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Writing Tips

Cathy Ostlere on finding (and feeling) the strength of your voice

Cathy Ostlere was a reader for the 2014 Creative Nonfiction Prize. She shares with us some of the writing advice she has found most helpful.

The most significant quality of a strong life-writing narrative is voice. A reader may choose a memoir for its interesting story but they will read to the last page because they want to know who is speaking. For the writer, finding the who is the real work.

Vivian Gornick, in her book, The Situation and the Story, writes about the necessity of creating a narrator who is you and at the same time not you—she calls it the persona. But how to make a bridge from the you of personal experience to the persona that will control your story?

In the Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, Jennifer Sinor recaps Bill Roorbach’s valuable exercise from his book, Writing Life Stories:

  • Write a letter to someone you haven’t seen in a while and explain yourself (it will never be mailed so you can be brutally honest).

  • Once you’ve composed the letter, remove the salutation and the small talk. 
  • See if you can uncover the heart of the letter: issues, dramatic tension. 
  • Read your words aloud.
  • Feel the strength of your voice."

Cathy Ostlere is the President of the Creative Nonfiction Collective Society (CNFC), a national organization for emerging and established CNF writers. She writes creative nonfiction, young adult fiction, dramas, and screenplays. She was a 2012 Governor General Award finalist for the play, Lost: A Memoir. Her first book, Lost, was shortlisted for the 2009 Edna Staebler Creative Non-fiction Award. 

Photo credit: David Whyte, Griffin Photography & Video


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