A Madison Magazine Reader’s Memories Become a Published Memoir
Mar 12, 2013
04:11 PMFrom Memory to Memoir
Finding Your Voice
One of the challenges when you start to set words on paper is finding your voice. What will your choice of words tell your reader about you? Will you come across as reserved? Relaxed? Conversational? Will your voice lead your reader to expect a gut-wrenching confessional or a life-affirming reminiscence?
As a literary term, a writer’s "voice" can be defined as the combination of an individual’s choices, including vocabulary, grammar and syntax, which establish the style or tone of that writer’s work. Your literary voice is what allows you to talk to your reader. The voice you choose can make it seem as if you’re sitting close on the sofa, exchanging confidences or proclaiming from a pulpit.
You can’t help having a voice in your writing, but you can choose what that voice conveys. Frank McCourt’s voice in Angela’s Ashes establishes his unsinkable sense of humor. He could instead have chosen a different voice and conveyed self-pity or a scathing indictment of his alcoholic father. Creative writing students are often encouraged to experiment with different voices in order to find their own unique style.
While it can be exciting to experiment with different voices, to develop your creative writing "muscle," in the end, your voice should sound like yourself. Beginners might choose to write as if composing a letter home. When you write as if you were away at college, addressing your parents on paper, you are likely to choose a voice that entertains and informs, but doesn’t become uncomfortably confessional. (After all, I bet you did things at college you didn’t tell your parents.) As you gain more confidence in your writing voice, you can reveal more.
Kurt Vonnegut, in a 1985 essay “How to Write with Style,” (published in the anthology How to Use the Power of the Printed Word) gave the following advice:
The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench. […] I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.
As a person from Indianapolis I had to laugh when I came across that quote—but I recognize the truth of it. Not for me the flights of language that Frank McCourt or Joseph Conrad achieve. But when I write like a Hoosier composing a letter home to the folks in Indy, I sound like myself.
As a writer of memoir, you have a simpler task than the writer of creative fiction. Readers will expect the “you” they meet on the page to sound like the “you” they know. To achieve that voice, just echo the speech you heard growing up.
Photo: Sarah White on a visit home to Indianapolis from college in 1974.