Gretchen’s March 28 Tollbooth post on the way we respond to words, metaphor and experience struck me as particularly appropriate to what’s on my mind this week, creating voice in narrative non-fiction. Voice depends on reader empathy in non-fiction as much as it does in fiction. It’s one of the first things editors look for, and just as with fiction, it’s crafted through story and sensory detail.
Consider the following, is it fiction, or non-fiction?
“Your name is Solomon Perel. You’re a short, skinny, sixteen-year-old Jew, and you’ve just been captured by the Nazis. It’s all you can do not to piss on yourself.
They’ve nabbed you and a bunch of other refugees, just a few days into Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Now they’ve lined you all up in a field as they decide what do with each of you.
Most of you are Jewish—that’s why you were on the run in the first place—so the Nazis don’t have to think too hard about it. They take groups of refugees ahead of you off into the woods. From the forest come the sounds of shovels and machine guns, shovels and machine guns.”
How about this?
“Polio came down on a lot of kids that summer. It shriveled the leg of one girl in our congregation and deformed the arm of a little boy. The doctor knew what it was a soon as he saw Delphine. He sent her to St. Jude Hospital and put her in an iron lung to help her breathe. She couldn’t move. All she could do was whisper through her breath, that’s what my momma said. I used to go in the car with them to visit, but Mom and Q.P. made me wait outside the hospital. They didn’t want me to get sick, too, and they didn’t want me to see Delphine like that. Once I tried to slip inside to see my sister, but a nurse caught me and led me back out screaming. I never saw Delphine alive again after the day she left our house to go see the doctor. The next time I saw her she was dead.”
“On Thursday morning, May 2, 1963, nine-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks woke up with freedom on her mind. But, before she could be free, there was something important she had to do.
‘I want to go to jail,’ Audrey told her mother.
Since Mr. and Mrs. Hendricks thought that was a good idea, they helped her get ready. Her father had even bought her a new game she’d been eyeing. Audrey imagined that it would entertain her if she got bored during her week on a cell block.”
Each of the above passages are from non-fiction narratives.
The first quote is from a vignette in Chris Barton’s new nonfiction book for young people, Can I See Your ID? about people who made their mark, for whatever reason, by misleading folks.
The second, from Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin, Twice Toward Justice, is a story about a little known civil rights figure who stood up for herself by refusing to give up her seat on a bus before Rosa Parks made her mark, and thus affected the course of American history.
And finally, the last quote from We’ve Got a Job To Do, the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson, is the story of how Birmingham’s black youth answered Dr. Martin Luther King’s call to “fill the jails: of their city,” as the book notes. “And in doing so, how they drew national attention to the cause and helped bring about the repeal of segregation laws.”
What these narratives have in common is a particular voice crafted by story and sensory detail. That’s easy to spot as a reader because you know it when you see it. But how do you get it in your writing? For Barton and Levinson, it was finding the right approach to their research.
Can I See Your ID?
Chris Barton wrote Can I See Your ID? entirely in second person. After researching risk taking characters through history who posed as someone they weren’t, he “had stacks of research… but not a single word written down. I hadn’t yet come up with a voice.” At first, he merely played around with second person to experience what his characters were experiencing. He liked the effects. “But ‘you’?” he thought. “A whole book addressed to ‘you’?” Yet once he caught that voice, he couldn’t let it go.
Writing in second person though, made it especially challenging to create distinct voices that let readers experience events through an individual character’s eyes. Much of getting it right had to do with sensory detail and scene setting.
“I collected a lot of information about these people’s lives,” he notes, “And about the times and places where these scenes occur. Sometimes, I just got extremely lucky, such as finding a book that provided the daily temperatures during the Civil War for the particular place I needed… to make the scene seem real.”
It worked. Reading Barton’s blend of action, character conflict, and historical detail you can’t imagine this book any other way, because the technique puts you masterfully, smack dab in each character’s shoes.
We’ve Got a Job To Do
In contrast, the voice in Cynthia Levinson’s We’ve Got a Job To Do, the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March is, as agent Erin Murphy puts it, “Notable for its invisibility. For the most part, what Cynthia Levinson achieves is putting the viewpoints of her four profiled participants at the forefront, letting them and their experiences speak for themselves.” And it’s these experiences that give young readers a unique window into the Civil Rights Movement.
To achieve this, Levinson relied on her own brand of sensory details such as “listening to music and sermons. I wrote Chapter Five,” she says, “which is on the role of mass meetings and religion in the civil rights movement, while listening to gospel, movement songs, and early-60s black rock music.”
She also unearthed recordings of sermons given at mass meetings by Reverend Ralph Abernathy and by Dr. King (including one in which he rehearsed what became the “I have a dream,” speech he delivered four months later at the March on Washington).
“I continued listening to them while revising that chapter,” Levinson adds. “My interviews and other primary sources, such as reports by white policemen who spied on the meetings were also essential. But, it was by being infused with the hallelujah fervor of the songs and sermons that I could write scenes such as the following:
A mass meeting rolled worship services, social visits, teen hangouts, choir concerts, sing-alongs, fish fries, strategy sessions, political debates, news reports, educational assemblies, fundraisers, crowd-rousers, and calls for volunteers all into one spiritual and spirited extravaganza.”
Next: the 1906 earthquake, Catherine the Great, and a storyteller’s guide to writing your own narrative non-fiction story. –zv