It's back to school time around our house and as such, I'm returning to a regular schedule. Or a somewhat regular schedule.
I'm thinking quite a bit about voice these days. For any novel, I think it's one of the most defining factors. And in thinking about voice, more specifically, about what voice I am hoping to achieve, I re-read this blog that originally appeared over at The Divining Wand.
(Originally ran 3/15/2011)
I’m eight, maybe nine-years-old, and am running through Grandma’s backyard. But really it isn’t a yard. It’s all dirt—brown, loose dirt that blows in the wind—no grass. Kansas summers are dry. My hair is parted down the back, a crooked part I made myself, and tied off in two ponytails that hang over my shoulders. I wear sneakers, no socks, because sand spurs are the only things that grow.
Two metal posts stand in Grandma’s backyard. They were once painted white but now the paint has chipped away in large chunks and the posts are stained with orange rust. Grandma’s clothesline is strung between them. The line sags when she hangs out her sheets and towels. At the base of the pole nearest the house is a hole in the ground about the size of my fist. When I stand over the hole, I can see that it has no bottom. I might stick my hand down in it just to be sure but I don’t because Grandma says her pet tarantula lives down there.
Grandma says the tarantula comes out mostly at night because that’s when he does his hunting. The tarantula is a he. But sometimes, Grandma says, he’ll poke his head out in the daytime. He’ll hang two of his eight furry legs over the edge of his hole to sun himself. She visits with him when she hangs out her laundry.
At night, we play kick-the-can—my brother and I and the girls who live next door to Grandma. I run in a wide circle around the hole, afraid I might stumble upon that giant spider while he is scurrying about, doing his hunting. Even if it means someone beats me to base and I am “it,” I run in a wide arc to avoid that hole.
During the day, we play in the sod garage—my brother and I and the girls next door—because it’s always cooler there. Sometimes I help Grandma dump coffee grounds on her garden or spread the carrot and potato peelings that are good fertilizer and might as well not go to waste. While we work, I look for those hairy legs to tap along the rim of the hole, but I don’t ever see them. Grandma says the tarantula can feel us moving about and he won’t come out as long as we’re causing such a raucous.
It’s many years later, won’t say exactly how many, and I have a book coming out soon, my first. BENT ROAD. A few pre-publication reviews have been published, probably more by the time this is posted, and as I start to read what others have to say about my book, I’m thinking more and more about voice. My work, like all writers’ work, has a voice. It bubbled up, as my first writing instructor said it eventually would, about five years ago when I wrote the short story that led to BENT ROAD.
Now that I have this voice, I am inclined to wonder where it came from. Thinking about my Grandma’s house and that tarantula, about her garden fertilized by day-old coffee grounds and table scraps and the cool, dark garage made of sod bricks, I think my voice started to bubble up there. It started with a giant bull dog who lived down the street and daily sent me running for cover on Grandma’s concrete front porch. My voice started with the giant mama catfish Grandpa Doc hauled out of Tuttle Creek. He kept them alive in the backyard by sticking a hose in their mouth and letting the water run through their gills. Then, after a time, he smacked their whiskered heads on the concrete sidewalk. Knocking them out is the only kind thing to do. And then he cut out their hearts and put them in a jar of saltwater so we could watch them beat on. My voice started with the squirrel stories my father told every Christmas Eve and with the old Grandfather clock that chimed every fifteen minutes, reminding me that I wasn’t asleep yet and would be very tired at school the next day. It started with the sweet potatoes my mother made every Christmas and Thanksgiving—brown sugar, butter, cream and cinnamon. My voice started to bubble up a long time ago.
I never saw Grandma’s tarantula. That only occurs to me now as I think back on those summers when the girls next door were my best friends. And while the bull dog who lived down the street was definitely real, I think, perhaps, my fair-haired, gardening Grandmother was pulling my leg.