Inside Voices

My favorite T-shirt says, “Writer’s Block: When your imaginary friends won’t talk to you.”  It gets a lot a giggles when I’m grocery shopping at Target.

frantic writer

The reason for the laughs may be the thought that an adult has imaginary friends. Or, as authors often say, “hears voices.” Whatever the cause, it is kind of weird when you think about it. I was having lunch with Rebecca Henderson yesterday, and we were talking about voice. Specifically how hard it can be to sound like a character versus letting your own voice creep in.  How does a middle-aged woman (it pains me to say that, but I turned 41 a few weeks ago. Alas, I am middle-aged) sound like a high-school aged guy? Is there some kind of magic involved? For me, not so much magic as listening. I’m around teens quite a bit, so I’m able to gauge how they sound. But there’s more to it than just sounding authentic. A character has to be fully formed. Not just speech patterns, but internal monologue, style, hopes and dreams, physical tics, fears and foibles. To me, voice isn’t just having your character’s dialog sound natural or unique–it’s making sure the whole package creates a living, breathing creature who is undeniably alive on the page.

To do that, you have to be in touch with the part of your right brain that allows you to escape your own person, so to speak, and “become” another. Does that make a writer crazy? I don’t think so. I think it means we’ve figured out how to access that fantastical part of our minds and peek behind the curtain a little bit. When I started writing my first novel, it was this heady rush. I couldn’t get enough words on the page. I dreamed about my characters and thought about them incessantly. I told a friend it was like I’d found a key to the cellar of my imagination and let all the gremlins loose. That settled down after a while, especially as I learned more about craft and I began to see the story as art, rather than just an escape. Now, to be completely honest, my first few novels were pretty far from being any kind of  art, but I learned a lot from the experience. Probably most important, I learned how to organize the voices and keep them from trampling each other in a mad stampede for their turn in the sun.

However you go about it, storytelling is something innate in all of us. Why else would early humans draw on cave walls? Or invent papyrus? Whether you prefer to teach (which is storytelling in its purest form, in my opinion), create strange new worlds, or use a lens to show the world as it really is, everyone tells stories at one time or another. And that’s when you get in touch with the voices.

Does anyone else have another theory about why or how this happens? What is it about us that makes storytelling so important?

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