montaigne

I kept seeking Mr. Votta’s approval and so self-doubt shook me.  There was no emperor, no devil in my world. But I did make Votta into one. I put my voice and my presence in subservience to having to prove myself to him, and that decision left me to suffer. 

Years ago, while drawing for my children’s book and under contract for the first time, my hand shook each time I approached inking the faces of the characters.  No emperor was watching, just me.  But thoughts of needing to prove myself were sufficient to make me wobble.  I was going to have to hold my own hand as I spoke genuinely through the lines, allowing it all to be good enough.  

This life is ours, this writing - ours.  All outlets of expression belong to us and our unique voice is our incomparable gift to offer.   Intimidation is a myth; there’s nothing bigger than what we’re made of.  Our true voice isn’t fought for, won back or asserted; our true voice flows forth from our own full acceptance of who we are.   

There is no Emperor in the audience.  Out there is in here. 

We need no one to hear us in order for us to speak our truth.  The phrase is “the Truth will set you free,” not “the Someone hearing your truth will set you free.”    No external approval or reassurance can set us free or donate genuine confidence to our cause.  The world shares in our joy when we are willing to share our joy with the world. 

The Emperor has nothing on us. The authentic voice never shakes; our expression may falter but that can be remedied.  There is no one and nothing to win over or conquer, nothing to prove, and everything to gain by sharing what we most want to give. 

Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.

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