Monday, October 6, 2014

The Voices in My Head

Sacchi Green

Point of View was a topic I suggested, back when we were brainstorming on new themes for our discussions. At the time I was thinking of exactly what’s been so well defined and illustrated by all the previous posters, and what any beginning writers need to learn; is a story written in first person, second person (if that can ever be pinned down,) third person, or the once-ubiquitous omniscient point of view? And what about the “fourth wall,” a term used more in theater when an actor dispenses with the convention that the stage has four walls, and addresses the audience directly? That’s been done in written literature since well before Jane Eyre said, “Reader, I married him.” There’s still more to be said on this subject, but a different interpretation of point of view has been niggling at my mind, so I’m going to veer off a on a tangent.

Point of view is sometimes discussed in terms of “voice.” Is the story being told in the voice of the “I” who lives it (and can’t tell us anything that “I” doesn’t know or observe?) But there are other definitions and functions of voice. [Hang on a minute while I check the topic calendar—okay, we’re not scheduled to discuss “voice” as such any time soon.] What I’ve been pondering lately is how we write in the voices of characters who are very different from ourselves, or at least the selves we recognize as our own. How do we manage to write convincingly from the point of view of another person? How about someone whose vocabulary is likely to be more (or less) limited than ours? Or someone whose frame of reference would be very different? And do our characters speak distinctively enough that a reader knows who’s saying what without needing to be told? These are things I notice when I’m editing other people’s work. All of my fellow writers on this blog manage these things beautifully, often even brilliantly, but I struggle with them myself.

Writing from different perspectives is sometimes a matter of deliberate research into the times and cultures and patterns of speech of the characters we try to depict. More often, I think, we draw on a nearly-subconscious well of information and perceptions that have accumulated throughout our lives. Maybe it’s comparable to having an ear for music. These perceptions are not necessarily accurate, though, and we run the risk of getting it wrong in ways that are only too recognizable to readers who know better. There are characters lurking in the corners of my mind, voices in my head, that I want to write about, but I don’t feel able—don’t feel the right—to speak from their points of view. Occasionally I try anyway, with trepidation, and nobody has called me on my failings. Yet.

Here, in any case, are a couple of examples (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?) of what I mean, from stories I apparently got away with even though they didn’t come out the way I had in mind. This first one was in a book that sold so poorly chances are no one who would raise the subject of the “magic negro” cliché ever saw it. In “Ten Thousand Miles” (from Shades of Blue and Gray: Civil War Ghost Stories) a young, newly widowed Union surgeon in a field hospital along the Mississipi talks with the elderly black orderly who knows more than the surgeon will ever understand.

