How to Bring a Voice to Your Personal Essay
Writing stories about your ancestors can seem a bit self-indulgent. Who wants to hear about your long dead aunties and uncles? Your own relatives may roll their eyes when you pull out your tablet and talk about the blood, sweat and tears that went into a year-long investigation into an-all-but-forgotten life.
Sure, the genealogy writing exercise may start out as a purely personal exploration (as in Why am I here?) but with careful attention to detail and a sense of humility on your part, the practice can become so much more than that.
Exploring ancestry through prose provides you with a versatile platform to inform and delight your readers. Your stories even may inspire others to take the plunge and explore their own roots while polishing their writing skills.
Genealogy writing is often personal in nature, as in “My great grandmother, Lydia Tittle, was born in 1897 in the poorest part of Ulster,” and it sometimes it comes in the form of the personal essay, as in “When I was a little girl growing up in rural Georgia, I was very close to my Ma Tante Mathilde, my father’s French sister.”
It may sound counter-intuitive, but my top tip to avoid sounding self-indulgent when writing about yourself and/or your ancestors is to use your own natural voice.
What is ‘voice’? Well, storytelling was once a sacred art. The storyteller invoked a muse to tell a certain tale to an enraptured audience. I like to think of ‘the writing voice’ as something similar. Before I get down to writing a first draft, I invoke a piece of my personality to tell the story. For me, it’s a feeling I conjure up, much like I’m told a method actor does before walking onto the stage, and sometimes, as with acting, it can be a bit unsettling to bring up this feeling/personality, even scary. It certainly doesn’t feel self-indulgent. Enveloped in this character/feeling, it’s easier for me to choose the appropriate words and expressions while writing and to maintain a consistent tone for the piece.
The biggest mistake any beginning writer can do is to try to imitate someone else’s voice because readers will pick up quickly on the deception, but if you write stories in your own voice, even if you are still developing your style and technical skills (and what writer isn’t?) your readers will be inclined to be generous with you because they will sense you are ‘opening up’ to them, taking a risk, giving them a little piece of your heart, as it were.
Ask yourself these questions before you embark on the personal essay writing journey:
- Are you using your own unique voice?
- Is your essay and the information contained within worthy of the time the reader will spend on it?
- Does your story have substance? Is it useful, as in informative; diverting as in surprising or funny; or moving, as in sentimental or touching?
- Does your story have universal human appeal so that all readers can relate, or is it aimed at a specific reader with a specific interest?
- Does your story have a take-away, a gift that keeps on giving such as a fascinating fact or two, a broader insight, or some useful research tips that the reader can call upon later?