Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
It’s crucial that you learn how to find your memoir writer’s voice.
Your writer’s voice is what makes your writing different than everyone else’s—it’s uniquely yours, even if you’re telling the same story as other writers.
It’s the personality of your prose, its fingerprint.
When speaking about this voice, we’re not referring to the sounds that come from your mouth when you talk. We’re talking about what the readers “hear,” feel, and visualize as they read your book. This includes your point of view, the way you describe the characters and convey the story, the emotions and images your words evoke, and more.
But perhaps most importantly, your writer’s voice reveals the honest, authentic you.
How do you find your writer’s voice? Let’s start by examining the voices that most beginning memoir writers tend to focus on, and go from there.
Multitude of voices
Generally speaking, memoir writers wrestle with five kinds of voices:
- In-person voice
- Imagined voice
- Desired voice
- Acquired voice
- Writer’s voice
Occasionally, these five voices are one and the same, but usually they’re quite different. Many beginning memoirists get caught up in the first three voices on the list, when they should be developing the last one—their writer’s voice. Let’s take a look at each one individually.
This is what your friends hear, see, and feel when they listen to you telling your stories. The in-person voice is based on the words you speak, but is heavily influenced by your vocal inflections, gestures, facial expressions, postures, eye contact, and more.
Turn on a tape recorder, tell a story from your life to your device, and voilà! You have captured your story word-for-word, but without the sensory input, the story can feel “bare” and flat.
Now type up a transcript of the recording. With just the words in front of them and no verbal or visual cues, readers will notice the gaps and overlaps in your story, the digressions, repetitions, and other problems unnoticed by your in-person friends. Thus, your in-person voice is probably not the voice you want to use in your memoir. Even if an editor cleans up the transcript, eliminates filler words and repetitions, and sharpens the word choice, it should just be considered raw material for the memoir.
Humans are imaginative creatures, and it’s quite common for people to believe that their own voice is something apart from what it really is.
On one occasion, we taped a client who told a lengthy story. We completely changed it, moved sections of the story around, cut out some large chunks and totally rewrote others, inserted missing information, and replaced over half of the words with stronger choices. Upon reading this very different version of the story, the client exclaimed, “You captured my voice perfectly!”
Of course, it was not his voice at all. He just thought it was.
Some authors are well aware of their voice and don’t like it one bit.
We once worked with a woman blessed with a very organized and sophisticated in-person presentation. She taped herself recounting several stories from her personal life, which we edited, making relatively few changes because it seemed to come alive on the page and capture the essential “her.”
But when we presented it to her, she was horrified.
“That sounds just like me,” she complained, “but it’s not what I want.”
She wanted to come off more erudite and scholarly because, like many writers, she wanted her readers to believe she was “better” than she really was. Making her sound more professorial wasn’t difficult, but it disguised the person behind the words. And when writing a memoir, you don’t want to be wearing a mask.
This is the voice you may use when speaking and writing.
It’s an artificial voice you’ve created. Perhaps it’s designed to highlight the parts of yourself that you like and hide those you don’t, or to make yourself sound either more Shakespearean or more “street.” Or maybe it’s supposed to help you fit in with one group or distance yourself from another.
Whatever the reason, the acquired voice is meant to make you seem like the person you think you need to be. It’s like layers and layers of wrapping paper hiding a present. Some of the paper may be necessary, but most of it is useless and distracting—all it does is obscure what’s inside.
This is the voice that emerges when you strip away all the wrapping of the acquired voice, put aside your imagined and desired voices, and forgo all the visual and oral elements of the in-person voice.
Your writer’s voice is the unvarnished you. While it may not be as pretty and polished as your other voices, it is always your most interesting memoir voice.
Remember, the best memoirs invite the readers into the author’s mind. You can’t do that when you’re hiding behind the other voices or pretending to be what you are not. You can only speak directly to your readers if you’re using your writer’s voice. It’s the only one that allows you to develop a strong connection to them.
As literary agent Rachelle Gardner says, “…your writer’s voice is the expression of YOU on the page. It’s that simple—and that complicated. Your voice is all about honesty. It’s the unfettered, non-derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes, coming through in every word you write.”
Some of our clients worry that their writer’s voice will be dull. “If we don’t dress it up,” they say, “the book’s going to be boring.”
