The Elusive Nonfiction Writing Voice

I’ve always been somewhat of a giant. Being the tallest kid in every class made me a bit shy,  and so I retreated often into my head, where all of my favorite stories lived. In kindergarten, I loved going to the bushes at the edge of the playground during recess and collecting the ladybugs that lived there.  I would let them crawl around on my hands with their tickly little legs as I gave them names and invented stories about their lives. Every now and then the other kids would ask if I wanted to swing, or play house, or do other things kids did, but I was obsessed with the ladybug game, so I thanked them and promised next time I would.

One day, a boy came up to me and asked me what I was doing.  I knew him as kind of a mean boy, but he had never done anything to me, and truth be told, though I was shy, I had my meangirl moments so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I explained the ladybug game to him, catching him up on the latest drama in bugland.

“That’s really neat,” he said. “Can I hold one?”

None of the other kids had ever expressed interest in my game. Eager for a friend to share in the joys of my ladybugs, I held my hand to his and nudged Esmerelda onto his thumb as I explained her backstory. She was going to become the first ladybug in space.

He held her up to the sun and nodded, then looked into my eyes. His squinted as the right side of his mouth curled up into a smirk.  He dropped the ladybug onto the ground, then stomped it while looking at me in glee.

Everything inside of me screeched with the injustice of it. He hadn’t just ruined my game, he had ended a life. It was unforgiveable.

I think maybe he expected me to cry. Or to run and tell the teacher. Instead, in one fluid movement, I shook the other ladybugs off of my hands, grabbed his hair, and threw him to the ground. Then I put my little pink sneaker on his throat and held it there until he started to cry and the teacher intervened.

Now, why am I sharing this story that paints five year old me in an incredibly unflattering and violent light?

It’s all about writing voice. Bear with me.

Over the summer, I taught a class through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the Nashville Public Library called “Writing Your Family History.” Inspired by the style of New Journalism, it was a creative non-fiction writing seminar for people interested in memoir and personal essay. I designed it to help writers 55 years and older write their family stories in ways that are accessible and interesting to an audience outside of their immediate circles.

A lot of writers asked “Why would a stranger care what happened to me or my family?”

Why indeed?

Because there is so much universality in the specific. If you write something in universal terms, it often doesn’t resonate. But if you have a specific story, and write it in such a way that a reader can draw parallels between the experiences in it to those in their own lives, you’ve created something that can potentially help someone. Do it using the narrative style of fiction, and it’s interesting to boot.  Stories and their details change as the times change, but themes are timeless. Tell your old story of love, loss, belonging, injustice, and divine intervention in a way that taps into the modern zeitgeist, and it becomes relevant for a new generation.

Doing that successfully requires a strong writing voice. Ask anyone who has taught writing before- it is one of the hardest things to teach, because it is something that comes with personal development and a lot of practice. You can’t just be taught or learn voice one day; you develop it over time as you refine your soul,  as your reasons for writing become more clear to you,  and as you become more bold in how much of yourself you choose to put on the page.

That said, I can help a little. Generally, your writing voice is tied up with the things that make you uniquely you. Because in society it is difficult to be too different, those things tend to be discouraged at a young age, making the voice-finding process more fraught than it needs to be.

I’ve told my class to think back to these three things:

  1. What you got made fun of for in school
  2. What your parents tried to change about you
  3. What you got into trouble for

Chances are, your voice is somewhere in there. This is the part of your true self that made you stand out, which is why it had to be tamed. When children stand out too much, adults worry that they won’t be able to function in society when they grow up, and so they chip away at the distinctions to help their kids fit in better.

So back to the ladybugs.

I shared this story on twitter a while back, when  asked about your most on-brand tweet from childhood. I think back a lot to this memory because it so clearly  illustrates the central conflicts and contradictions in my own personality. I’m still introspective and dreamy and imaginative, and like that kid who wanted others to play with her ladybugs rather than join them on the swings, I still desperately want people to appreciate me on my terms, rather than asking me to do it on theirs. I’m still very willing to take chances on people who might have done bad things in their past. I still feel a strong compassion for vulnerable beings of all types, and have a sharp protective instinct. And though I try to be gentle and cultivate mercy and kindness, that little pink-sneakered throatstomper is still within me, urging me to overlook the hypocrisy in my desire to crush those who display cruelty.

As you can imagine, as a kid, these traits were difficult for parents, teachers, and the other kids around me. While I was always pretty well liked, I got into fights a lot, usually protecting other people (I was not yet brave enough, or filled with enough self-worth to stand up for myself). Sometimes I neglected homework because I wanted to write fanfiction or read a fantasy novel. I was forever bringing home injured animals, befriending the weirdos, and giving away things I wasn’t supposed to give away to people who seemed to need them more. My parents and teachers thought that if I could just be a little less sensitive, I wouldn’t feel the need to fight so much when people took advantage of that and hurt me or the underdogs I had tasked myself to protect.

And they were probably right, and maybe managed to harden me a little, but it was so very temporary. In my 30s, I’ve softened so much, and I love it.  I’m becoming the person I think I was meant to be.

And with that, my writing has changed a lot, too. I’m so much more interested in the rich inner world of my characters. I’m fascinated with exploring everyone’s vulnerabilities. I do a lot of bringing to light injustices that have been buried in archives for centuries. And in my own voice, rather than couching it in weak, passive writing.

In your own writing journey, I would love to see you own the things that made you different. Use them to write from the heart, without pulling punches. Be as compassionately honest as you can.  Drill right through all of those complicated and contradictory feelings, down to what matters to you, and worry about the consequences of that later. How does that saying go? If the people you write about didn’t want to be portrayed in that way, they should have been nicer.


3 thoughts on “The Elusive Nonfiction Writing Voice

  1. Pingback: Smart Women Write

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