by Kathleen Bradean
I think I found my writer's voice years ago when we were in Taccoa visiting relatives. Seeing relatives is real easy in Taccoa as I'm blood kin to at least twenty percent of the population. It's a small town; my mother had sixty-four cousins; you do the math.
Oh, she didn't have sixty-four living cousins. There were only about twenty-eight of them. Living cousins, that is. A few got killt off in road accidents and that type of stuff. Many of the sixty-four didn't make it to their first birthday. Then there were the diphtheria and cholera years where whole branches of the family tree got pruned off in the course of a week, sort of like when a tornado goes through town and tears away tree limbs and sends them flying through your window or shattering your home and all you can do the next day is stare numbly at the damage until your eyes get itchy from tears. Then you drag the back of your hand across you runny nose and go on living because what else are you gonna do?
I only know about all the cousins that passed because there's a book that lists everyone in the family since we came over from England. One time I was real bored because it was my turn to be the person my sisters hated and they'd sneaked off to the creek without me. I knew where they were but the rules of that particularly nasty game were that you had to suck it up and take it so I had to make do until they forgave me for whatever sin they'd decided I'd committed. Seeing as Toccoa is surrounded by the southernmost crest of the Smoky Mountains and this was years before satellite, Grandma's TV only got snowy pictures and ghosts followed the actors. Besides, my grandparents belonged to the cult of 'go play outside' so after a long sigh and an eye roll that nearly got me in big trouble, I took the book out on the back steps and balanced it on my bony knees while I flipped to the page where my mother's name was listed, and my sisters and me with her, and that's how I found out about all those dead cousins. I counted them, even the babies who only lived a day. Then I crawled under the house to play with the barn cat's kittens.
My elusive writer's voice wasn't under the house with them.
We were driving around town-- We must have been on our way to church. Grandma was wearing those white cotton gloves and I had on a dress which was a miracle in and of itself-- and Grandma said "Mister L" -- isn't it funny how they called each other Mister L and Missus L instead of using their first names? Maybe because they flat out hated each other. Anyway, Grandma said, "Stop the car. I want to show the children this house." It was a big old dark green thing with a mansard roof that had seen better centuries. We said we could see the house fine from the car, but she insisted.
Grandpa didn't need to stop really. He always drove so slow we could have popped open the doors and stepped out like it was one of those carnival rides on a continuous belt, but he pulled off the road, which probably brought considerable relief to that blue Chevy that had been dogging Grandpa's back bumper since we passed the county high school.
The cicadas were buzzing like mad in towering, pale green trees behind the house. Gravel got in my shoe as we walked down the drive so I hopped on one foot while I dumped it out. Grandma stepped onto the porch and knocked on the door. When no one answered, my sisters and I shuffled toward the car, not in any hurry to get back in because Grandma and Grandpa had been bickering all morning about whether we'd go to the Methodist church (his) or the Baptist (hers) and we would have been glad to miss both. So when she called us over and tolt us to look through the windows so we could see the inside of the place, we climbed up on the porch with her. I cupped my hands around my eyes and looked into the parlor. Some guy was asleep on a couch in his t-shirt and I could hear a game on a television I couldn't see. I tugged on Grandma's sleeve and whispered frantically to her to move away from the window. Maybe I only thought I was was whispering because the man sat up suddenly. We yelped and lit out for Grandpa's car, but Grandma just stood there on the porch peering in like she never heard of a shotgun before. The door yanked open and the guy's hair, which was sticking up like he'd licked a light socket, I swear reached the top of the door frame. He stared at us sleep stupefied for a good moment. My sisters and I held hands and our breaths.
Turns out he was a cousin.
One of the living, of course. We may be southern but we aren't gothic.
Maybe you wonder how you develop your writers voice and maybe you don't. I went looking for it but got sidetracked and haven't bothered since. Supposedly, that's what an MFA program does for you. But I'm convinced that focuses on the wrong thing. If the story is first person, it has to be written in the character's voice, not the writer's. Otherwise, the writer is intruding.
I didn't find my writer's voice in Toccoa, but I can make it sound as if this narrator is me. It's channeling the way a story would be told by that narrator. It's cadence and vocabulary. It's judiciously ignoring grammar in favor of voice. I wouldn't suggest writing dialectics as a rule since they are often annoying, but those three words inform the reader about the narrator in ways that the rest of the text can't, so I did it anyway.
If you're a writer, you may have voices in your head. Let them speak on the page. Don't worry about your voice, because unless you consciously steer your writing to a different one, yours will shine through.
The Devil of Ponong series