Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Follow The Voice

I don't do an outline before beginning one of my nonfiction books. I usually sit staring at the computer screen for an eternity, all the while demanding: Okay, how do you want to begin this thing? To answer the question, I mull over the collected research stuffed away inside my head, think about the themes I want to explore, and wait until the voice screams: There is where it has to begin!
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Next, my fingers start moving (clumsily) over the keyboard as I begin to construct the opening paragraph. This requires focusing on what appears on the screen to make sure the details are accurate, clearly presented, and in logical order. But even as I'm concentrating on this, that voice is always chatting away: Why not add this detail? No, no, that's not dramatic sounding enough. That explanation is way too long. What are we going to say next? And on and on and on.
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In a very real way, I'm letting the material dictate where the text will go and trusting that everything will be fine. I remember early on in my career when I was still doing very detailed outlines and having to struggle to follow my inner voice's suggestions. It seemed like terrible violation of the outline to abandon it's carefully worked out route, a little like ignoring the professor's instructions on what had to be in a term paper. Who am I to jettison the map to explore unchartered territory? In time, I overcame those doubts and learned to follow the voice.
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I write this way for a simple reason. I want the text to be as organic as possible, for it to flow along in an effortless and (hopefully) compelling stream (that also happens to contain a great deal of information). I've found outlines helpful at times, but they always tended to take over the writing process, to place facts over emotion and to bind up and tighten the way the words fall on a page.
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This approach isn't for everyone or for every sort of project. It does seem to be a reliable way for me to put together narrative history that tells a dramatic story and explores interesting facets of our history. Of course, there have been moments when that voice has led me astray, such as the time it helped me write a 274 page (plus 37 pages of notes) look at George Washington's first six months as Commander of the Continental Army for an 8-12 audience. But I think that's a tale best left for another day.

4 comments:

Vicki Cobb said...

Welcome to the I.N.K. blog, Jim. Your insights and opinions will help illuminate the mysterious (and highly individual) process of writing stories about the real world so that they shine with light and vitality. You've written a terrific first post. Trusting one's inner voice is a true act of faith.

Susan E. Goodman said...

Hi Jim, I'm quite a fan of yours and have been for years. Welcome to the blog. I look forward to reading what you have to say.

CC said...

Interesting, as I took "the voice" to mean the story's "voice", rather than the author's inner voice. Probably relating to personal experience. The most difficult thing (for me) to find when writing non fiction is the voice within which to tell the tale.

Jim Murphy said...

Thank you Vicki, Susan, and CC for the warm welcome. I'm happy and humbled to be posting on I.N.K. and am looking forward to participating in many future conversations.
CC: Actually, it's the tiny voice in my head that's always making suggestions, asking questions, challenging me to do better work. But your question made me realize that it's from this tiny voice that the narrative voice eventually emerges, takes shape, and establishes itself.