Irreplaceable

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The singer Joe Cocker famously covered the Beatles' A Little Help From My Friends. The two versions have the same lyrics, the same chords and melody, but they sound like two entirely different songs. As much as I love The Beatles, I liked Cocker’s version better. He found and expressed something The Beatles had not. Part of what Cocker found could be heard in his actual singing voice, which is very distinctive, but he also found something in his arrangement, which drove the song toward climaxes The Beatles’ version had only hinted at.

I thought of those two versions when I worked with an editor who, having found something in an essay I’d written he thought needed clarifying, chose to simply write entirely new sentences and insert them into the piece. This surprised me for two reasons. First, no editor I had worked with had ever added more than a phrase. Second, none of the sentences he wrote fit. They were perfectly good sentences, but because they were not in my voice, and so not only did they sound wrong, they also didn’t actually clarify anything.

I did not fully appreciate the inseparable link between voice and meaning until I read that editor’s attempt to write parts of my essay for me. As I reread his edited version it was like listening to Joe Cocker’s A Little Help From My Friends and suddenly hearing Ringo sing a phrase. The editor could not emulate my voice, and I believe this is largely true for all writers. The words we choose are an expression of a point of view on the story we’re telling and on life itself. Every single word is a choice, after all. Another person simply cannot make choices for me because they have not lived what I’ve lived and seen what I’ve seen and loved who I’ve loved.

I don’t mean to be precious about my writing voice; it is what it is. But it is mine, just as my life is mine. I can feel replaceable sometimes. There are lots of people out there who sort of look like me and sort of talk like me. There are lots of people who love to write and teach, who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, and whose parents were divorced. If I were plucked from the planet tomorrow, society would continue to function perfectly well. And yet I am irreplaceable, not because what I’ve written or not written, what I’ve achieved or abandoned, but simply because no one will ever be able to write my stories or live my life for me. My friends may try to help me, but they cannot be me.  

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.