There were some differences. For instance, the boy this girl had a crush on was a green-eyed redhead, while there was nary a Ron Howard lookalike in my class. For another thing, this character associated with one of the bad girls—you know, the kind who smoked once in the girls’ room. Though I could conjure a rough tobacco smell wafting over the bathroom stall in the scene I wrote, the only cigarettes I’d come remotely close to were the Marlboro Light packs my father kept in his shirt pocket. But generally, the girl was me.
The resulting work was what the modern publishing house would call a young adult novel. I just remember it as a treat to write, with a plot that challenged me at times, but generally flowed from my hands.
This book was also illustrated, even though the teacher has required no visuals. Every chapter or so, I took a break from the text to fill a page with the kind of slim figures and almond eyes I loved to sketch in notebooks.
When the time came to read our stories in class, I froze. All of a sudden, the text and drawings weren’t so friendly. I raced through an excerpt, and when I was done, I felt exposed, chafed by the thin veil of fiction I had placed over my story. For days after that Language Arts period ended, I didn’t dare look at a certain brown-haired boy.
When I was 15, my tenth grade English teacher had us write a short story. Four years older and decades wiser, I had now smoked a cigarette. Maybe even two. I had kissed a boy and clomped my way through the halls in thrift store combat boots. But I was far from an ex-con named Lenny. Nevertheless, that describes my protagonist this time. I relished peering at the world from beneath Lenny’s thinning, greasy hair, and as I recall, that was also an easy story to write.
I continued to write short stories for years, from all different points of view and each with its own voice. The catch is that, after further reading, I came to dislike every story I wrote, and never finished another novel.
I pulled out these writing snapshots after a friend sent me Chuck Wendig’s new year piece “25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing (Right Fucking Now).” Number 3, Stop Writing in Someone Else’s Voice, set me off. Writing from another point of view, as a character unlike myself, has been my way of attempting different voices. Only a very skilled writer can carry the same voice through a smorgasbord of people.
But I’ve had a lot of fun slipping on other skins, I argued to myself at first. How else could I have lived the life of a creepy guy who breaks into people’s apartments just to walk among their things, or a five-year-old boy at the beach, or a burlesque performer with a winking monkey tattoo on one butt cheek? I had invented each of these people for my fiction and enjoyed being them for a time.
I face the same debate with myself in my nonfiction. Isn’t it a hoot to argue for precisely what I do not believe? Or stretch the evidence to bring out a theme that the facts don’t support, just to get people thinking? It is. I try. You can probably guess my level of success.
I am not saying that writers who try on characters different from themselves always fail. Novelists like The Woman Warrior author Maxine Hong Kingston, with the wayward male protagonist in Tripmaster Monkey: His Fakebook, and Wendell Berry, a happily married guy with a novel in the voice of a widow, prove that gifted writers can take on genders, lifestyles, and experiences that they have never inhabited.
In nonfiction, taking on a different persona, like Stephen Colbert’s ultra-conservative news commentator or Jonathan Swift’s proponent of noshing on infants, can bring home a point better than a straightforward opinion piece. Yet Kingston and Berry cut their teeth on works featuring characters uncannily like the authors themselves. And Colbert and Swift deliver their so-called opinions with a series of winks and nudges that make their true arguments clear.
I want to remind myself that this stuff is fun, but it isn’t easy. And most of the time it isn’t real. Nowadays, those Marlboro Lights that my dad smoked are called Marlboro Gold. Yet they still smell the same in a living room or wafting along the ceiling of a girls’ bathroom.
So one of my resolutions for 2012 is to write who I am and sound the way I am. Starting right fucking now.
Photo by Laverrue and used under Creative Commons license