It happened a couple days ago. I was working on a draft for a storyteller whose first language is German, second language is Spanish, and third—of which he has a firm hold—English. He’s an intelligent, articulate guy, though not a reader nor a writer. In other words, not the kind of guy to throw out the phrase “in a fit of pique,” no matter how piqued he may be. But like a flashy little minnow, that was just the phrase that slipped into the flow of words as I sat writing his story. It wasn’t until I was rereading the page that it caught my eye and made me wonder: if H. were a writer, would this be something he would write?
Diction. It’s one of those things that can lead personal historians astray. My goal with all of my life story books, something I tell the storyteller from the outset as a sort of half promise, half aspiration, is to write in the voice they would use if they were a writer.
Of course, there’s much more to the writer’s voice than diction—word choice—but it’s an important component, and a potentially thorny one when you’re channeling someone else’s voice.
Our raw material, the clay we use to shape others’ life stories, comes from the transcripts of our interviews. From the words they use to tell us their stories as we sit together at the kitchen table or in the living room, a recorder faithfully capturing every umm and ahh, every stumbling search for the right word, every start and stop and redirect as they convey to us what’s important or funny or tragic or as yet unresolved in their life. Take a look at any transcript and it’s immediately apparent just how raw this raw material is.
This distinction between the storyteller’s speaking voice and the ultimate writing voice eluded me at the beginning of my career in personal history—and earned me the ire of an early client. It was just after I had transitioned from note-taking on my Neo to recording interviews.
“You make me sound like a child,” she told me, waving the draft I’d given her a week earlier between us. “Do I really sound like that?”
Well, yes, I thought (thankfully, I had better sense than to say it aloud). Her speech was full of short, simple sentences, emotion and even meaning conveyed more by inflection than any kind of fulsome explication. “She was just—an ANGEL!” That was one of her stock phrases, one she used to describe everyone from a favorite grandmother to a kindergarten teacher to the maid of honor at her wedding. Sometimes further questioning would elicit something meatier, but often, not. That shining exclamation—“an ANGEL!”—stood in for all sorts of things she didn’t have the words to express. Finding those words, I learned, was my job.
I reread the draft with fresh eyes and squirmed. She was right. In my zeal to be true to her voice, I had made her sound like a simpleton. The book’s structure was fine, all the bits of story in the right place, an arc found and confidently traced, but all of it done in language fit for a fifth-grader.
I spent far more time on that rewrite than I ever could have charged for, and in the end, my storyteller was happy with her book (“You’re an ANGEL!” she told me). It was a good lesson for me to learn, but it was only the beginning, something I was recently reminded of when that “pique” slipped into H.’s draft. As professional writers who truck not in our own stories but someone else’s, we learn that language can be tricky. Hew too closely to the storyteller’s spoken words, and you’re creating an oral history—worthy, but not what we’re hired to do. Stray too far in the other direction, where you allow your own writerly voice—including diction—to prevail, and you’ve hijacked their stories for your own creative ends. What’s worse, you’ve boxing them out of their own book.
“Pique” (or, better yet, just because it’s so fun, “a fit of the fontods”) would have worked perfectly in the passage I wrote, but only if it were I who had lived through the encounter being described. I hadn’t. This was H.’s tale, not mine. And his book, or any of the others I write for hire, is not some platform for me to express myself; it’s for him to express himself. I am simply the tool, the human Scrivener, the flesh-and-blood auto-writing software. My job is to render the client’s story in words they would use if they were a writer. Not my writer’s voice. Theirs.
And that’s why I rewrote the sentence in H.’s book to describe his “agitation” and the resulting “outburst.”
The book is still a work in progress, but like all my projects, I’m eager to see how he responds to the writing. Will he hear his own voice telling the stories on the page? Will his family and friends? After eight years of writing life stories, the praise I most appreciate is when someone tells me, “It sounds just like me!”
Diction is just one element we can use to create the storyteller’s voice; rhythm, syntax, sentence length, metaphors are a few others. For all, a keen sense of intuition is your greatest guide. Because if you, like I, strive to create a writer’s voice for someone who isn’t a writer, you’re dealing with something that doesn’t actually exist. A close approximation is as good as it gets. And when the storyteller—or their daughter, or their wife, or their best friend—tells you the book sounds just like them, you know you’ve hit your mark.
What are your thoughts on the language you use in your clients’ projects? Is diction a challenge? Do you use words or even metaphors that your storyteller never uttered? Just how much creative liberty to you feel comfortable taking? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Drop me a note in the comments, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time, happy writing!