A Recommendation of Sorts

Continued from "On How I Found My Voice, and How You Can Too"

"'I’m leaving and I’m never coming back,' I say while putting on my coat. I use my mother’s aggrieved, underappreciated tone. The little brown dog transfers her gaze from me to the table, the last place she remembers seeing toast. The Labrador, who understands English, begins howling miserably. She wins the toast sweepstakes and is chewing loudly when I leave, the little dog barking ferociously at her." ~ An Excerpt from, The Fourth State of Matter by Jo Ann Beard

Hey there fellow writers, I'm back. This is the continuum to my introductory piece, "On How I Found My Voice," over in Education. So you don't feel lost, I'd suggest reading that baby before you dive into this little list of recommendations. 

So, the question is what can help me find my own, unique voice? It's one thing to have a voice out loud, when you're speaking to your best friend or your mother, but having a unique writing voice is very different. It makes you stand out against a backdrop of a million other writers—and if you don't have that voice yet, or you lost it like I did, it can be extremely difficult to find. 

What helped me was inspiration, and that inspiration came from the words of these following writers—all with unique voices and experiences—that made them stand out. So enough of me prattling. I hope you’ve got your coffee cups, your glasses on and your fingers ready—because this will include a lot of reading, and a LOT of pumping you up so those fingers can feel the the familiar tingle of writer’s itch when I’m done. So, let’s get started.

"I Cannot Explain My Fear" by Papatya Bucak

This piece is a compact expression of a very specific topic: fear. As a reader, we are drawn in immediately by the list of fears, which creates a kind of rhythm to follow. You English crazies out there will know that she uses asyndeton, or the omission of “and” and substitutes it with commas in between thoughts. This makes the piece easy to read and fast-paced. I myself got tired of all the fear near the middle, so that rhythm of the piece helped me get to the turning point, which I thought was very clever of her. The shift happens when suddenly her use of anaphora, or the repetition of a certain word or phrase at the start of a sentence, dwindles. She kept making sure the reader knew that lightning and drowning were her fears because she kept repeating that very word: fear. But then, just when the reader thinks she can’t function because of all her fears, we are introduced to an “early every morning.” A shift has begun, and we are left with the last sentence that has suddenly become significant, “I am quiet, but that is not the same as afraid.” Though this piece was not my most favorite, it is a great starter piece for anyone struggling to find what to write about. Create a list in your head, add some overarching significance (that’s called amplification in literary school) and voila, you have yourself a piece of non-fiction in front of you, written by none other but you!

"No Name Woman" by Maxine Hong Kingston

This tale was immediately engaging from the first sentence. It’s a normal human reaction that when someone says “don’t tell,” we immediately want to know all the dirty details, and in turn tell someone about what we’ve heard. I’ve told many people about this piece since, as it acknowledges the difficult boundary between fact and fiction, especially if we call this piece non-fiction. Vividly detailed, this piece is about an aunt the author does not and will not come to know, and what she imagines she was like. However, the reader doesn’t fully understand that most of the story, both from the mother and the author, is speculation more than fact. But Kingston does it so slyly that we have to go back (I know I did) and read it once more. It also contains relatable moments, and even touches on societal norms of different cultures and the effect it has on immigrants. At the end, it leaves you somewhat haunted with the ghost of her aunt, not resting but waiting to drag you down into the well. This piece was definitely a favorite, and I hope you will think the same after reading it.

"The Fourth State of Matter" by Jo Ann Beard

A braided essay features many storylines linked together. This heartbreaking piece did just that, and this is what kept us engaged and oblivious to what was to come. With a brilliant use of amplification, Beard created a piece that had me blubbering, my desk stained with salt pools. The collie, the divorce, the husband, the squirrels, all were Beard’s distraction noodles that helped the reader be surprised and in turn terrified for the characters in the story. Her use of foreshadowing and in turn symbolism (plasma), created an honest telling of a tragic event. Even though she was not there, she got the papers that detailed the shooting and even the bits of the letter the shooter wrote to his sister. That part itself was beautifully written in short start and stop sentences, which helped amplify the time in which it took (12 minutes) to end lives. Quite honestly, this was my favorite essay. I like to think that I am a stone and don’t have feelings, but the truth is that I have too many feelings. This piece woke those up which in turn made me appreciate the skill and delicate detail that was put into this piece. It made me want to write a similar piece. I hope you too will find this as you read.

"Me Talk Pretty One Day" by David Sedaris

I used to know the whole “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” song in French, by heart. Unfortunately, all I can now say is “My name is Justina,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” and “the black cat.” That is what my French classes have taught me, and indeed, I could not relate more to this piece. Putting aside that it was comedic, engaging and downright true, Sedaris’ use of dialogue in this piece was the key to its success. Without dialogue, this piece would not have the same effect it does on its readers, highlighting the importance of using dialogue when appropriate in your own endeavors. This piece inspired me to be witty in my writing (as I am hopeless when I open my mouth), and to make situations like a teacher comparing you to a cesarean section funny, when in fact they wouldn’t be without your sarcasm, snide comments and well-executed self-depreciation. Sedaris is an excellent example of this, and as you read I hope you find yourself not only laughing out loud, but feel moved to write something along the same lines as this. Laughter, after all, is the best medicine.

