Deb Kim here. I have the distinct pleasure of welcoming John Elder Robison to The Debutante Ball. I met John a few years ago, after he sold Look Me In The Eye to Crown, a division of Random House. John is tall, dark and Aspergian. He has Asperger’s syndrome, which falls on the autism spectrum. You probably know his brother, another famous writer named Augusten Burroughs.
John’s new book, Be Different was released last month. We have a signed copy to offer one lucky Deb. John is an amazing story teller. And his post below on “voice,” will show you just what that means for him. Enjoy!
On this World Autism Awareness Day, I’d like to offer readers of the Debutante Ball some thoughts on writing and speaking from the perspective of a somewhat literate person with autism. That seems appropriate given this blog’s mission of showcasing debut book authors, and its readership of past, present and hopefully future published authors.
The thing I’d like to talk about today is the idea of “voice.” What, exactly, is a writer’s voice? Some of you may be educated in writing, so you think you know the answer. Not me. As a high school dropout, I had to figure out questions like that, one by one, as soon as I made the decision to write a book. You see, I am not a guy with a degree in English and Writing and a lot of formal training in the proper use of words and language. Instead, I am a fellow who came to the book trade from an automobile repair shop.
That meant I had to learn the terms and tricks of being an author from a base of zero, but it also meant I was totally unencumbered by any conventional wisdom about how books should be written. I had decided to write me a book, and I knew how to fix cars, and those things just had to be enough. After all, I’d decided to write a story of growing up, and who could know more about growing up that someone who’d done it? I surely qualified, at age forty-eight.
After a bit if searching and reading, I determined that a writer’s “voice” is simply his or her style of writing, such that a reader familiar with that same voice could be reasonably expected to recognize it. With a little reflection, I thought of some authors whose voices I could recognize. Hunter Thompson came to mind, driving into Las Vegas tanked up on liquor and drugs. So did Charles Bukowski, delivering the mail as he sank into depravity, or even the ancient but distinctive pontifications of Plato. There are surely others with recognizable voices, but those were the ones I thought of first.
What makes them recognizable? One thing those authors have in common is that they compose passages that are long enough to exhibit a distinctive pattern of writing. I had never done that before, in my previous careers. In my earlier life, writing was mostly limited to short passages, like this: Find and fix short circuit in right tail lamp harness. Clearly, there’s not much potential to develop voice there. Or is there?
I gave that question quite a bit of thought. The writing forums made the need for voice very clear, and I was still involved in fixing cars, so I decided to start practicing in my shop. I considered my next steps carefully. I knew that people said I had a distinctive speaking voice. I’d heard that for many years. I wasn’t sure if people were referring to the tone of my speech, the idea that I sounded weird, or the arrangement of the words I spoke. I’d have to find out. People’s comments gave me hope that a writer’s voice might be hidden within me.
By giving free reign to my creative urges, the description of a simple short morphed into something longer and more detailed; something that had the beginnings of that thing called voice. I achieved that essential goal by thinking of the relationship between what I said, and what I wrote. For example, when I gave a car back to its owner I always went over what we’d done. I would never say something like, “Find and fix short circuit in right tail lamp harness.” Neither would you; that may look fine written on a repair order, but as a spoken quote, it’s something only a robot would say.
I considered what I actually said to customers and realized I tell them, in a conversational way, what we did and why. So why wasn’t I writing the same way? I don’t know. I decided to say the words I’d utter to a customer, and write them down. Here’s what came out:
You asked us to fix a short in right tail lamp circuit. You knew you had a problem because the lights were out and the fuse was blown. We verified that you had a short circuit by changing the fuse and seeing it pop immediately. Seeing that, we traced the problem to a fault at the right rear of your car. After extensive testing, we found a damaged section of wire harness near the gas tank. It looks like water got into the harness and rotted it out. We’ve fixed the short and sealed the damaged area so that particular failure can’t happen again.
Customers were quick to notice my longer narratives. They said things like, “It feels like you are talking to me, and I like that.” The change was an obvious success. Comparing that new method of writing repair orders to what I’d done in the past, I realized I had found a voice. Just like that. It was simpler than I thought.
I had found a voice. But would it translate from writing repair orders for cars to writing a book about growing up? The only way to know was to try. To do that, I began telling stories in my mind. I was always a storyteller; all my friends will tell you that. What I did was tell the stories to myself, and set them down on paper. Just as I’d speak them
That seems like a totally natural thing to do, but when I showed the finished product to professional editors, they told me I have something remarkable. “Your writing reads just like you talk. It’s as if you are right there,” they said. I did not appreciate the significance of that at first, but they assured me it’s rare. Why, I wondered?
Did other people set out to write books in the robotic and rigid way I had used to write automobile repair orders? Maybe they did . . .
The more I wrote, the more I saw that it’s easy (and therefore tempting) to drop out of the conversational voice and revert to writing stilted and impersonal sentences. I saw that I must guard against that; I had to remain vigilant and true to how I speak. I kept that notion in mind right through the production of Look Me in the Eye, and I continued to follow it with my next book, Be Different.
I don’t know if that trick will work for you, as you search for a voice. Perhaps it won’t matter; maybe you have a great voice already. Either way, I hope you got some value from this story, and if you have a spare twenty bucks, I hope you even buy one or two of my books.
New York Times Bestselling author