I was leaving my house when I noticed a pile of books in the wrong place. These were offending my eye, but as I moved them, I noticed the one on the top of the pile…Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope.
‘Have you read this?’ I asked my son.
‘Yes, when it first came out.’
‘Is it any good?’
‘Well, let’s put it like this,’ said Joe. ‘He can string a sentence together, which is more than you can say for the previous incumbent. You can borrow it if you want.’
Suddenly, I’m reading non-fiction by the barrowload. I’ve never gone for it before…never enjoyed autobiography, narrative non-fiction, personal essays, very rarely picked up a biography. And I still maintain that you can’t beat a novel if you want your reader to remember what you want to tell them and be moved at the same time. But I’m learning more about American politics from this book than I probably previously cared to know, and at every turn of page, I am both informed and moved.
Obama’s voice takes my breath away…
But the years take have also taken their toll. Some of it was just a function of my getting older, I suppose, for if you are paying attention, each successive year will make you more intimately acquainted with all of your flaws – the blind spots, the recurring habits of thought that may be genetic or may be environmental, but that will almost certainly worsen with time, as surely as the hitch in your walk turns to pain in your hip. In me, one of those flaws had proven to be a chronic restlessness; an inability to appreciate, no matter how well things were going, those blessings that were right there in front of me. It’s a flaw that is endemic to modern life, I think – endemic, too, in the American character – and one that is nowhere more evident than in the field of politics. Whether politics actually encourages the trait or simply attracts those who possess it is unclear. Someone once said that every man is trying to either live up to his father’s expectations or make up for his father’s mistakes and I suppose that may explain my particular malady as well as anything else…
This is a powerful voice…confident, intimate, distinct. It makes me feel, not that I’m reading the words, but that two easy chairs have been pulled close, one for me, one for the writer, and coffee (or maybe in this case bourbon), is served. In my mind, I am engrossed in a conversation. I’m leaning in close, responding with my eyes. I can answer back; take the argument and run with it Non-fiction narrative this absorbing takes you into a new moment, just as fiction does.
In Imaginative Non-fiction, (or whatever the Open College of the Arts will finally call this new course) I emphasize two aspects of writing that can be shared by all creating non-fiction writers. I’m telling students these two aspects will uphold their work and pull it together, because these aspects are at the core of grabbing a reader. The combination of these two skills can get the new writer a contract quicker than almost anything else.
Narrative trajectory (telling a story and taking your reader with you as you do so) underpins the structure and ‘plot’. Voice is, of course, the buzzword on the writers’ street. This give heart and personality to your writing – Obama’s…hitch in your walk…both practically and metaphorically.
Narrative trajectory is all about how you tell your story. Cast your eye over some recently published books. A cross-section will show you just how many stories are out there to be told –subjects of major importance and trivial significance. Subjects rehashed or completely skewed. None of these will be readable unless the story moves in the right direction for its content, allowing the reader to step out onto a sort of boat and sail off into water already charted by the writer. A reader will keep reading if they feel the confidence of the narrator, as pilot of their story. I want the students to understand about knowing the chart of their voyage, and how to keep a steady hand on the tiller. (Sorry –these boating metaphors are probably due to my daughter’s recent success in the Fastnet Race…I prefer to keep my feet on firm terra firma.)
Voice is the balance to a strongly led narrative journey, but it needs a similar quality…confidence…in the writer. I tell my students that their ‘voice’ should be a representation of how their mind works. We all think in an entirely unique way. If a writer can get a strong feeling of ‘thoughts pouring forth’, transferred onto the page, they will lure the reader as successfully as a Siren, because of that intimate connection; the writer saying…here I am, believe in me…
The knack is to be natural, yourself, to have confidence that the way your mind works can interest other people. I try to remember, whenever this sort of audacity threatens to halt the flow of my writing, that people do actually seem to enjoy talking to me, even when I’m sure I’m being quite boring. Okay, not everyone in the world fits that category, but that would be true of even the most popular books of the market…no style attracts every reader. Attracting a small audience is a great beginning.
This sort of approach takes writing courage, although possibly not as much as Obama has shown over the last years. Becoming the USA’s first black president and writing scintillating personal essays…now that is audacious.