"Adventures in Depression" by Allie Bosch

Bosch’s first two paragraphs not only hook the reader, but also immediately have them relating to her. I too, think of myself in a movie probably more times than I should, and often find myself listening to what I like to call the soundtrack of my life. But then we are introduced to the real topic of this piece, depression, and though some of us suffer from this debilitating mental illness, not every one of her readers will. By hooking her readers in with a relatable moment then, those of us who don’t haven’t suffered from depression are still reading her piece. Therefore this, and her other pieces, are great to help people understand what depression does to a person, and how stupid we sound saying “you know other people have it worse, you should try yoga.” The inclusion of her graphics help a serious matter become not so heavy, a certain comedic relief, for those who don’t understand depression so that she doesn’t lose her readers but also still gets her point across. If you don’t want to be so restrained by the rules of essays that actually have names like “lyrical” or “braided” a blog post format like this would be ideal for you. You don’t have to have a completely structured piece to write, you just have to have something to write about. That, my friend, is the hardest thing to conquer – it was the hardest thing for me. The thing is, someone does. So start—include some funny pictures, some lyrics, anything that gets you engaged that would in turn get your readers excited. Go! Now!

"Somebody Else’s Genocide" by Sherman Alexie

A short but powerful piece on the irony of a nation’s guilt, and the inevitability of evil, Alexie’s use of dialogue and irony really makes the piece what it is. The reader goes along with the story until they are staggered by what the German lady says. A hypocritical, nearly blind moment passes where the lady does not understand what she has said—and then calls the Holocaust a blip! In this way Alexie includes an emotional appeal towards his readers, allowing us to feel how he felt in this strange and quite bizarre situation. But I think it is his—and in turn our—awakening at the end of the piece that has stuck with me more than the comment that sparked this piece. The thought that indeed, events like the Holocaust or colonialism could happen anywhere at any given moment. A scary realization, and yet one we cannot deny. A short but impactful piece I find is the hardest thing to write, but it makes for good practice. Once you’ve found that you can write like Alexie, with as much of a punch, you will find writing in general much easier.

An Excerpt from “My Great Grandfather,” by Justina Deardoff

I know, I know. Some sort of narcissistic bullshit going on here—but honestly this excerpt is something I wrote in class before I realized I had found my voice once more. My heart knew it though, and my fingers did too. You see they had the itch. We had to speculate about a family member we did not know, and this was the product:

I imagine that my grandmother loved him. He was probably the sort of man who was quiet and strict, but showed affection in other ways. Like coming home every night. Or not letting his girls play cards, because gambling was a sin. Showing her brothers how to fish and drive a motorcar.

A faceless man to myself, he still comes back to my grandmother at times that she wishes he wouldn’t. When she reads “The Book Thief,” by Markus Zusak and memories of Stuttgart come flooding back to her or when her son jumps in front of a semi truck, he just happens to pop into her head probably as he had looked right before it happened, or the last time she saw him smile. The image of blood on the passenger side door takes place of the words she reads while the echoes of her aunts and uncles fighting over the dinner table whether the Jew’s were human or as Die Fuhrer put it, “rats among the streets,” would come back and send imaginary wavelengths to her eardrums.

In the end, they never could agree.

He’s not bitter. For me, I like to think of him as a man who stood for the rights of human beings. Who, when enlisted, instead of following the orders or running away, which would have put his family in danger, took his life into his own hands and pulled the trigger.

Maybe his wife screamed; or cried; or did nothing at all. Maybe, as with my Aunt’s grandfather, they cleaned up the mess and put it behind them.

My grandmother never has put him behind her though, not quite. She left shortly after the blood on the passenger door was cleaned off—a few splatters here and there hidden in a junkyard now, with the garbage of a generation brought to shame by the rest of the world.

Of course, the piece isn’t finished, and I don’t know if it will be anytime soon. Can you guess what I had read before writing this? It was Kingston’s piece, about the aunt nobody would talk about, except her mother when Kingston needed to be scared into obedience. A piece that deeply affected me had me imitating the same subject matter, producing this dark but true account of what happened to my great grandfather.

My point is that these pieces did affect me, even if I didn’t notice it at first.

To sign off, I hope that these pieces will affect you as well. Whether they make you realize you have feelings, or that your fingers are starting to itch, is up to you. It’s all in how you interpret and appreciate. But I hope that even if you struggle at first, you take something away from each of these pieces. That eventually, you will find your voice, like I did. Put it towards giving others voices, to giving history a voice, to documenting events and family traditions—all these things are important, though they may seem infinitesimal to you. Because somewhere, someone needs to hear what you are saying—what your heart is pouring out. They will appreciate that they are not alone, and maybe, just maybe, find their voice as well.

Justina Deardoff
Justina Deardoff

I've loved writing and telling stories whether fact or fiction, since I could hold a pencil. It's an outlet for me, of creativity and honesty, and exploring myself and those around me in the process. What is it to you?

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A Recommendation of Sorts