Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tip for Unleashing Your Voice

Zestful Blog Post #67

For a long time I thought that an original voice is as important to an artist as skill, but now I know it's more important. Tons of painters can render a lifelike head, but there was only one Picasso, who tore heads apart and rebuilt them. Scores of symphonic trumpeters can play the solo at the opening of Mahler's 5th Symphony perfectly (or damn near), but there's only one Wynton Marsalis, who interprets Tin Pan Alley tunes with the soul of a gentle genie. (Plus he can kick booty as a symphonic soloist too.)

In writing it's the same, only moreso. Any English major can put together a sentence, and some write books that get terrific reviews, but there's only one Virginia Woolf / William Shakespeare / Alice Walker / David Sedaris / Flannery O'Connor / Gabriel Garcia Marquez / Laura Ingalls Wilder / Frank McCourt. And so on.

Recently I opened my Model-T Kindle and read aloud a passage from a book to a group of writers eager to learn the combination to great prose. The passage was a harrowing account by an African-American man, recounting boyhood beatings and other humiliations at the hands of adults who should have loved him. A mini excerpt:

I struggled under you and couldn't breathe. The blood running down the valleys and grooves carved into my skin smelled like one hundred wet pennies.

The students were riveted by the passionately, savagely told story. I asked the students to guess who the author was; some guessed award-winning famous names, but nobody got it right. It was a trick question to make a point. The author, Leonard Scovins, is an uneducated convicted double-murderer who's serving a life term in a Florida penitentiary.

A former drug addict, Leonard found his voice in prison, thanks in part to the mother and grandmother of his victims, a woman named Agnes Furey. After the trial of the man who murdered her daughter and grandson, she decided the only way she could live a worthwhile life would be to forgive Leonard. Meanwhile in prison he got clean from drugs and found Jesus. She reached out to him, and they began to build a friendship. In time they wrote a book together and self-published it. It's called Wildflowers in the Median. Not exactly a grabbing title, but then how would one represent that story in a few words?

Agnes entered the book in a Writer's Digest magazine contest, and it won the 'inspiration' category. She also entered it in the 'life stories' category, which is where I came across it as a first-round judge. In spite of the fact that Agnes's voice is a bit stilted compared with Leonard's, I was tremendously impressed, and chose it as the winner in my flight of books. It didn't win the final round, but that's all right.

Currently I'm reading Keith Richards's autobiography, Life, and enjoying every word. A one-sentence excerpt:

These armies of feral, body-snatching girls began to emerge in big numbers about halfway through our first UK tour, in the fall of 1963.

Hilarious and informative. My point is that you don't need great technique to wow an audience. You need basic technique and an original, unfettered voice.

The problem for many authors is how to find and let out that voice. My best tip for today is to read autobiographies, good ones, the best ones. See how the writers break the rules. See how they express something originally. Absorb their kaleidoscopic language. See how they cut to the chase.

And take that spirit with you when you sit down to write.

Got any autobiographies to recommend? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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[flowers in the median photo by ES]


  1. Smile. Sigh. If you don't know Om Seti (Dorthy Eady) she is well worth checking out.

    1. Gosh, she seems amazing (after a quick look). Will have to go further on her. Thanks, Cordia.


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