How do I find my voice?

Voice: How does memoir writing differ from fiction? How do I find my voice?


The difference between fiction and memoir is not only the structure that the writing takes, but the fact that your readers have to resonate with you as a character. Your voice must reflect who you are, not a persona, and yet at the same time, you are the protagonist. You have experiences, adventures, struggles and revelations, insights and self-awareness leading to transformation, healing or connection.


Your voice is distinctive and your close friends recognize your voice immediately on the phone. But how so we access our voice when we are writing? Or how do we know we have found our voice? How do we share our story and not a therapy session? How do we stay in our urgency and yet maintain the distance to show the wider picture?

I would ask you what has the most emotional energy for you? What are your passions, fears, and joys?  What is hard to write about? What do you avoid writing about? And what is your personal point of view on the world?

I teach what I call self-reflective writing in Writing for Healing classes and I use spontaneous timed writing from a prompt. I have discovered by reading a poem and diving into my feelings, my writing is more lyrical, flows easily, touches my core beliefs, includes specific images and details, and ends on a positive note usually with a spiritual insight. When I give a writing exercise of craft such as: a setting with a characters or characters, add dialogue, decision or a sudden change, or work with a prompt that is more grounded in facts, my writing is more of a struggle and meanders back and forth all over the page. There is no sense of what drives the writing. I will need to editi and revise. My voice is attuned to my deepest feelings and core beliefs that life is full of terror, grief, hurt and beauty and has meaning, love, and hope; each moment is a gift and holy in its own perfection, not matter how broken, bruised or painful it may appear. My essential nature is to find the extraordinary in the ordinary

 I remind writers that writing is a practice. A practice means that we are practicing all the time, not only when we are working on a short story or memoir or poem. By writing exercises to warm up the intuitive imagination, we strike gold: something that can be woven into a larger piece.


I use a simple exercise to help writers access the stories that are important to them. We begin with writing numbers down the page in 5 sections such as this:






and then I suggest a category for each section. We write what comes to mind quickly and spontaneously without over-thinking, and I move from one category to the next quickly.

 The first category is always things I love because that one is easy. The following may be:

  • things that annoy me
  • things I regret
  • times I lost something important
  • things I will never forgive
  • moments that changed my life
  • places I hang out
  • people I admire
  • times I had to make a decision
  • times I took a risk
  • things I left behind
  • blessings


For example: things I love:

  • hearing the sound of Spanish around me
  • the beach
  • my grandsons
  • poetry

 The exercise can be extended by asking that the list contain specific details:

the beach in Puerto Vallarta at sunset with a cold drink in my hands

reading a story together with my grandsons

poems that opened my heart to recognize myself at the Islandwood reading

 Often then I give a prompt:

  • What I will never forget
  • I remember
  • at that moment
  • the first time


The idea is to access the right brain intuition by accessing memories but in a quick overview so that what needs to be written about comes to the surface. But now we have 25 topics to write about, emotionally charged topics. Circle one and write for ten minutes. The exercise can be repeated. I have taught it often and each time, my focus shifts depending on what items have filled my list.


I once made the mistake of changing the first chapter of my memoir after attending a workshop on dynamic first pages. I had originally started with the impact of the ’60s on me, but moved that to begin with the first time I took a trip to Mexico. But I had cut off my own voice as surely as if I had strangled myself. I had to think again of how my own story really started. It began when I visited Arlington Cemetery as a 6th grader and become a pacifist, a realization that would lead me to the anti-war movement during Viet Nam War and later, to seek my own tribe of those who believed as I did.


Change to “dynamic first sentence”:

The first time I crossed the border into Mexico, I was eight months pregnant and single.  Caren invited me to accompany her as she drove Roxanna, Irene and their children, Chandra and  Carissa, from Santa Fe to Juarez. From there, they would hitch-hike farther south. I knew members of the group traveled to spread the Good News, imitating the first-century Disciples of Jesus.  Despite the discomfort of the baby somersaulting in my belly and constant pressure on my bladder, I agreed.


Change to Telling My Story:

When I was in sixth grade, our class took a field trip from my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Washington, DC. I don’t remember much about filing through the White House, although I do remember being impressed by the size of the Senate chambers and the Lincoln Memorial. But our visit to John F. Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery changed my life.

      As I looked over the thousands of soldiers’ graves that fanned out to the horizon, a feeling swept over me of heartbreak, a profoundly disturbing sorrow. This is wrong, I thought. So many lying in their graves under simple white tombstones just felt wrong. I knew little about war and its justifications, but I knew my dad and his brothers had been soldiers. The sight of those tombstones stretching to what felt like infinity gave me an epiphany. At that moment, a clear vision transformed me into a pacifist. This philosophical and moral stance was firmly planted as my heart broke open, mesmerized by those white tomstones.


But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own

—Mary Oliver


Finding your voice takes vulnerability and the courage to be yourself. With practice, you will tap into the story you are compelled to tell. That story that haunts you and will not let you rest until it is told. That's your voice.

 Another tip: Express your opinion on a topic that resonates with you either because it makes you laugh, cry or even rage.

 More thoughts on finding voice are here:

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