The most memorable writing has a strong voice. Memoir, particularly, involves the reader in moving inside the author’s voice and syntax – so it needs to flow.
Read on for four steps to finding your voice – specifically to writing a page-turning memoir.
In memoir and non-fiction, particularly, voice is really important. Why? Because it pulls the reader into your world-view. For memoir, where you want the reader to identify and invest in your dilemmas, you need to have a strong voice. The majority of memoirs are written in the first person, so voice is doubly important.
For a reader to become entranced in your writing, they need to become entranced in your style. And your voice is what will make your writing completely unique.
Think of David Sedaris and his wry observations on the most comi-tragic of family events in Me Talk Pretty One Day, or Joan Didion’s rolling semi-stream-of-consciousness style.
I love this line from Didion in Slouching Towards Bethlehem:
I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there, did not come from there—but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs. I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.
So how do you find your writing voice?
Here are some tips:
1: Know thyself
To know your voice, you have to know yourself. The best writing comes from deeply reflective writers who take the time to ponder why they think the things they think.
Writing is both subjective and objective at the same time, and even though memoir is personal story, it’s also written with a birds-eye point-of-view on why you’ve made the decisions and the choices and felt the way you have about things you’ve done. To do this honestly and accurately, you need to know yourself.
Good creative work, particularly writing, needs time in solitude. Journal and write when no-one else is around, and for no-one else’s eyes but you.
Emails can be another clue to your voice – we tend to fire things off via email quickly and without thinking too much – these are written in our natural style. That’s your voice. Find some emails that you’ve sent to close friends, and look at the way you tell stories and share your tales of woe or joy. These provide good clues to voice, too.
2: Observe yourself
Do friends say you always refer to problems in a particular way? Are you playful, blunt, jokey about serious topics, serious about jokey topics, witty, nervous, positive, intense…?
Do you start every sentence with an apology, or always finish with a joke?
Do you repeat certain words in conversation or emails quite a lot? Start to notice the way you speak about things, tell stories, share information. This is your unique voice. Also start to notice other people’s dialogue and what you do and don’t like about it – by understanding how your style is different to someone else’s, you can more clearly pinpoint your own unique voice.
And – this ties in with knowing yourself – begin to notice what you love, and how you feel when certain things happen – in the above Didion example, she was observing herself at the same time she was enjoying that moment in New York with the peach. Stop and reflect on your thought processes at key moments in your life – good and bad.
3: Play around with different voices and styles
I remember this activity from year 12 English – we had to write an alternative ending to one of the chosen books on the syllabus. Mine was Beverley Farmer’s Home. I loved this exercise because it helped me find a writing ‘voice’ I loved, which I then incorporated into my own. It helped me pay attention to how sentence structure reflects voice. Find a story or a writer you love, and write a few paragraphs as an alternate ending to one of their chapters or stories. This also helps you understand what makes up writing voice – syntax, style, pattern, length of sentences, repetition, entry and exit points… It’s like playing music, really! Mimic the masters to conquer the form.
4: Lastly – keep a daily journal
Be as prolific as you can. It may feel self-indulgent but it’s actually a discipline and will make you a better writer. Keeping a daily journal means that when you sit down to write your memoir (or any kind of non-fiction book) you can much more quickly slip into a natural ‘voice’ without agonising over how to start. It’s also the quickest way to get over your fear of the blank page and create your first pages of material that can be shaped and gleamed and sifted through to find the topic or theme that you want to develop into your memoir.
AND – if you’re going through something enormous right now, which, let’s face it, we ALL are with the global pandemic of COVID – you will go back to these journals and find so much material that you can use for crucial material to make your memoir into a page-turner (dialogue, specifics and other details are just one part of that). My sister did her thesis on the Spanish Flu and a memoir of someone who had experienced that rather than a data-driven historical book would have been incredibly insightful and valuable for her.
Self-reflection is absolutely fundamental to finding your unique writing voice – and, actually writing!
How you write when you think no-one is reading is your writing voice. It also comes across in letters and emails to those you love.
Journalling for memoir is an important skill if you’re hoping to attack a book-length work and also to understand how your voice comes across in memoir. Here’s a program I created with all the tools and self-reflection exercises I’ve used in my own memoir practise.