Writers vs Storytellers: Finding Your Writing Voice
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"You write just the way you talk."
In my opinion, that's the greatest compliment I can get as a writer because it means that the reader can hear my voice when they read my words.
And that's the difference between a...well, I don't want to use the terms good writer versus bad writer because writing is an art, and art is subjective.
Let's say that it's what differentiates the writers whose work really stands out, versus the ones whose work falls flat.
The writers who've found their writing voice - who write the way they talk - are also generally storytellers.
I don't think any writer starts out that way though; I certainly didn't.
I was 24-years-old when I wrote my first book (unpublished as of yet), and looking back now, I'm embarrassed at the writing. It was a detailed, chronological, factual recounting of events. "This happened, then that happened, and then finally we ended up here."
There's no narrative thread running through the piece, no reflections or feelings on the events...just the facts m'am, just the facts.
That's not storytelling, it's just writing. And it makes for such a B-O-R-I-N-G read that it might motivate you to individually pull out your eyelashes just to stay awake.
Think of some of the best movies, TV shows, or books you've read; the ones that capture you right from the opening lines. Often they begin at the end, and the end is so strange / wondrous / implausible that you think to yourself "Well I'm invested now because I need to find out how this character came to be here."
The ability to capture your audience right away as you weave a tale around the unfolding events, with poignant moments and reflections along the way, now that is storytelling.
Storytelling is ethereal flow; it's the weaving of gossamer threads through the anchors that are the events.
Writing is cement blocks; a detailed, chronological, factual recounting of the events.
So. With all that said, how does one go from being a writer to a storyteller?
1 - Read
First, you must read. A lot.
You cannot hope to be a storyteller if you don't read. And you should read everything. Read the garbage and read the good stuff. Why? Because you need to know what bad is so that you can properly define what good is. And when you look at the bad, dissect it, ask yourself why you find it bad / boring / uninspiring. Do the same with the good; ask yourself why you think it's uplifting / compelling / inspiring.
My best recommendation for learning the art of storytelling is to read auto-biographies; there's nothing quite like reading the way someone narrates their own life to show you the contrast between writing versus storytelling. (At the bottom of this post, I've included a list of auto-biographies.)
2 - Imitate
Begin writing the way your favourite writers write. Copy their style. Of course, this won't produce good writing, because good writing is authentic, and copying someone else will never be authentic.
But do it anyhow because you need a place to begin, something that will help you move away from simply writing, to storytelling. It will get you used to narrating as opposed to telling.
3 - Practice
The only way to get better at anything is to do it again and again and again and again. So write, every day, even if it's just journal entries, stream of consciousness, or whatever. Just write.
I've made writing a practice for close to 20 years. I'm only now beginning to feel that I've found my writing voice. (I think. But my evaluation of my own writing is obviously highly subjective.)
I'm not saying that it will take you this long; I'm saying that from my own hyper-critical view of my work, it's only now that I'm starting to see the narration that was missing from my early writing.
4 - The Work is Never Done
If you're a writer - and in your heart you know if you are - you know that the work will never end. I know this for myself; I've accepted the fact that I'm a wordsmith and that I'll be working at putting thoughts into words until the day I die.
And somehow, that makes sitting down to write easier. Words are my calling, my purpose; the reason I am here on earth is to communicate. So, I might as well sit my ass down and just do it.
And I do.
You can too. There's no magical formula, no quick-fix, no "hack." It's just about doing the work.
"Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous disciplined labor. I sit at my desk and I work like a farmer, and that’s how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least."
- Elizabeth Gilbert: Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
There's nothing quite like reading the way that someone narrates their own life to show you the contrast between writing versus storytelling, because some people succeed so beautifully while others fail so miserably.
Here's a list of auto-biographies I recommend for the development of writing voice and storytelling.
I've included the best and the worst I've read so far. Read some from each category, just to fully understand the difference.
The best word I can use to describe this auto-biography is RAW.
Portia had the balls to go there; to reveal her ugliest most private moments as she struggled with an eating disorder in Hollywood. Hats off to her for revealing so honestly and fearlessly the things she struggled with, that so many women struggle with.
