Writing Narrative Nonfiction Ripe with Voice

October 30, 2008
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Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton

 

Your Life As Story: Writing Narrative Nonfiction Ripe with Voice

by Lisa Dale Norton
November 200

"Here in the spare lands of the windswept prairie I listen to the voice of this region."
—NORTON

I write to you this month from the Sandhills of Nebraska where I am on retreat working on a new book. Here in the spare landscape of the Great Plains I find the space for creativity grows large. Here in the spare lands of the windswept prairie I listen to the voice of this region. I watch the men, their scuffed boots, and simple silver watches, their Stetson’s, and worn jeans marking them as men who work with their hands in a land that is honest and unsentimental.

The women in the grocery store smile, meet my eyes and say, “Hi.” The checkout clerk anticipates a long drive when I ask for paper and double bags my frozen food. “I put your butter in a freezer bag,” she says looking plainly into my face.

I feel both anonymous here and yet seen in a way that, oddly, comforts. Is it because I am in familiar territory? I grew up in this region, but haven’t lived here for over 30 years. I am of this place and yet not of this place. I am the proverbial stranger in a strange land, even in my homeland.    

". . . writers of Narrative Nonfiction must use their individual voice to define themselves and their writing."
NORTON

Last month I wrote from the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Tradeshow in Colorado Springs where my conversations with booksellers and publishers sales representatives drove home the fact that writers of Narrative Nonfiction must use their individual voice to define themselves and their writing. There can be no dry toast prose in this competitive genre.

What I mean by voice in this context is the persona you create around the teller of your tale. Have you paid enough attention to how you express yourself in the world—the idiosyncrasies that fascinate you, the phrases you use, the habits of thought and behavior that define your personality—to distill them and communicate that persona in your writing?

If you haven’t, it’s possible you are still writing sleepy, textbook prose that does not sweep the reader into your private world, that does not, from the first sentence, electrify with some pungent sensibility—a jocular attitude or raw sensitivity—that pulls the reader is and says: Listen to me. I have something to say.    

"How do you reveal your take on life, on what matters in the world?"
NORTON

How do you reveal your take on life, on what matters in the world? That’s really what Narrative Nonfiction is all about. Are you funny? Are you brazenly honest? Compassionate beyond belief? Do you use language in a musical way? Are you a deep thinker? Do you focus on detail and let description speak for larger meaning?

What can you make of the narrator in the first part of this column. Who is she? What do you know of her character, her persona? Can you find a way—your own way—to say similar things in your own writing?
   

About
Lisa Dale Norton
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