In truth, the absolute best way to connect with your readers is to be as authentic, unguarded, and unselfconscious as you can be in your writing.
Finding your writing voice
To find your authentic voice, you must strip away all the other voices and search for the voice within you. Finding your voice is a process, one that begins with writing, writing, and writing some more.
Don’t edit yourself. Write up those stories you tell your friends, write about your childhood, your hopes and fears, your grandparents, your favorite summer vacation, your most embarrassing moment, and anything else you can think of.
Write stories about yourself and write letters to yourself. Then imagine that you’re writing to someone else, perhaps the kind of person who will want to read your book.
Keep writing. Adopt different emotions and attitudes; aim at different target audiences. Write something you’re angry about. Write about something that brings you joy. Write about something humorous and something sad. Write for your next-door neighbor, your significant other, and for the judge at traffic court. Write a speech you can imagine giving when you accept an important award. Write about the big fears and dark secrets you don’t want to confront.
When you’ve filled a huge stack of yellow pads—or Word docs—go back and read what you’ve written. Read it to yourself and read it out loud. Which passages sound good and which make you cringe with embarrassment? What “works” and what dies on the page? Which individual words and phrases are you proud of and which make you want to rip them from the page?
It’s all about honesty
Now ask yourself which passages seem most honest and authentic—not whether they’re the most polished or interesting to read, the cleverest or most dramatic. Which reveal the real you? Which would you write if you had nothing to protect, if you feared nothing at all, not even criticism from others?
It can be difficult to identify the passages that are the most honest, for we’ve all built up layers of protection and pretense over the years and may not instantly recognize our true selves. It may take a while to learn to tap into your writer’s voice and to recognize the honesty it produces.
As writing guru Jane Friedman notes in her “5 Ways to Develop Your Writer’s Voice”, “Developing your writer’s voice requires you to know yourself and reveal that self in your writing: this is who I am and this is what I care most about.”
Work with your writer’s voice
Your writer’s voice is without a doubt the best voice for your memoir. Yes, you can always improve upon it and polish it, but don’t change it.
Then, build your memoir around that voice. Pick a theme and stories that work best with it, and the memoir will ring true.
You may have to sacrifice some of your favorite stories, but it will be well worth it to create a more authentic memoir.
Examples of a good memoir writer’s voice
There is no right or wrong writer’s voice as long as it’s genuine. And that can be a subjective judgment, so what seems authentic to some readers may not work for others.
Here are the selections from among the opening pages of several noted memoirs, known for their authentic voices:
From Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love:
“I wish Giovanni would kiss me.
“Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea. To begin with, Giovanni is ten years younger than I am, and—like most Italian guys in their twenties—he still lives with his mother. These facts alone make him an unlikely romance partner for me, given that I am a professional American woman in my mid-thirties, who has just come through a failed marriage and a devastating, interminable divorce, followed immediately by a passionate love affair that ended in sickening heartbreak.”
From Katha Pollitt’s Learning to Drive:
“‘Over there, the red jeep. Park!’ Ben, my gentle Filipino driving instructor, has suddenly become severe, abrupt, commanding. A slight man, he now looms bulkily in his seat; his usually soft voice has acquired a threatening edge. In a scenario that we have repeated dozens of times, and that has kinky overtones I don’t even want to think about, he is pretending to be the test examiner, barking out orders as we tool along the streets above Columbia University in the early morning.”
From Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie:
“The last class of my old professor’s life took place once a week in his house, by a window in the study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink leaves. The class met on Tuesdays. It began after breakfast. The subject was The Meaning of Life. It was taught from experience.”
From Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle:
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.”
Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime:
“I was nine years old when my mother threw me out of a moving car. It happened on a Sunday. I know it was on a Sunday because we were coming home from church, and every Sunday in my childhood meant church. We never missed church. My mother was—and still is—a deeply religious woman. Very Christian. Like indigenous peoples around the world, black South Africans adopted the religion of our colonizers. By ‘adopt’ I mean it was forced on us. The white man was quite stern with the native. ‘You need to pray to Jesus,’ he said. ‘Jesus will save you.’ To which the native replied, ‘Well, we do need to be saved—saved from you, but that’s beside the point. So let’s give this Jesus thing a shot.’”
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