Posted by Giovanni Madonna, GD Fiction Reader for 5.1
Non-fiction has always been something of a gray zone for me because of how different it is from fiction. I’ve always loved the freedom that fiction allows, so when I entered into a non-fiction workshop this semester I was more than a bit intimidated. It was like having a smart phone and then suddenly having it taken away and replaced with one of those paper-thin flip phones that could do little more than call your parents. I started to wonder what I could write about, what would stick out, or be worth putting down. It took some time for me to realize I was asking the wrong questions. With nonfiction, it’s not a matter of finding the flashiest or most shocking events (though a good narrative could exist in those too), but about being willing and able to present yourself, your true self, to an unknown audience. And at the center of this necessary honesty is voice, the way the narrator sounds on the page and ultimately the unique personal lens that they present the essay through.
One of the main texts we used in the workshop was Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, in which she detailed some of the building blocks of creative nonfiction, and among these voice stood out the most to me. It is the heart and soul of the writing, and lends immeasurable amounts of depth to an essay. Bridging the gap between the physical sensations of memory and the confusing labyrinth of emotions, a good voice can make a simple walk from your room to the fridge involved and enthralling. A good voice reveals the narrator for who they are, the good, and the not so good, as they try in an imperfect but perfectly human manner to navigate the many trials life pushes on us. Observing that struggle, being able to slip into the skin of another for a short time and truly empathize with them and draw connections to your own life or the world at large, this is what I believe to be the goal of creative non-fiction. Too often we are left guessing what is going on in the minds of others, questioning the truth of how they present themselves, and in non-fiction this hold especially true. If the writer tries to hide or sugarcoat the less appealing aspects of themselves, the reader will notice and that fundamental bond of trust will be broken. An essay could be incredibly well written, but if that human connection is lacking then the essay has failed to create a sense of honesty, a voice that the reader is willing to believe.
I make no claims to have found my voice yet, and even Karr, who has already published quite a few books such as The Liar’s Club, admitted that it usually takes her some time to find the correct voice for each essay. The important part is to keep trying until it sounds right to you. Some of the best advice my professor gave me was to not imagine you are writing to a faceless mob, but to your family, close friends, whoever you think would be the most likely to keep you honest. Your voice has to be you in your entirety. It has to accept everything from that time you helped out someone who was lost to the time you lied to your parents, while also admitting to your habit of watching children’s shows even though you’re supposed to be an adult. It can be scary, even down right terrifying, to expose yourself like that. You might feel like you’re standing on a big stage, the audience filled with expectations, but you have to face them head on.
While this article from Writer’s Digest deals with finding your voice in fiction, I found that many of the same principles apply to nonfiction as well. When I first started writing, I kept looking at my work and thinking, “This isn’t professional enough. If I were just more like (insert favorite author) it’d be better.” But thinking like that is only going to send you in circles. To find your voice you need to keep trying and failing and retrying until you know your habits and strengths well enough to utilize them. If you’re fortunate enough to be in a workshop or to have a writing group, ask them if they can point out where they sense you are holding back. But most importantly, never be ashamed of those first attempts to find your voice, they’re simply paving the way so that your voice can resonate with your audience.