[EDIT--I realized in the wee small hours of the morning, staying over at my Dad's wi-fi-less house to take him to an early doctor appointment, that this whole first example goes farther off on a tangent than I meant it to. The character I had trepidations about isn't the point of view person at all, but  another very central figure, so it wasn't a matter of point-of-view, but to some extent of this character's voice.]
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Ned came to the corner where Jem knelt inside beside a cot. What was it about the man? The patient, a black soldier chest-shot in a skirmish yesterday, clutched at Jem’s hand, eyes shut, breathing so labored Ned could hear it above the orderly’s low song. Gradually the breathing evened out. Now Ned could make out a few of Jem’s words, lullaby phrases that fit the tune, sung in a voice that rose and fell in a range like—that ought to be—surely it must be a woman’s! A mellow contralto, not the high sweet purity of Lyddie’s voice, but just as unmistakable.
In a surge of memory, part of the puzzle slid into place. Jem knew it, too, raising his head as his song drifted unhurriedly to a close, looking right through the mosquito netting and the darkness outside into Ned’s eyes. With no sign at all of disturbance, he withdrew his hand from the now-slack one, stood slowly, parted the netting at its closest joining, and came to stand beside the surgeon.
The only thing Ned thought of to say was, “Is he…?” with a tilt of his head toward the figure on the cot.
“Not yet. Just peacably asleep. But he won’t ever wake up.”
Ned nodded, unsurprised. He’d known there was no better hope. “And young Nelson over there?”
“Fever’s got him worse ‘n before. He may last the night, but not much longer.”
This, too, was expected. And unavoidable.
They walked together in the darkness between the tent and the thorn hedge. “Jem, were you ever in Indiana?”
“Cap’n, I been everywhere.” Jem’s rich chuckle revealed more than he generally allowed anyone to hear. “South, east, west, and north up along the Wabash and all the way to Canada. Knew your Quaker Grandpa, but you were maybe sixteen then, young Neddie Blayne, always off roamin’ the woods and swamps with that neighbor girl.” His slantwise glance was a question. “That sweet, solemn child with the shy, quicksilver smile…”
“Yes.” Ned drew a deep breath and walked on a bit. “You were well known as a midwife, I recall.” No use even speculating if a skilled midwife could have saved Lyddie, or the child. Or if he himself, off at the wrong time for a week of medical lectures, could have done anything to help.
“Midwife, nurse, healer one way or another. Worked in Canada, Chicago, other places, sometimes in hospitals. The north is mighty like the south when it comes to white folks who won’t touch black folks even when they need doctorin’. Worse, in fact. There’s always work for me. If it means I play a man’s part here, at my age that don’t much signify.”
Ned supposed it didn’t. Easiest to keep on thinking of Jem as a man.
“And then you came back here.”
Jem sat down on a crate of medical supplies. Ned did the same.
“Soon’s I heard they were raising African Brigade troops in these parts I knew where I belonged. With all the folks I helped into this world, now’s my time to save however many I can, and help the rest to a peaceful departure. If a mother’s voice is what they need to hear, that’s what I give. Or a wife’s. And sometimes…” His voice trailed off.
“Sometimes what?” Ned still thought there was more to Jem than what he’d discovered so far.
Jem looked off to some far away place only he could see. “Sometimes,” he said, “more often the older I get, I hear someone, different ones, tellin’ me the right words to say, the music to sing. Even songs I’ve never heard before.”
Ned wasn’t sure he wanted to hear such talk. And he wasn’t sure he didn’t. “Will you sing to Nelson when his time comes?”
“We’ll likely be too busy by then. He won’t need me anyway. He’s got somebody waitin’ to show him the way. I can feel ‘em. Mybe even see ‘em.” He glanced at Ned, then away again. “It happens like that for certain folks. You’ll see some who pass with a look of such joyful recognition on their face as don’t seem humanly possible. And some who…well, never mind those. Just be glad of the joyful ones.”
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But this is a forum of erotica writers, so here’s something completely different, even though the erotic parts don’t come until later. I didn’t satisfy my vision of the character’s voice this time—I wanted a sense of simplicity of mind and background but without any lack of intelligence. The story, “Sergeant Rae,” still did well enough, first in Kristina Wright’s Duty and Desire and then in Best Lesbian Romance 2013, even though it wasn’t quite the story I wanted to tell..

