Finding Voice

Don’t just stand there. Let’s get to it. Strike a pose. There’s nothing to it.

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Copy—steal—abscond with striking characters you read out of magazines and newspapers. Vogue, for instance. Or that loud opinionated guy sitting behind you on the bus. Or that lisping girl working the register at Walmart who won’t bother to smile, not even at your funny jokes. Or your friend’s friend who says “literally” literally all the time. Yeah, that guy. Get that voice in your head and write. Pick someone you don’t like…even better. The best. In fact, the crucial point here is write someone you don’t like.

It’s a way to get out of a rut. Just try on a new character the way you would if you were at a thrift store looking for a cheap and clever Halloween costume. Don’t worry about the audience. Think: It’s a one night stand! What do I care? Don’t worry about getting it published. Just get in that persona as best you can.

I realized that I haven’t shared any of my fiction with you, so here’s something. This is an excerpt from a short story I wrote which was inspired by a newspaper article about a sign flipper (those guys who stand on the street corner in funny costumes to advertise for nearby businesses). It was his life story from drug dealer to prison to Christian:

I Saw the Sign

When I walked in Ginger said hi to me all normal like I hadn’t been missing in action a good chunk of her life. She took me out back for a smoke.

“When did you get out of jail, hm?” She thumped out one of her menthol GPCs from the soft pack. Tell you what. If I’m gonna buy a Generic Pack of Cigarettes, I’ll be getting the hard pack so at least I don’t have to smoke my chemicals all bent and broken. And not menthol either. But women like those menthols for some reason. She gave me one which I took cause my po ass was doing rollies.

“Didn’t you used to be all fancy smoking those Marlboros?” I said, popping one in my mouth. She lit it. I tried not to make a stank face at the mintyness of it.

“Used to. Now I’ve got my daddy’s inheritance.”

“Oh, you mean a whole lot of nothing?”

“Yeah,” she said, putting her hand on her spicy hip like those raccoon-eye bitches on MTV. That wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear, but she wasn’t gonna lie. That she did inherit from me. “So answer me. When did you get out?”

“Couple days ago.” I started getting misty-eyed. “Haven’t seen you in a long time.” Here she was looking like a hoochie mama and I was remembering her picking a dandelion and handing it to me, her little diaper butt swishing around like a garbage bag full of leaves.

“I know.” Like she don’t give a flying fuck. She took that smoke in her lungs hard and didn’t seem to want to let go. Probably because it was her first break in a long while or something. Gotta let that nicotine get in the head and swish it around for awhile before spitting it out.

Damn alley kept farting out little pockets of nasty all up in the air. I was glad the smoke was covering it a little. Ginger pinched her nose. “Pee-ew,” she said. “That’s narsty! Did you do that?”

I smiled. There was my little girl. Come back to dad. “Me? Hell no. I thought that was you.”
She was almost smiling.

She stopped almost smiling, remembering she hated my fucking guts. “You keeping out of trouble?” I asked her just to keep her talking about her and not me.

“What does it look like.”

“I see you’ve got yourself a legit job.” You know you got a legit job when you’re stuck smoking your cigarettes in a alley fearing for your life which you only get to smoke every so often so you have to suck it in like it’s your last.

“I’ve always got myself a legit job.”

“You know it. So how old are you now?” I asked only to see what she’d say and to move some air.

“So how long are you gonna stay out of trouble?” she asked, knowing my bullshitting game pretty well by now.

“I’m sleeping behind the church over by the university. Pastor up there’s got me a tent and I’m hooked up to the church’s electricity and got a little space heater. Pretty posh for a grubby fuck—sorry—guy, like me. How’s it going with you? Got yourself a man?” I was trying not to drop the F-bomb every five seconds because I knew I sounded like a low class motherfucker.

“Yeah.”

“What’s his name?”

“What difference does it make? By the time you remember his name I’ll have a new one anyway.”

“I can’t help it if my frain is bried, darling. Give your old man a break.”

“Norman,” she said.

Our cigarettes were done. She threw hers down like it was the most repulsive thing she ever touched. I squashed it out for her with my Converse. She headed back in.

“Spice girl?”

“What?”

“We’ll be seeing each other, right?”

She turned like she was gonna leave my miserable ass hanging, but then I heard, just barely, “K.” Almost like she’d rather be hocking a big fat loogie in my face.

This thing is long, so I’m not posting all of it.

I had the hardest time with this piece. A lot of people read it and they kept saying the voice was inconsistent. “Would he really say boobies instead of tits? How does he know about Freud? He sounds professorial here.” Ugh. just kept creeping in. Get out! I told myself. It required a lot of effort to keep this voice sustained, a million rewrites, but it was worthwhile for me to get into a mindset utterly different from my own. Cursing like a meth head felt uncomfortable. Purposely messing up the grammar felt even more uncomfortable. My character is not someone I want to meet. I really hate him, if you want to know the truth. But being able to jump into this mindset helped me to acquire skills I wouldn’t otherwise have. It required a lot more attention to detail: vernacular, syntax, punctuation. It’s part of growing as a writer.

They say you should have sympathetic characters. Maybe so. But if you take on a voice you really dislike and make your audience care about him or her, then you’re really doing something clever and great. Why not take on the challenge?

So if you don’t know what to write or you feel things are getting boring, maybe it’s time to get uncomfortable. Keep an open mind next time you’re at the doctor’s office thumbing through a stupid magazine or stuck at a dinner party with someone annoying. You never know.

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