When writing in any capacity, the writer always has to consider voice. Voice can mean a couple different things to a writer. It can be the writer’s own style of writing, syntax, sentence construction, etc. Voice can also be the personas or characters in the story. As readers, we respond to these two concepts of voice and it can drive our love or hate for the characters, story, or author.
Over the past few months, I focused on reading and editing two my novels. During that process, I realized my writing voice changed from one novel to the other. It made sense, sort of, because of the stories. One story was first person narration from a fifteen year old girl and the other was third person limited narration from a thirty year old man. Those voices would obviously be different. Writers must be able to create distinct voices, several voices in fact, in a novel or piece of writing.
So what about in real life? Can writing influence the author’s causal voice, or speech? Can modifying your accent or dialect impact the author’s writing? A few months ago, I read a piece by C. Davis called “Appalachian code switching” on her blog The Homesick Appalachian and haven’t been able to get it out of mind. I thought about the situations where I code switch in my personal life.
Being a native to West Virginia, southwestern West Virginia, more than a few people have commented on the way I talk. Growing up I never noticed an accent (or dialect) because we all sounded the same. My travels were limited and people rarely moved into the area where I grew up. My first jobs were local dealing with mostly local people so I didn’t hear it there either. Sure, in high school my English teachers tried to impress upon us the need to speak properly, but most of them sounded like everyone else so lesson didn’t have the desired impact. I was probably in college before the stereotypes about “dumb hicks” and “hillbillys” hit me full force.
As an adult venturing farther north (still within WV, mind you), I would get comments about my “southern” accent. Then I headed west to visit a friend in Arizona. It seemed like every single person I spoke to made some sort of comment about my accent. I remember sitting with my friend and a group of his friends talking about movies and each time I said “theater,” a couple of the women giggled. Finally, one of them told me the way I said “theater” was cute. While on some level I knew she and I didn’t sound the same, her saying “theater” actually did sound the same to my ears as when I said it. She explained when I say it, it sounded like “thee-hate-er.” Once she sounded it out in that fashion, I could hear it myself when I said it. So I stopped saying theater. To this day, over fourteen years later, I only say theater when I absolutely have no other word to use in its place. When I say it, the shape of my mouth changes to compress the space inside my mouth, I tilt my chin toward my chest, and my brain focuses on saying it fast so I don’t draw out the “e” or add an “h” to the second syllable.
I grew up in a house where the accent was pretty strong. Somehow, I escaped saying things like “far” for fire, “worsh” for wash, and “tard” for tired. However, the word window does stick out to me. Most of the people I grew up around say “winder” instead of window; when I say window, on the other hand, it comes out “winda.”
In 2000, I worked in a call center and our quality reviews were done by people on the west coast. I remember my manager pulling me aside to go over my reviews and the reviewer wrote: “needs to sound less West Virginian” in the comments on one of my call sheets. My manager handled the situation well; she talked about annunciation and remembering my “g” on words that ended with “-ing.” In all fairness, I was dropping the final “g” and most of the time I still do. Even as I type this, in my head “dropping” was “droppin’,” but at least my fingers know to add that final “g.” From that point on, I attempted to sound “less West Virginian” when I was at work. A few weeks ago, a customer told said he didn’t think I was from WV or “you at least weren’t born there because you didn’t sound like other West Virginians.” Mission accomplished I guess. My day to day work requires me to communicate with people all over the world on phone calls, many of which I lead. It seems to go well for the most part. The odd thing? I find I stutter more on work related calls than I do in my personal, casual conversations. I wholeheartedly believe the stutter comes from my brain trying to tell my mouth not to be a West Virginian.
Realizing how often I code switch for work and during my travels, I couldn’t help think about code switching while I was editing my short stories and novels. As I read my own work, I don’t hear an “Appalachian” writer in my words. I don’t feel that sense of culture in my work. I hear a fraudster. I hear someone trying hard to be something other than what she is. I’ve lost my voice and I think it shows in my writing.