If you’ve been hanging around the last few weeks, you may have noticed a pattern trying to emerge here at Rainbow Dull. I like patterns and I like you hanging around, so let’s keep it up, eh? On Mondays, I plan to continue sharing whatever music is in my head when I sit down to post, hoping it will stir up a little sweetness for you. On Wednesdays, I’ll grab some words from the book I’m reading, or maybe just a few lines from an essay or poem I’ve been chewing on that I think you might like. And from here on out, Fridays will take on some of my own personality, as I hash out whatever it is I’ve been pondering during the week. It would be extra super terrific to hear from some of you in the comments on Friday, if these discussions grab your attention and you have some insight to offer. Or even if they don’t, and you just wanna say hi – that’s great too!
This week, I’m wondering about voice, as in the ones we assume when we create. Specifically, the voices that sound a little different from the usual one that escapes our mouths in our everyday speech and communications; and my question for you goes something like this: Am I allowed to speak for someone whose race, gender or economic and spiritual background differs from my own?
Well, “yes” is the first easy answer that comes to mind. Imagining how someone else feels leads to empathy, and considering the plight of those who are different from us should be encouraged. But does this necessarily mean that it’s okay for me as a writer to presume the life of someone else and put it out there for the world as gospel truth? Even in the realm of fictional stories, when you take on the voice of someone very different from yourself, you are treading on dangerous ground. However, there are those who do it well, and as I’ve considered their sound, I’ve gleaned a few suggestions I thought I could share with you.
#1. Know your subject, or the person(s) for whom you speak, intimately. It makes absolutely no sense for an upper class, adult woman to tell the story of a young boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Unless of course, that woman grew up in a neighborhood with said boy, or several others just like him, as in the case of author S.E. Hinton.
#2. Along with this intimate knowledge, you must be willing to research the time and place in which your characters live. If writers limited themselves to the life and times of their immediate surroundings, then we would only ever tell our own stories, and we would miss out on so many wonderful opportunities! However, you should not assume that one tour of Washington DC will give you all the information you need to write a political thriller. You’re going to have to dig a little deeper than that.
#3. And this is the most important one of all. Avoid stereotypes! If you are a writer who grew up in the city, you may want to think twice about spinning that small town story. You’ll need to make sure you actually know some small town people in real life, and you will not be allowed to make those characters sound like rednecks from a Jeff Foxworthy special! Characters, not caricatures, are what set apart a great work of fiction. Make sure the people in your tale are just as complex and layered as you.
I’m sure there are more guidelines we could come up with and if there happen to be more qualified folks reading who want to chime in on this short list, please do so in the comments. I am certainly no expert, but these are the rules I’ve been thinking about lately, ever since I wrote a poem in a brand new voice, one quite different from my own.
It was a strange, sort of supernatural, experience for me, and I didn’t set out to write in this voice when I first began. In fact, I wasn’t even trying to write a poem. I was actually praying for someone I care about and journaling some of my feelings about her particular situation when someone else broke in to my thoughts. Her voice was loud, and it was southern, but it was way more colorful than my own and also much more direct. She wouldn’t quiet down enough for me to finish my own rambling entry, so I finally turned the page and took down her words.
And when I got to the end, I cried.
I came home and did not know what to do with the piece. I wasn’t ready to post it on my poetry blog. I felt like I would need to explain it to everyone, which made me think that perhaps it was not yet finished. So it stayed safely hidden from the world, in my journal, until last Thursday night.
I attended my first writer’s group, which turned out to be me and one other friend. The group has been meeting for five months now, but I have always had something planned on the nights of their meetings. My plan was to go and observe. I wasn’t sure I was ready to commit to the group and I was petrified of sharing anything with them just yet. But when I got there and it was just the two of us, my friend wouldn’t let me leave without contributing something. He had already read quite a lot to me and I began to feel like I owed him something.
I gathered my courage, but I still had to try and explain my experience to him and I assured him it was not my own voice who would be speaking. Then I told him I wasn’t sure if I should read with an accent or my own regular speech. He gave me the most amazing advice. “Do it in the most embarrassing way you can imagine.” So I did. And he told me there was life in my poem. He immediately thought of someone he knew whose background matched that of my imaginary character and said “I can hear her saying those words.”
I felt authenticated, validated and heard. I’m still not sure if she’s ready for the world yet, but I’m very eager to find out what else she might have to say. I am full of questions for her, not the least of which is: where did you come from?
So what about you? Anyone out there ever have an experience like this? What did you do with your new voice? What are your thoughts about telling a story that isn’t your own? What makes it worth the risk?