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Sgt. Rae was so strong she could carry me at a run through gunfire and smoke and exploding mines. Two years later, she’s that strong again. With just one hand she can hold me from getting away, no matter how hard I struggle. Even her voice is enough to stop me at a dead run, so it doesn’t matter that she can’t run any more. And anyway, I’d never want to run away.
I’m smaller, but I’ve got my own kind of muscle, even if it doesn’t show. A mechanic in an armored tank unit has to be strong just to handle the tools you need, and if you’re a woman doing the job you need a whole extra layer of strength. I’m not an army mechanic any more, but I can still use tools; Sgt. Rae isn’t an army Sgt. any more, but she’ll always be in charge. At the town hall where she’s the police and fire department dispatcher, they tell me she’s got the whole place organized like it’s never been before.
In our house, or in the town, I’m supposed to just call her Rae these days, and mostly I remember. I’m just Jenny. In the bedroom, we don’t need names at all, except to wake each other when the bad dreams come, and whisper that everything’s all right now. Or close enough to handle, as long as we’re together.
Out here, though, on this trail I’ve made through the woods and across the stream, we play by my rules, and that means I’m Specialist 2nd Brown and she’s the ball-buster Staff Sergeant, even though neither of us has any use for balls.
She’ll be coming along the trail behind me any minute, coming to see what new contraption I’ve constructed. What she expects is something like the exercise stations I’ve built for her into every room in the house, chinning bars and railings and handgrips at different levels, and in a way that’s right, but with a different twist. She expects I’ll want her to order me to drop and do fifty push-ups or sit-ups, or run in place until I’m panting, but this time I want more.
I check the gears and pulleys one more time, even though I already know the tension is set right. It’s my own tension that’s nearly out of control. The posts and crossbars are rock-solid, while I’m shaking in my old fatigues, so nervous and horny that I can’t even tell which is which.
I hear the motor now. I could’ve made it run quieter, but if you’ve been where I’ve been, where we’ve both been, you want to be sure you know who’s coming around the bend.
She’s crossed the rocky ford in the stream where no regular wheelchair could have gone. I salvaged tracks from old snowmobiles at the repair shop where I work, and they’re as good as any armored tank tracks, even though they’re made of Kevlar instead of steel. Fine for this terrain, and even the steel kind got chewed up in the desert sand in Iraq.
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Wait a minute. You know what? After all this, maybe it’s better to just go with our guts. Or intuition, if you want a more delicate term. (Oh, wait, we write erotica!) Go with whatever floats your (metaphorical) pen. And the voices in your head.

7 comments:

  1. I had an interesting little adventure once with using a different "voice," in the sense you're speaking of. I wrote a story (one of a couple over the years) in the voice of a man with a discourse style less "literary" than my own—in this case a hardware salesman with a thing for flight attendants, who was relating an adventure of his own to a sympathetic listener. Aside from generally trying to capture this character's manner of talking, I remember specifically taking care to suppress more recherché vocabulary whenever it presented itself to me. The story was rejected, however, and when I resubmitted it for a slightly different market, I revised it so as to transform the protagonist into a more typically college-English-majory Jeremy character. Below is a sample bit, as it appeared in each of the two versions:

    I’ve seen these guys when I fly, eating up a professional smile like it’s all for them. Myself, I wouldn’t presume.

    I’ve seen these guys when I fly, eating up a professional smile like it’s all for them. Personally, I would never be so presumptuous.

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    1. Hmm, interesting contrast. Definitely different characters, and i think I'd find the first guy's story more interesting.

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    2. Really interesting. That's a pretty subtle change, for pretty big effect.

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  2. I don't know exactly what you were aiming for in these excerpts, but you certainly succeeded in bringing a distinct voice to each one.

    One story of yours where I think you really pulled it off is "Jessebel", your contribution to Coming Together: In Vein. I loved that story, particularly the cadence of the main character's speech.

    I know what you mean about writing characters outside one's own ethnicity or class, though. In my first few novels, all my heroines had at least Masters degrees, because I didn't dare write anything else! Recently, I've gotten a bit braver. For instance, I wrote a black ex-dope addict hooker in "The First Stone". I can't judge how accurate her voice might be, but it's certainly different from the other main character in the story.

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    1. "Cadence" is a lovely word! One I've searched my leaky brain for a time or two, used "rhythm" or "pace" instead, and then remembered too late.

      Thinking of "Jessabel," I've written several stories where I tried to make the characters think and speak in ways that reminded me of Mark Twain, even though when I read Mark Twain again I realized that I'd been completely off-base. And when I think of Mark Twain, I think about the almost-right word being to the right word like the lightning bug to the lightning. And I despair.

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  3. Sacchi, this is a really interesting thing to bring up. I often think about how far I can push myself away from my standard self. Some of creating a different voice comes from research, I think, and listening and paying attention to other people. Some of it comes from accessing the multiplicity of self. I have many lives, many personas, and sometimes when I'm trying to create a distinct voice, what I do is exaggerate some smaller part of me.

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  4. Interesting experiments, Sacchi and commenters. One writer who could really write working-class dialogue in a way that comes across as authentic and pithy was D.H. Lawrence (because those were his people). Unfortunately for North American writers, he's hard to imitate because his characters have distinctly regional British accents.

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