Playing with Form to Discover Your Voice
by Trista Cornelius
I am a terrible texter. So bad, my 79-year-old father once had to help me cross a street while I tried to text a reply to someone asking where to meet us. I can’t walk and text. I can’t talk and text. I can’t text with two thumbs nor one finger, not in portrait or landscape. The word “text” as a verb and its past-tense “texted” used to make me cringe in a way “google” and “googled” never did.
Well, no matter. Failure and weakness lead to discovery and innovation, right?
So, one day, I’m in my office with barely a minute before I need to get to class. I’m trying to reply to a text since I’ll be unavailable for the next three hours, but it’s taking me forever because I have to delete every other word and start over. Then, I find myself trying to text, “I am looking forward to seeing you,” but in a flash, I feel my brain re-write the missive and I text, “I am eager to see you.”
My brain saved my struggling fingers a 13-lettered phrase and replaced it with a 5-lettered word. The form I was writing in – a text message – shaped content and style.
In an email typed on a regular keyboard, I would never have replaced “looking forward to.” I suppose you could say my texting inability shaped my written voice, but so did the form. This experience made me realize you can play with different forms to uncover new aspects to your voice – or your characters’ voices
For example, if you have a 150-word limit, you spend little time describing. If you have a 1,400-word limit, you add some glitter. These differences involve word choice and sentence length, and these two things convey voice more than anything else.
Voice is like a writer’s fingerprint, totally unique to her. I could tell 50 people to describe the same vase of lilacs and stick strictly to description, no narration, and I’d get 50 different pieces. Not only that, each of those writers’ best friends could probably figure out which of the 50 descriptions belongs to the friend based on the voice: “Only Eunice would describe a lilac as having shades of puce! She’s hated lilacs ever since seventh grade.”
I’m amazed by writers who can shape their written voice, especially in creative nonfiction. Cheryl Strayed has mastered it. Read a few pages of Tiny Beautiful Things: authentic, genuine, passionate voice, yes? Totally believable. Read a few pages of Wild: authentic, genuine, passionate voice, totally believable, but entirely different than TBT. Both voices sound true to who Strayed is as a writer and person, but they’re very different. The blog-like posting of TBT must have influenced Strayed’s word choice and sentence length to some degree compared to her 336-page narrative memoir.
Play with form to discover your voice
Write a page of inter-connected “tweets” no more than 140 characters each.
Write a Wikipedia page about yourself or an item you love (strawberry freezer jam) that mimics the online encyclopedic form: How it begins with a birth date or a definition, how it has sections like “early life” and “influences.” Be sure to include a sidebar.
Write a story on a 3×5 index card.
Now write the same story but make it no shorter than 1,200 words.
Next, look at how the form shaped your voice. In the Wikipedia entry, for example, did you describe yourself or your item in a way you wouldn’t have while writing something less structured? Did you use more formal vocabulary? What elements did you choose to describe, and how might that have been different if you had been writing this as a chapter in your memoir?
Depending on the form, are you “eager” for the weekend or “looking forward to” it? How different are these meanings? What part of yourself or your characters are expressed in different forms? All of these voices are you, but which ones flow the most naturally from pen/pencil/keyboard? Which ones engage your reader?
Maybe in a super-short form you discover a new voice, a Hemingway-esque blunt-sentence confidence you didn’t know you had and can use in careful doses throughout your novel re-write.
Maybe the word limit of the index-card story made you remember the best-of-the-best from all those vocabulary tests in grade school and resulted in a more compressed, direct tone: “iridescent petals” not “the petals glowed brilliantly.”
If you try it, let me know how it goes. Post one of your 3×5 index-card stories here! Meanwhile, I’ll keep working on my texting skills.
This is the fourteenth in a series of practical grammar tips every writer needs to know by Trista Cornelius, English Instructor, Clackamas Community College. She’s both the best and worst person to share these tips with you. Best because she’s made all the mistakes herself and learned the hard way. Worst? Same reason!