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  • Writer's pictureAl Desetta

Voice as Style in Ghostwriting (how memoirs resonate with readers)

I recently finished a memoir for a client, who told me, quite happily, “My daughter read it and loved it—she said the memoir sounds exactly like me.”

I was happy to hear this, of course, but I didn’t say, “Not quite exactly like you.”

Voice in memoir is a crafted voice on the page. It’s not our literal speaking voice, and thank God for that. Whenever I read over a transcript of an interview I’ve done with a client (and a memoir takes numerous interviews), I’m often appalled by how we both sound—the “ums” and the “ahs” and the hesitancies and non-sequiturs of spoken speech.  But it is from that spoken speech that the memoir writer crafts a written voice that is true to the subject’s background, upbringing, ethnicity, geographic location, personality, etc.—the particular “style” of how each of us sounds.

A ghostwriter once told me this approach was a waste of time. He advised that I pick a voice from a novel I liked and model the ghostwriting style on that. Make no effort, he said, to identify the voice of the client.

I couldn’t disagree more. While I agree that memoir should be written like a novel, but that doesn’t preclude using the client’s particular voice. That particularity is what makes memoir writing such a joy for me—each of us has a particular, distinctive, and unmistakable voice. And that distinctive voice is a powerful tool in the hands of the memoir writer. It’s the tool I used when I worked with teens on personal writing for 15 years. Wunika from East New York didn’t sound like Lorraine from the Bronx. Max from Staten Island didn’t sound like Lenny from Coney Island. Had I homogenized those voices into a generic “ghostwriter’s voice,” had I made these young people sound like I novel I’d read, I would not have lasted two weeks in the job, and for good reason.

So I strive to preserve voice in the work I do—the tempo, rhythm, word choice, slang, etc. Not just preserve it, but use it as style. It is through the particularity of voice that we bond with the memoir subject. Such as the voice of Sam Sutton, growing up in Kinston, N.C.:

“Betty Jones had a radio going in the fields, and it was a real treat listening to all the white singers I never heard. At around 9:30 Troy would bring us a snack of peanut butter crackers. Mr. Jones was like a father to me, very good people. He was a white man, and we kids working for him were black, but he treated everyone fairly and with courtesy. We drank water from the same ladle, like one big family. 

“At lunchtime Mr. Jones would drop us off at a store at the edge of the tobacco fields, where we bought chicken salad sandwiches, chips, cokes, and moonpies. Somehow the prices went up the moment us black kids walked in. Only if we protested would the white owner give our money back.”


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