Monday, August 6, 2018

What voice can I write in?

In my 52 years I have had 2 short stories published. One was during my senior year of college. It was called “Postcard From the Past” and it appeared in the Bucknell Literary Magazine The Red Wheelbarrow.  The other came out when I was in my early 40s. It was called “Floating” and it appeared in the online literary journal called Quay Journal.

The main character in Postcard From the Past is a 12-year old white suburbanite boy. He is not the narrator, but it is his point of view we are inhabiting. Floating takes the perspective of this same character twenty years later. Both are fictionalized versions of me—a middle class white guy raised in suburbia in the 1970s and 1980s.

I have had an easy life. That’s not to say things haven’t gone bad sometimes, but my baseline has always been a place of security and support and belonging. I have never questioned my value in modern American society. In other words, I was born already on second base and I didn’t even know it.

When I write, it is most often non-fiction and the voice is clearly my own. Sometimes, I am inspired to write fiction. Usually the people I write about are white middle class people very much like me and my family and friends.  But every once in a great while a different voice will come out of my head and onto the page.

Sometimes it is a woman, telling her story. One time, the story was from the perspective of a Yemeni villager. Once, it was a dog. I don’t know where the inspiration comes from when these voices spill out of my head and onto the page. I just know that they are sometimes there and they are insistent.

And when I do write from the perspective of a Yemeni man or a woman who sings at funerals at a small Catholic church in Wilmington, I do not write with a political agenda. The first draft is always a sputtering struggle to find the right voice—the real person—who wants to come out. The story comes first and the character walks around in my head and in the story until they either seem real or they fade away because I couldn’t quite find out who they wanted to be.

I read this week about a man whose poem “How-To” appeared in The Nation. The poet is a white man. Some of the lines in his poem are in Black Vernacular English (BVE.) Some readers were offended by this white author’s use of BVE and he and the poetry editors of The Nation apologized for its publication and any hurt it may have caused.

I have not read the poem. I don’t read much poetry, to be honest. But the incident has gotten me thinking about the job of a writer. A writer’s task is to get at the truth somehow. Sometimes that means a haiku. Sometimes it means a memoir. Sometimes the truth is found in a novel or a short story. The characters who appear in all of these works have a voice and a point of view. For me, sometimes the only way for me to know how I really feel about something is to write it out. Ideas can kick around my head without scrutiny for a long time.

It’s when I see them on the page in front of me that I know if they are true or not.

And the truth of the words doesn’t necessarily depend on a one-to-one correlation between my age/sex/gender and that of my characters.

 If a Yemeni villager were to read the story I wrote telling the story of a Yemeni villager, he might laugh in my face at how wrong it all is. He might want to hit me. And those reactions would be warranted. If a woman were to read my story about the funeral singer and shake her head at how wrong it all is I would want to hear what I got wrong and ask for her help in understanding better.

Some of the value of reading fiction surely comes from the opportunity to get inside the hearts and minds and lives of people other than ourselves. We have a magical chance to become intimate with people we would otherwise never meet. I do not want to be told what books I can read and which characters I am allowed to get to know and which I am not.

I also don’t want to be told who I can write about and who I can’t. That is up to me. If I do a terrible job, tell me. Rip up my story. Tell everyone else how shitty it is and how wrong it gets everything. But don’t tell me I can’t use a different voice. That is what writers do.

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