That's what makes a compelling read; telling your story in such a way that it resonates with everyone in some manner because it references universal feelings like pain, shame, inadequacy, or rejection.
That will pull in any audience even if they haven't gone through what you've gone through. Although they may not have walked your specific path, they have felt the same feelings within their own particular set of circumstances.
Bad writing is not using those feelings; it changes a universal story into just "my story" and with all due respect, no one gives a shit about your story. If they can't relate to your pain or to your feelings in some way, then they won't care about you and they won't stay.
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Will went there.
He revealed his pain, he revealed his fears of inadequacy, he showed us the ways he grew by admitting the mistakes he made.
At the end of the book, we as the reader are glad that he succeeded. And that's the best kind of feeling to end a book with; with the audience celebrating your triumph.
This was a charming, playful read, but also a painfully honest one as Alan describes the abuses he suffered at the hands of his father.
But he went there; he braved the darkness to share his story and the reader can only be happy for his success.
Full disclosure; these are autobiographies that were so incredibly dull - where I had moments when I actually lost the will to live - that I just had to stop reading.
For all I know, the very last chapter of each of the following books is so compelling and fascinating that it completely redeems the story. I will never know, because the first half of each of these books was so mind-numbing, and so thoroughly lacking in insight, feeling, and depth that I just couldn't continue.
But, we must make concessions; it takes all kinds and not everyone has depth of character or insight into their own motivations. It is what it is.
Wow. Talk about a detailed, chronological, factual recounting of events... "This happened, then that happened, and then finally we ended up here."
Just so, so dull.
To be fair: Rick Mercer is known for his humour (?) but not his depth, so this is a case where we can judge a book by it's cover.
She spent so much time talking about her nose. So. Much. Time.
She could have used that as metaphor for her life (maybe she did in the last chapters?)
Instead this was nothing more than a dull recounting of events by a spoiled little Hollywood girl.
Full confession: I think I managed maybe three of four chapters and then I just couldn't anymore; I felt as though I was wasting my life.
So shallow. Not surprising considering the source, right?
I had never watched her show, because I don't watch reality TV, but I always want to give people the opportunity to surprise me and wow me with some hidden depth.
There were no surprises.
I saved the worst for last.
The absolute WORST biography I've ever read...drumroll please...and the award goes to... From This Moment On by Shania Twain!!!
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Now why does she win this dubious honour?
First it was a detailed, chronological, factual recounting of events. Not the worst crime, because there are plenty of other auto-biographies (read: people) who are that dull.
It wins the award because it did not have to be as dull as it was.
Shania Twain went through an incredibly difficult period in her life when she found out her husband was cheating on her with her best friend, and then her marriage and her life fell apart.
That right there is GOLD. The opportunity to tell her story, to tell the world what she went through, what she felt, how the event changed her, how she grew from it.
And that's why this was the worst auto-biography I've ever read; she had the opportunity to write a comeback story - a phoenix rising from the ashes story - and she did not take it. She actually said in the book that she didn't want to talk about it, and wanted to keep that part of her life private.
Lady, if you want to keep your private life private, don't write a fucking auto-biography, just SAY NOTHING.
That's like going to a nudie-bar where the strippers decide that actually, they're not going to take it all off because they just want to sit down and talk, over a cup of tea, while wearing big fluffy robes.
If you do not wish to reveal yourself, don't put yourself in a position where you will be expected to do so and then chicken out. It's lame, and it's disgruntling for everyone who witnesses your pathetic lack of courage.
As a writer, either go there - go all in, full exposure, throw off the fluffy robe and dance naked like no one's watching - or get off the fucking stage and make room for someone who's got the balls to do it right.
Don't ever try to bullshit your audience, because they will smell it a mile away and hate you for trying to lie to them.
If you want to find your writing voice and become a story-teller, you must have the courage to be honest about the ugliest parts of your story, because that's what makes you relatable.
Writing...in America as we enter the twenty-first century is no job for intellectual cowards.
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