On my way home from work one night in the ’90s, I heard actress Judith Ivey on Selected Shorts, reading “Personal Testimony,” a short story by Lynna Williams.
The narrator is eleven-year-old Ellen Whitmore, a preacher’s daughter from Fort Worth, who is at Southern Baptist summer camp in Oklahoma. At evening services, when campers are expected to witness to their experiences of sin and repentance, Ellen demonstrates a talent that catches the attention of fifteen-year-old Michael. Although he’s reputed to be most spiritual boy in camp, Michael has what Ellen’s brother calls “Jesus Jaw”– he has plenty to say but can’t complete a simple sentence: “I just–I mean, it’s just so–I just . . .” He tells Ellen he wishes he could speak about his spiritual life as easily as she can speak about hers, so, following her mother’s example, she offers to help. Within days, she has a thriving business writing personal testimonies for older campers, a gratifying popularity, and a fat stack of bills stashed in her Bible at John 3:16. Her adventure in capitalism ends at the summer’s final service, when she sees her father in the congregation, realizes he knows, and makes one last and very public attempt to avoid his wrath.
I’ve heard that people don’t laugh aloud when alone. That’s not true. I sailed down I-35 guffawing and then quickly broke out in tears.
(I hate it when writers manipulate me like that. It’s just one more skill to covet.)
I’d been writing off and on for a few years but hadn’t produced anything even marginally successful. A small circle of friends and family liked the pieces I showed them, but they also liked me– most of the time–and they weren’t seasoned critics anyway. The writing was bad. I was frustrated. Not knowing what was wrong, I couldn’t make it right. Classes and workshops didn’t help.
The night I heard Judith Ivey read, all that changed. I didn’t experience an epiphany, per se, but there was a definite moment of enlightenment: My best work was bad because it had no voice. I had no voice. The nearest I could manage was a small-time literary critic in love with semicolons.
Listening to “Personal Testimony,” I heard Lynna William’ voice and knew what I should do.
My work should sound natural to my ear. Informal. Fluid. First person narration by a self-absorbed eleven-year-old girl with attitude, precocious in some areas and in others absolutely clueless. That comprised Enlightenment, Part I.
Then came Enlightenment, Part II: I’ve been hearing that voice most of my life. It’s the one I think in. I didn’t have to worry about copying Williams–it’s my voice, too. I’d just never recognized its potential.
Not long after hearing “Personal Testimony,” I allowed the eleven-year-old in my head to dictate a story while I wrote. Then she dictated another. And they worked.
My inner child is different from Ellen, as is only right. Mine is sharper, has more attitude. I have no idea why.
A year ago, my eleven-year-old suddenly morphed into a forty-year-old woman. She has so much attitude she’s scary. Now there’s a third voice, very different from the other two, stronger and scarier even than the forty-year-old. The third voice came as a relief. I’d wondered whether the pre-teen was all I had. What if everything I wrote came from the same source and sounded just like what had come before? The child is fun to listen to, for a while, but after a time, she can become wearing. I spend enough time with her as it is. Readers would soon get their fill.
There are some things that can’t be learned in a classroom. An instructor might have told me my work lacked voice, but he couldn’t have said how to find the right fit.
I’m indebted to Lynna Williams for helping me to hear a girl’s voice, and to recognize its value. She inspired hope. She showed me that if I listen, the eleven-year-old in my head will tell me what I need to know.
Lynna Williams teaches creative writing at Emory University. Read excerpts from “Personal Testimony” at Google Books. The story also appears in Texas Bound: Stories by Texas Writers, Read by Texas Readers. This book comes with an audiobook on cassette tape featuring Judith Ivey’s reading.
Several sermons that appear online refer to “Personal Testimony.” Read one of them here.
Do you like dark and compelling mysteries? That’s how a reader describes Elizabeth Buhmann’s first novel, Lay Death at Her Door. I’m tagging Elizabeth. Click here to visit her blog and read another post in Sisters in Crime’s September SinC-Up.