I am with my teenage sons in the grocery store. The cashier has a thick Eastern European accent. “So much rain, today!” she says. I smile and start to respond.
My son’s foot nudges me. “Mom!” he whispers. “Watch your voice!”
That’s because I have this annoying problem I call “parrot-ear.” When in conversation with a new person, I unconsciously adopt their vocal patterns, their accent. I know. It’s strange. I don’t mean to do it. The last thing I want to be is disrespectful. It’s just that I’m a bit socially anxious, so in order to get social interactions right, I concentrate extremely hard. Too hard.
I bring this up because I think it translates into how hard we authors quest for authentic voice in our fictional characters. We often struggle, on the page, to “hear.” To find that sympathetic rhythm of our creations’ voices. We concentrate so hard on certain aspects of our stories – literary and real-life – that we can totally miss other things that are going on. (Both on the page, and maybe in the grocery store.)
I only started writing fiction a few years ago. I had in mind a book about a twelve-year-old boy named Charlie – a story to honor the many road trips taken with my three sons through the years. These trips were never easy for my autistic middle son, and I wanted to write about that. About being challenged out of your comfort zone, about learning how to feel more at ease in the world.
But I didn’t want Charlie to represent or “be” my son. Charlie had to be his own unique character, as well as a vehicle for the issues I wanted to address. The life-philosophies I wanted to discuss. The perceptions I wanted to confront. There was so much I wanted this voice to do. I began to hyper-focus on the giant load of responsibility I was cramming into this one character. Hmmm, so what would that voice sound like?
Further: I wanted Charlie’s autism to be natural, just part of him, never “pointed out” or “pointed to.” I wanted readers to hear Charlie’s voice clearly, to see the world naturally through his eyes – not filtered through his label.
As usual, I was starting to go overboard. I figured I’d have to channel a bit of my son, patch in a few other young autistic friends, add voluminous research, concentrate extremely hard, and parrot it all together somehow.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, the minute I opened my laptop to start draft one, everything – all of that – mysteriously died away. And Charlie’s voice appeared. Quiet, blunt, deadpan, funny. There he was.
I guess I was ready for him, and he was ready for me. And as the cross-country story-journey unfolded, I had the odd sensation of chasing Charlie across the page, trying to keep up with everything he had to say.
I still didn’t understand enough about my own self to realize why, finally, it came so easily. I didn’t realize until long after the first draft was finished, that in discovering Charlie’s natural voice, I was starting, finally starting, to discover my own.
Beta readers would look at me funny. “How did you manage to capture that voice?” they’d ask. “How did you know to describe those particular feelings?”
I was starting to have a few self-revelations about that.
I decided to go get autism testing at about the same time The Someday Birds finished first-pass edits. I needed to know, in speaking about my book, whether I was writing Charlie from the outside, or from the inside.
I have found out that it’s the latter. And certain things about my past, my self, my voice, have clicked into much clearer focus. That’s been extremely validating. That’s been my book’s gift to me.
What also strengthens and reassures me, is that readers of The Someday Birds seem to love Charlie. They connect with his honesty and his basic goodness, and I think – I hope – that they also connect with his autism.
The Someday Birds has a chapter about parrots in it, but it wasn’t written with parrot-ear.
It was written in my own, authentic voice.
And that, I suppose, is a start.