How to Hear Your Voice in Your Writing

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VoicesVoice is harder to teach than it seems. It’s about hearing yourself. That’s why the Amherst Writers methods I use in my workshops are so good for discovering your authentic voice. When you read your fresh writing out loud as we do, in a safe and supportive space, you can hear what rings true. You’ll hear the clear, un-compromised notes from deep in your heart.

Hearing your voice can give you confidence to create something like bathos: that juicy anticlimax when you go from the deep sentiment of your heartstrings to something plain, like the taste of sliced cheese. First the heart, then a simple sentence.

We work toward hearing the styles of our voices. There’s authentic Original Voice, the one we’re raised with and hear as it tells our childhood’s stories. Then there’s Natural Voice, used for our reports on our own life and the facts of our world. Finally there’s Costumed Voices, the ones we prepare for showing off the characters in our stories. Everybody speaks a little differently. Making these voices distinct is a skill worth polishing.

Why is that Original Voice so important? Once you can feel how much comfort your voice gives you, it becomes less painful to write out all of that suppressed trauma. Trust the words you remember from your childhood, Pat Schneider says in Writing Alone and With Others. Her Amherst method textbook has a chapter all its own devoted to voice. There’s a good book by Ben Yagoda, the Sound on the Page, that teaches about voice, too.

When you write about something you care about deeply, you are likely to choose your Original Voice. Use simple language, most of us will. The Original Voice transports us to a place where we can forget to be afraid. Abraham Verghese broke into the world of letters in 1994 with his memoir My Own Country, but he’s come to better known for Cutting for Stone, a novel starring a character with many qualities in common with the author.

In The Sound on the Page, Verghese was interviewed about voice and style and said this about writing nonfiction and memoir.

To me, finding voice is about confidence. I struggled when I first started writing nonfiction. I had to speak as myself. There had to be a sameness and a tameness to my voice. And I had to learn that this ione of the great advantages of nonficton: when something is true, you automatically have the reader’s interest, because we’re all inherently curious about things that really happened.

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Taking the Fight to the So-What Moment

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Few of us are famous. By definition, the word fame labels such people and things as well-known, and there are real limits on how much the world can know about somebody. If you’re like me and not famous, you can still have a memoir inside you, on your laptop, or in the pages of a favorite notebook, one that’s worthy of publication. You don’t even need to have experienced something as unique as cutting off your own arm to escape the wilderness. The key to getting your story into the world and creating a book is to do battle with the so-what moment. You do that battle with the fundamental tools of storytelling.

Writing&SellingYourMemoirSome of those tools help craft sentences and sections, and others serve to steer your story and reel in readers. Paula Balzer examines this in her book Writing and Selling Your Memoir. Some of the weapons to battle that moment — when a reader first sees yours is another story about a broken home, addiction, abuse, financial ruin, or infidelity — rely on the bedrock of voice and style. Your writing must emerge over so many words and drafts that you’re fluid in your voice: the writing that sounds like you and you alone. Everybody has memoir stories to tell, yes. But only you can tell the story in your voice.

Style is comprised of rules and choices, but staying consistent with your voice is a great start to honing in on style. A hair stylist makes a statement for you when you emerge from their salon. Your hair becomes an expressive, emotional element when it’s styled. Your writing makes the same leap when you write towards exuding style. Style has elements, in the classic Strunk & White textbook The Elements of Style. Like the individual cuts, curls, and colors of the salon, the grammar, punctuation, and choices of those elements make up writing style. Like the hairdo that makes us look, good style compels reading.

Reaching for style involves rewriting, the practice that gives you a go-to repertoire. No gerunds, for example. Short sentences, several of them, followed by one long one. The exquisite use of just the right word, although it’s one that’s rare as a just-minted coin in the reader’s hand. It’s the fadeaway jumper from Michael Jordan, says Ben Yagoda in The Sound on the Page, or John Coltrane’s use of the modal scale in jazz. Or leaving out the obvious, like Hemingway did, “and agressively omitting adjectives, metaphors, commas, and connecting words and phrases.”

Although a memoir’s experiences may not be unique, even that can work in your favor. If a story has a high relatability factor — many of us have grieved for someone we’ve have lost — it’s easier for our readers to connect with us. At their essence, stories of marital infidelity are really about betrayal. If you’ve never married, you can still relate to betrayal. And betrayal, and its aftermath, contributes to a universal theme. The little guy who fights the big Goliath of a company can bring down an unfair competitor. But how? Showing us exactly which moments contribute to a universal theme propels a story about a hike through the Appalachians to overcome doubt about abilities  (A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson) beyond that story’s so-what moment. It was just a hike, so what? It was also a discovery about how a hiker is made, or born. And we connected with the main characters early enough in the story to stay on the scene and watch whatever happened next.

In the big picture, the battle against the so-what moment is won or lost with effective writing. The elements are the same as for any kind of story, nonfiction or fiction. You need a good hook. Your story must rush to an engaging moment before the reader has a chance to ask that so-what question. That moment probably lives inside a scene I get to see as the reader. Many people have taken their kids on a two-week vacation in a car. The hook can be the quest for more than just pictures, souvenirs, and dog-eared programs. Those two weeks might be a way to find a proof of love, like a detective story. But only if that proof is elusive. I took a two-week road trip one summer across Midwest ballparks. But the perfect game was not the one I planned. Life is like that, if you’re lucky, and can stay out of your own way on the road.

“We just don’t automatically have the kind of mind-blowing material that results in the “tell me more” situation right off the bat,” Balzer says in her book. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have the material to write a fascinating memoir— it just means we have to battle the so-what moment using some of the other tools in our toolbox.”

