Releasing Your Voice/s

Too Cool for School

Too Cool for School

Over at the Story Grid Podcast, one of our most popular episodes concerns how writers approach Narrative Device.

What exactly is Narrative Device?

Narrative Device is the choice the writer makes about the qualities of the being that will “tell the Story.”

Should the writer write in the first person? I met a man from Istanbul who had a black moustache.

Or should the writer choose third person? When Temple Eliot stepped off the Orient Express, the first to attract her attention was a man with a black moustache.

Or even second person? You are not the kind of person who finds facial hair appealing, so why did the man with the black moustache seize your imagination?

Narrative Device is another way of qualifying the writer’s “voice.” And any writer worth her salt will tell you that once you crack the Narrative Device, the Story almost writes itself.

Consider the following poem by Charles Bukowski:

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
in there.

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there,
so don’t be
then I put him back,
but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him
and we sleep together like
with our
secret pact
and it’s nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don’t
weep, do

I’d bet if Bukowski were around today and someone asked him to pick a piece of writing that best reflects his battle hardened true voice, it would be that poem.

The legend of Bukowski reeks of spilled beer, cigarillo smoke and the acrid sweat of obliterative rage. But in this poem, Bukowski the artist stripped away the BS and revealed the marshmallow human being underneath.

He did that by nailing the Narrative Device, in this case writing a confessional Story as the cynical performance artist known as the “writer Charles Bukowski.”

The storyteller of the poem is the authentic Bukowski, the guy who got up in darkness every morning before his shift at the post office to write. The other Bukowski, was a persona, one he no doubt enjoyed and hid behind to protect his bluebird from external third party assault, something that as a child he was all too familiar with.

Bukowski’s inner triumph (creating as existential necessity, not “look at me” exhibitionism) is the job we as writers and artists have signed up for. To shuck our “writerly” BS, examine our internal landscapes to such a degree that we recognize our multiple personae and find ways to give them the external stage, the page. Let them tell our stories for us. That’s why they’re in us.

To let those birds out even though their songs torment us.

Narrative Device is just the technical term for discovering how to get the hell out of the way and letting those bluebirds sing.

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  1. Bart on February 5, 2016 at 1:33 am

    Thank you Mr. Pressfield for the warrior-code-honoured stuff your putting out!

  2. Mary Doyle on February 5, 2016 at 5:13 am

    Thanks for this one Shawn! You couldn’t have chosen a better example to illustrate Narrative Device – this one really hit me between the eyes.

  3. Katie on February 5, 2016 at 6:11 am

    What would the pros and cons be of first vs. third person? Or rather, when is it better to use the third person? The first in your example seems so intense and immediate and raw.

  4. Elise on February 5, 2016 at 6:14 am

    This touched me so much. I paint rather than write and used to imagine I could more easily hide in painting, but – slowly developing the courage to face the fact that there is really no way to hide.

  5. H Lawrence on February 5, 2016 at 6:38 am

    Still struggling with which birds to release.

  6. Scott on February 5, 2016 at 7:14 am

    Thanks for the Morning Bukowski and the call to dig down to the level of the bird. Your illustrated take on the perennial question of the “writer’s voice” is as good as any I have heard to date. I’ll be chewing on this for a while.

  7. Harrison Greene on February 5, 2016 at 8:44 am

    Thank you very much for posting this, Steven. It has great meaning to me (and I’m sure to all who read it).

  8. Dave LaRoche on February 5, 2016 at 2:08 pm

    “Step out of the way and let the birds sing,” nailed it for me. We so often want in to the narrative, to be heard, to be known, and the trick is to let out the birds while only stepping back and holding the cage. Thanks for the reminder.

  9. Sonja on February 5, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    Good stuff, Shawn! Thank you. So hard to do though.

  10. Michael Beverly on February 6, 2016 at 3:26 am

    I’m continually amazed (and saddened) by so many people that want to write (or even claim to be writers) and cannot (or won’t) communicate.
    Give me a forum and I can’t stop communicating.
    It’s, perhaps, a disease.
    A mental illness.
    An affection.
    I’m not searching for cure.
    Only an outlet.

    Yo, Shawn. You and Steven continually get questions that we (story nerds and geeks) love to answer.

    Obviously you haven’t the time to answer every question (many have been asked and answered previously) perhaps a way to let people know there is a forum for this?

  11. Michael Beverly on February 6, 2016 at 4:02 am

    Hugh Howey Posted this a couple days ago:

    “Why is voice important? Not because it will land you an agent. Or because your works will win literary awards. No, screw that. Your voice is important because you can’t enter a flow state without it. When you find your voice, your fingers won’t be able to keep up with your writing. You won’t stumble. You won’t flail. You won’t sit there wondering what the next best word is. You’ll have an idea or a concept, a visual image, a conversation that you want to convey, and you’ll know immediately how to convey it.”

  12. Deborah on February 10, 2016 at 2:24 pm

    Thank you for this brilliant post.

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