At the end of last year, I felt privileged to win the Faber Academy Scholarship to take part in Patti Miller’s Writing True Stories course. Over the previous two decades as Patti published each new book on memoir writing, I studied it, but learning from her in person was breathtaking as concepts I had read in her books came alive. Patti’s lessons, the readings she gave us and workshopping our writing opened my eyes to the notion of narrative voice and the need to discover my distinctive voice.
Narrative voice is unique to each writer and captures the essence of their personality. It reveals the way a writer approaches themselves and others and their worldview. A writer’s voice is their personal signature on everything they write and distinguishes one writer from another.
After Patti spoke about narrative voice and suggested I strengthen mine, I returned to an old favourite, Lytton Strachey’s biography, Eminent Victorians. I also re-read Michael Holroyd’s biography, Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography.
I realised the quirky way Strachey narrated Eminent Victorians reflected his witty, irreverent and charming personality. In Eminent Victorians, Strachey’s voice sounded similar to his voice as I had imagined it from reading his biography and those of his Bloomsbury friends. As a storyteller on paper and in real life, Strachey was an active and outspoken narrator who interjected with his often strident opinions.
Strachey’s parodies in Eminent Victorians reflected his jaundiced views on Victorian society and his fearless attitude towards ‘bigwigs,’ who were usually hero-worshipped in Victorian biographies. In the essay, The New Biography, Virginia Woolf noted that Strachey broke free of the strictures of the Victorian period to pursue a new style of biography writing that became known as ‘modern biography.’ Strachey pushed the boundaries of biographical practice, using devices such as candour, irony and satire—which were his usual way of expressing himself in conversation.
During Writing True Stories classes, Patti often commented on the narrative voice of another of my favourite writers—Helen Garner. After Patti’s class one Friday afternoon, I dug out my old copies of Helen Garner’s The First Stone, This House of Grief and The Spare Room. As I re-read them, I immediately recognised Garner’s voice—her savage honesty, self-scrutiny, vulnerability and also humour. This was the same voice I had heard when Garner spoke at Writers’ Festivals and on the radio, and I finally understood what Patti meant when she told me I needed to hone my narrative voice.
Thank you Faber Writing Academy and Patti Miller for enabling me to immerse myself in Writing True Stories in 2020. It was an immensely powerful course and propelled me into a fresh writing space.
Gabriella Marie Kelly-Davies
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