Re-run By Popular Demand: Writing Narrative Nonfiction: The Language Detective

March 31, 2011
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Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton

Your Life As Story: The Language Detective
Re-run By Popular Demand

by Lisa Dale Norton
December 2008

"I’m encouraging you to be blatantly curious and snoopy."
—NORTON

Here’s an idea: Take yourself down to your favorite coffee shop or corner cafe and hole up in a booth with your notebook or laptop, and pay attention. Eavesdrop. Yes, I’m encouraging you to be blatantly curious and snoopy.

 

 

 

If you want to get a handle on what makes your voice rich and recognizable and you feel at a loss, it’s quite informative to listen to the characteristic ring and sway of other folks’ language. Record the juiciest phrases you hear. The craziest leaps of logic. The goofiest metaphors.

Laser in on diction, that combination of vocabulary (the words chosen) and syntax (the order in which the words are used).

". . . if you make an effort to listen to others, you’ll grow easily more aware your own gymnastics of language. . ."
NORTON
Nobody speaks in perfect little English class sentences, and lots of people use broken grammar to great ear-bending and character-building delight. What about you? What sets your voice apart?

 

 

 

I’m confident that if you make an effort to listen to others, you’ll grow easily more aware your own gymnastics of language, and in so doing you will be one step closer to bringing that voice to the pages of your Narrative Nonfiction.

"So, pay attention as you hover in that cafe booth."
NORTON
I heard President-Elect Barack Obama use the phrase “kick the can” the other day when talking about the economic crisis. This kind of homey phrase identifies a voice. And who can forget the many idioms Sarah Palin used in her campaign speeches? Such are the language ticks that define voice.

 

 

 

So, pay attention as you hover in that cafe booth. Drink a little latté. Transcribe some words. Nibble the corner of that scone, and with great big ears and lithe fingers step into the role of Private Eye in the world of voice.

About
Lisa Dale Norton

Lisa Dale Norton is a regular monthly Authorlink columnist. She is nationally recognized as a writing instructor with a passion for story. Read more about Lisa.

Lisa Dale Norton's new book about memoir, SHIMMERING IMAGES: A HANDY LITTLE
GUIDE TO WRITING MEMOIR (St. Martin's Press), is in bookstores now. Lisa is the author of the acclaimed memoir HAWK FLIES ABOVE: JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE SANDHILLS, a work combining memoir and nature writing. She teaches for the UCLA Writers' Extension Program and speaks nationally on the process of memoir. She lives in Santa Fe. www.lisadalenorton.com

 

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This post was written by Lisa Dale Norton