On Voice, Autism, and Parrot-Ear

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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.

Cover for The Someday BirdsI 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.



About Author

Sally J. Pla

Sally J. Pla is the author of The Someday Birds (HarperCollins, Jan 24, 2017). She has three sons, a spouse, and an enormous fluffy dog, and lives near lots of lemon trees in San Diego, where she’s working on her next book.

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9 Comments

  1. Thank you for this inside look at your process, Sally! I’ve been in those embarrassing social situations so many times, and both my mother and my kids constantly tell me to watch my voice. Anyway, I’m glad you slowed down and listened to your own voice because it’s such a powerful part of The Someday Birds.

    • Thank you so much, Lyn! Yes, my sons STILL have to remind me all the time to watch my voice too, and it’s reassuring to know I’m not alone. Further: I wonder if a facility with foreign languages feeds into this. You are a talented translator. I speak fluent French and basic Spanish, and while I may stumble on vocab, native speakers swear my accent is dead on! 😉

  2. Ohmygoodness . . . parrot-ear! There are at least two–nay, with Lyn that makes three–of us with this, and now that I know it’s not just me, I’m guessing there might be quite a few more.

  3. Pingback: On Voice, Autism, And Parrot-Ear. | SALLY J. PLA

  4. Such a lovely and vulnerable confession, yet brilliantly introspective. You may have parrot ears, but you have eagle eyes into the soul of your protagonist.

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