When LifeBook writers hear voices
In a biography, there’s considerable distance between the writer and the subject. I could write the biography of someone who is still alive … or someone who lived centuries ago. Either way, I would write from a third-person perspective.
“Every evening at dusk, Greta snuck out to the the bakery. Years later, she told her children that she survived the war by hoarding stale bread.”
With a biography, it’s possible that I might never have a conversation with the person I’m writing about. The story would consist of facts based on extensive research from a variety of sources, along with my own interpretations of those facts.
An autobiography is up close and personal. The tone is that of a journal or diary, so first-person is the way to go.
“The day my sister and I set out to walk the Appalachian Trail, Mom insisted we pack a loaf of my grandma’s secret-recipe banana bread. Little did we know the animals it would attract!”
if you’re writing your own autobiography, you’re telling a mostly one-sided story from your own perspective. You might relate your interactions with other people, but the perceptions and interpretations would be your own.
So, the voice of a biography is distanced and the voice of an autobiography is personal.
Keeping the story focused
What if you’re writing someone else’s autobiography? They’re telling you the story and you’re putting it on paper.
This is where it can get tricky, because when re-telling a story, we instinctively add our own spin. Our speech patterns, opinions about the subject matter, and natural colloquialisms all exert influence on the anecdotes we’re hearing and the words we’re writing.
When uncontrolled, the storyteller’s words become our own on the page and the original voice gets lost. The story begins to sound like us.
Here are some examples:
When writing the memoirs of a World War II fighter pilot, I was faced with a lot of aircraft and flying terminology, in addition to some jargon. Take this passage in which he describes nearly getting shot down in France the day after D-Day:
“I sent 12 birds home for refuelling in case of another mission, and kept my flight of four going after the tanks. We knocked out two or three, an APC, and a staff car. Hopping over the hedgerow at about 300 miles per hour, at 10:00 I saw a big gun having at us. I honked the bird up to maybe a 100 feet or so, went directly into him, and got him. He’s out of business completely. Almost simultaneously he got me. Snap-rolled my Jug right towards the ground like a leaf in a windstorm.”
It would have been easy to insert my own language here. ‘Birds’ are aircraft. His ‘Jug’ is a P-47. “A big gun having at us” is the enemy’s tank taking aim, and rather than he “honked the bird up,” he increased altitude.
In this case, the voice in the narrative is recognisable as that of the storyteller by anyone who knows him. His word choices reflect the way he talks.
For another project, the client had both a medical and military background and he used language that was formal, proper, and heavy on passive voice constructions. As a result, the book took on a more dignified or official tone. Medical terminology aside, I had to avoid simplifying anecdotes in favour of more common verbiage. For example, I might have referred to “excessive ethanol consumption” as heavy drinking.
In my experience, to appreciate and reproduce a storyteller’s voice, it has been valuable to interview and record the storyteller myself, or as with LifeBook, listen carefully to the audio recording of someone else conducting the interview. Either way, as I write, I pay close attention to things like:
- Words or phrases used repeatedly
- Sentence structure and patterns
- Jargon or slang
- Specialized terms or expressions
Above all, I must be sensitive to the tone and content being shared by the storyteller. The nature of a LifeBook project is a storyteller sharing personal anecdotes. No matter what emotions the stories evoke, you, as the writer, are responsible for making sure the reader of your narrative hears the author’s voice loud and clear through your words.
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