A Partial List of Voices I Stole

Tyler Barton. Photo credit: Natalie Morgan Sharp.

Tyler Barton. Photo credit: Natalie Morgan Sharp.

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

An excerpt from “Lease,” which appears in Little Patuxent Review’s Summer Issue:

What Miss Allens don’t realize is eleven is just two ones next together. Mean, she don’t know basic maths. One and one is two. Followed by a zero means twenty. So I walked right up through her yard, past the sign advertising the bike and slapped a Jefferson in her left hand. She spit into her bucket mean the way she does at strays, and she crumbles it up, tosses it at me. Starts shoutin.

  1. Holden

If you really want to hear about it,[1] I have this complex about third person narrators. Who the hell’s talking to me, and where the hell are they?

These are questions I started asking myself a few years ago, when I was first trying to write, feeling a need to justify my tendency toward the first person. There was something repulsive to me about reading a story or novel and picturing the words coming from a writer, narrating from her desk, or—god help me—his favorite coffee shop. I wanted the words to come from somewhere (that at least seemed) real-life. When a character is a narrator, I see them talking to me—something people do every day in my real life. They’re right there. It’s as if I just happened upon them.

When I sat down to write, it was nearly impossible to write third person, so I didn’t. It’s not that I didn’t respect third person, but I didn’t enjoy it. It didn’t feel natural. It didn’t feel found.

  1. George Saunders’ dad characters & artifact fiction

Having just turned 40, have resolved to embark on grand project of writing every day in this new black book just got at OfficeMax.[2] Then thought: what if stories were strictly documents? Fiction felt double authentic if contained in some seeable/knowable document. Diaries, letters, memos, lists, quizzes, social media, textbooks, etc. etc. etc. (possibilities endless!).

It was far from a unique idea, but that made it no less intriguing. I wanted to read a story that was a thing. A character had created some textual artifact, and I was reading that artifact. I found writers doing this everywhere (Saunders, Egan, Danielewski, Davis, Greenman, the entirety of tNY Press) and it made me want to put every story into a form. This made voice everything. I had to make the thing talk. No time for exposition, setting, what color shirt are they wearing. Just voice, distilled into something that voice created. And this was all I wrote for a while.

  1. Bone

You’ll probably think I’m making a lot of this up just to make me sound better than I really am or smarter or even luckier but I’m not.[3] I milked that formal thing for a while before I was back to writing 1st person stories with characters talking talking talking and shutting up when the story had finished finally.

Photo credit: Tyler Barton.

Photo credit: Tyler Barton.

Things changed, as they do. I write in coffee shops now. I read a lot of third person. Sometimes, I can even find a way to write it. But I’m still drawn to the voice of a character/narrator. Often, I hear a voice saying a single, unique sentence, and I go from there.

When I sat down to write “Lease”, what I had was: “Mrs. Henderson always starts my oranges for me.” It lodged in my brain like a song lyric. Maybe it was applying the verb “start” to a fruit that made it shine in my mind. There was something off about the description—something incorrect. The voice saying those words came in sideways, with a little accent and attitude. When I heard the words in my head, they could not come without a touch of country slack, slur, and twang.

  1. Taylor Greer & my father

I been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign.[4] Until last year (when I read The Bean Trees, Lindsay Hunter, Scott Mclanahan) I had been afraid to write how the people I grew up around spoke. I’d just learned this term—appropriation—and was afraid of being cheap or mean. But these authors showed me sincerity in voice and respect for character. They were never laughing at their narrators.

Photo credit: Rob Westaby.

Photo credit: Rob Westaby.

I grew up in rural, southern Pennsylvania, where it wasn’t a requirement to speak with a bastardized southern drawl, but it didn’t hurt your chances of fitting in. There was an annual event where my classmates rode their tractors to school. I grew up spending precious Saturdays at a go-kart racetrack. I often hear these accents, these tones, in my memories.

I also used to notice the way setting morphed my father’s voice toward a slightly southern accent. At the racetrack, in the garage, at Christmas, it was there. When he sang, there it was. When we camped, I heard it. The rest of the time it was gone. This gave me the idea that a voice could convey a character’s setting without the narrator outright pointing you to a map.

  1. Bogart, Man-man, Hat and The Gang

Where the voices coming from? I really can’t say, boy. Is a real mystery.[5] Which ones hit and which miss? The only book I’ve read more times than Catcher is Miguel Street, where every voice is recorded as it sounds.

I think that every sentence of a first person narrator needs to sound said. I’m inclined to write it like it’s said (this being why, in “Lease”, I chose to drop “g” from a lot of present participles). I read the lines of this flash over and over, out loud, trying to nail down the mannerisms, transitions, and emphases. It took a lot of time for the character’s voice to tell me what he cared about. For this character it was justice. Although he isn’t 100% honest (I think he manipulates with his airhead act), he has a determined sense of justice. It’s the battle between justice and dishonesty that give his voice its shape.

That was only the first step. I had to figure out what it was he wanted. I waited for him to tell me, in his voice. Then I wrote down what he said, just like he said it.

[1] Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

[2] “Semplica Girl Diaries,” George Saunders

[3] Rule of the Bone, Russell Banks

[4] The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver

[5] Miguel Street, V.S. Naipaul

Online Editor’s Note: Having had the opportunity to both read and hear Tyler Barton’s “Lease,” I found his use of voice reminiscent of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, one of my all-time favorite novels. Order your copy of the Summer Issue online to read “Lease” in full.

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