The sharpest tool in that box is theme, but it’s also the most elusive. You can work a great deal of the way into a memoir, or any book, before you discover the story’s theme. This is the spine that Sydney Pollack described when he was telling the story of how he directed Out of Africa. “We spent about two years trying to find what I always call a spine or an armature of this piece. Sort of trying to distill the idea  down to one or two clear sentences that could be a guidepost,” he said. “What is it really about? We finally settled on possession. Freedom versus obligation. If I say I love you, what price am I expected to pay?” Out of Africa is based on Karen Blixen’s memoirs, by the way.

“Most best-selling memoirs, if you were to boil the story down to their core, probably have the same story as someone who lives down the street from you, or as someone who works in your office,” Balzer writes. The memoir writer has to mix many additional elements into their book to compel a reader to click the buy button for $12, or carry that paperback to the register. The elements must come from the craft of writing, especially style and voice.

 

Using Truth To Develop Your Writing Voice

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Voice is an important part of growing as a writer, because it’s a gateway to writing more effortlessly. Creating anything will always require effort. But struggling in a first draft can be a sign of over-thinking your writing. Ron Shelton, the screenwriter of Bull Durham and White Men Can’t Jump, says he’s got a sign that sits next to his laptop where he drafts. “Don’t think — just write,” it says. (The time for thinking is during revision, but that’s a pleasant task for another article.)

ernest-hemingway-simplest-wayThis time out, we can look at how to make an effective voice on the page. One exercise we use in the Workshop is what I call the Mimic Technique. Students choose a topic and write it on the top of a blank page. For example, it might be “On Breakfast Habits of Mine” or “The Tears at the End of Prom Night.” They also bring in a passage from a favorite author whose voice they’d like to adapt. They read that passage aloud, just a paragraph, to let that voice seep into their writing spirit. Then they write, just a simple draft, on their chosen topic, working to infuse the voice they’ve just read aloud. It’s an experimental, playing process that helps tune up the writing ear for an author’s voice.

Voice also represents a way to carry stories of your life forward. Our most natural voice is the one we heard telling us stories while we grew up. I call it the Birth Voice, and it often sounds like that voice in our head that talks to us 24×7. A writer might use this voice in telling stories, but they’d like to be heard on the page the same way they’re heard in person. Making that transfer from speaking to writing involves a few tricks that can be useful.

Voice is essential to writing truly and deeply. Ernest Hemingway was a novelist whose stories and views are not for everybody, but no one disputes he was a great writer. One key reason for his success was the tone of truth he could use in his writing.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence,” he said. “Write the truest sentence you know.” Writing can sound simple, as he intended. That direct simplicity brings our voices to the reader with the right amount of effort.

Getting a Strong Start on Your Memoir

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pumping iron therapyMy advice to the writers in the Workshops I run is to find a half hour in the morning, before your day gets upon you, to write. It’s one of the best creative times of the day — because you can carry forward your subconscious dream work into the writing. Plus, the interruptions of the day that can pull you off your creating haven’t surfaced yet.

— How to start if you have not begun? Think about this: What is the question you are trying to answer with your memoir? The question can change, and it usually will. My own memoir started with “How did I make that happy two weeks of baseball with Nicky? Where did my optimism emerge from?” It has evolved to “What lessons from my father changed my fatherhood route with my son? How did I change the rules for a perfect game?”

If you’re free-writing now, that’s good. Prompts that are helpful are “The story I want to tell is…” and “These are the things I remember. These are the things that I don’t remember.” Believe it or not, even the latter has a way of unearthing memories that make up a memoir.

— You always want to write a memoir from the perspective of I. It’s a story where you are the heroine or the hero. A lot of writing may emerge that uses “we” in family situations and scenarios. Let that unspool, yes. Then look at it again and see where you can experiment with sensory writing — the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch — to bring you into the scene as the person experiencing it. Some family events and behavior have to be chronicled, yes. But don’t let yourself, the I, ever drift too far away from the writing.

It helps to know where you’ll go next, too. Write toward the white-hot. More

Letting voice lead your body out of block

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John Lee tells us in Writing from the Body that our throats can bottle up what we want to say in our writing. He has an exercise he suggests to clear our throats, so they are not “knotted with unspoken dreams and uncried tears.”

Yell and shout from deep in your belly into a pillow, Lee says, sending all that blocked energy out of your throat. After you rest your voice an hour, you’ll notice your voice has dropped a register.

He says by repeating this exercise you can clear the unspoken words from your throat and find your voice and writing are both deeper, and with more power. It reminds me of the mornings after I’ve been to a great game, basketball or baseball, shouting out loud among a crowd for several hours. I interview people the next day and tape the conversations, then play them back later and notice how much deeper my voice has gone. And yes, so goes the writing for that day.

Lee adds that “our greater voice in writing occurs naturally, when we are off guard, writing with a certain simplicity of mind.” That’s what we work to create in our meetings at the Writer’s Workshop, using our AWA exercises to switch off the left brain and get to the heart of the words we were born to voice.

Voice is personal

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Donna Levin wrote Get That Novel Started, a hardback that’s been in my library longer than I’d like to admit. (Especially considering how many drafts Viral Times has been through, especially its beginning.) But once you start thinking about finishing a novel, you are urged in Levin’s book to consider “How It Looks Once You’re Finished.”

And so she considers voice as part of the challenge:

It’s the spirit of the writing; it’s what makes your work as unique as your DNA. With a compelling enough voice, you can get away with anything.

Levin goes on to quote Muriel Spark’s novel A Far Cry From Kensington. In it, a character working at a publishing firm advises “clever authors of uncertain talent:”

You are writing a letter to a friend. And this is a dear and close friend, real — or better — invented in your mind like a fixation. Write privately, not publicly; without fear or timidity, right to the end of the letter, as if it was never going to be published, so that your true friend will read it over and over, and then want more enchanting letters from you.