Monday, February 22, 2010

Hearing Voices

I’m kind of a quiet person – at least in most situations. Get me around my sisters, the English girls, or the people who know me best and it’s a different story. But most of the time I like to hang back, observe and make mental notes (not necessarily judgments, just observations). Somewhere in these years of watching and listening, I became good at imitating voices. While some people make a living at imitating celebrities, my skills are much less marketable – I can do relatives, colleagues and superiors. I’ve been known to carry tales of student folly into the teachers' lounge, getting the particular blend of ennui and ignorance just right.

This dubious talent has proved useful in writing. When I understand a character, I can speak in her (or less often, his) voice. That’s usually how my stories start – I hear or invent a line of dialogue and I imagine the life of its speaker. I hear the story in my head. For a short while – ten or twenty pages, maybe – I speak in her voice.

About ten months ago I heard the voice of a little girl. I was sitting at my laptop –not at a Ouija board, not around a table at a séance, but it was a surreal experience nevertheless. I was a sort of medium – but isn’t the writer or artist always a medium to inspiration? Before I knew it, I was writing in the voice of a nine-year-old girl living in Wisconsin in 1971.

This made me a little anxious.

I can’t write from a child’s perspective, I fretted to my writing mentor. I don’t have kids. I don’t spend a lot of time with kids. I’m not even completely sure I like kids. What am I supposed to do, stalk some fourth grader on the playground?

Well – he chuckled back over email – you once were a nine-year-old girl.

True enough. I do remember being that age – mainly because that year we packed up our lives and moved from Ohio to California, and in California I was the weird kid with homemade dresses and a bowl cut, when every other kid in my class wore jeans and a ponytail. But that was twenty years ago. Er – more than twenty.

Don’t panic, he advised me. Just see what she has to say.

And so, like a medium pleading with a spirit, I sat at my laptop and let the story come. And I realized somewhere around page 50 that I like this girl. By page 100 I could see that she isn’t at all me as a nine-year-old; she loves different things, makes different mistakes. By page 150, I was excited to see what spunky, nervy thing she was going to say next. And even if I stall now and then (especially now, on the cusp of page 200), I just have to remember her voice. I have to listen in closely, get her breathing patterns and inflections just right. Then I can step back and let her tell the story.

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