How I Found My Voice (at my day job)

September 20, 2016 § 12 Comments

photo: Chrissy Corado

photo: Chrissy Corado

A guest post from Kelly Kautz:

Every copywriter has an unfinished manuscript tucked in a desk drawer, goes an old advertising cliche. The manuscript represents an identity crisis, a fraught relationship between commerce and art.

“You know the popular conception,” a 1960 New York Herald Tribune article summarized. “He’s writing about Frabjous Krispies for his pocketbook but here are tears in his beard.”

I, too, am a copywriter with a manuscript. And until a few months ago, I too had an identity crisis. But mine wasn’t a struggle between art and commerce. I just couldn’t find my voice.

The Story I Almost Couldn’t Tell

My book is rooted in family history: my great-grandmother might have belonged to a Satanic cult. I’d overheard bits and pieces of the story throughout childhood: She’d always been a bitter woman; then she fell in with a strange crowd. People began disappearing. And the dirt floor of her cellar, well, that was a perfect place to hide bodies.

No one had substantiated the family rumors. After I became a mother, I decided to try, and write a book about my investigation. I interviewed family members, and jotted down drafts. I spent my lunch hours at the ad agency searching digitized newspaper archives for clues. I envisioned the finished book to be a literary look at family secrets. But I couldn’t untangle the narrative threads: The fallibility of memory. The true crime angle. Genealogy. Satan.

How could I capitalize on the occult angle without sensationalizing it? Was I writing a history book, a memoir or—Satan forbid—a piece of pulp?

I struggled with these questions for nearly a year. I studied the Hero’s Journey and mapped out each chapter. This tightened up the book’s story arc, but left me no closer to understanding its nuances. Discouraged, I began spending my down time gossiping with coworkers and stalking the employee breakroom for snacks.

That’s how I found my solution. I’d wandered into the breakroom for a third cup of coffee one afternoon when I overheard a coworker explaining brand pyramids to an intern.

“All great brands are built upon something universal,” he said. “That’s what makes them relatable. The trick is to capture something universal and remain true to the things that make the brand unique. Those unique parts sit at the top. They’re what everyone sees. But that universal part provides the foundation.”

Universal yet unique, I thought. Huh.

That evening I sat down and listed my book’s narrative threads. Then I began organizing them into a pyramid of my own, from the most universal to the most unique. How did brain science fit in? Where did genealogy go? I crossed out threads and added new ones. Eventually a structure started to form.

Family was the foundation of my story; the most universal of all the angles. Next came motherhood, which had sparked my investigation—also universal, though a little more focused. Mental illness was a third theme—not quite universal, though all-too common. I’ve struggled with OCD my entire life, and suspected this or some other mental illness played a role in my great-grandmother’s behavior.

And finally, that weird little detail about the occult. The part that everyone noticed, and everyone remembered.

Calling this a brand pyramid isn’t quite accurate. It’s just an organized list of narrative themes. But once I’d created it, writing my book became easier. Talking about it seemed more natural. I felt like I’d finally found my voice.

pyramid

Finding Your Own Voice

I’ve always been interested in a long list of strange and disparate things. Perhaps that’s why I like advertising: I get paid to write about candy bars and extrusion machines, all in the same afternoon.

Rather than confining me to a narrow set of topics, this pyramid has empowered me. I no longer feel obligated to insert an occult angle into every blog post I write. I’ve opened up about my personal experiences with motherhood and mental illness, because I finally understand their relevance.

Most importantly, I get excited when I look at my brand pyramid, because I’m reminded of what drew me to this story in the first place. I notice connections between themes that I hadn’t seen before. But it took me a long time to get to this point. I spent many afternoons frowning at my computer, with too much to say and no way to say it.

If you find that it’s taking you a long time to find your voice, too, don’t panic. Explore everything that feels relevant, and a few things that don’t. Keep evaluating and re-evaluating which angles feel right, and which topics draw your interest. Ask yourself: which parts of my story are universal, and which are specific to me alone?

Your direction might take the form of pyramid like mine, or a mission statement, or a mind map. Maybe it will look like something else altogether. In the end, the form doesn’t matter; only that it leads you down the path to your best work. Even if your best work turns out to be about Frabjous Krispies.

___________________________________

Kelly Kautz is a writer and content strategist with work in Salon, Forbes, and MSN.com. She is at work on her first book. Find her on Twitter @kellykautz.

 

Listen Up!

July 28, 2014 § 6 Comments

RadioI started listening to podcasts because I was commuting from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Waynesville, Ohio every weekend. Five hours each way, and Beyoncé’s a boss but there’s only so many times in a row I can belt out Single Ladies before my passengers start to complain (twice). Enter This American Life, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and the skull-pounding nightmare delightful folksiness of Prairie Home Companion.

As I’ve become a radio storyteller and producer, I’ve started listening to podcasts more carefully. Radio producers thrive on making a signature sound for their own shows, a unique style that’s the equivalent of “voice” in written work. If you’re looking for inspirational approaches to structure, viewpoint and story, check out these listens. The links below take you right to the episodes, or click on the podcast title to get to their homepage, where you can subscribe in the audio service of your choice.

If you’re writing hybrid or braided essays:

Radiolab mixes anecdote, conjecture, expert testimony, historical fact and contemporary experiments to tell the stories behind science. Their narrative style is a great example of mixed genres coming together to tell a single story.

Episodes to start with: Rodney vs Death, Colors, and Are You Sure? (This one is a three-story episode. Be aware that the third story–which is one of the most incredible stories I’ve ever heard–is not kid- or work-safe)

If you’re having trouble plotting, or want to amp up your humor:

Snap Judgment has a young, quirky feel, and weaves sound design into storytelling that’s often live. They’re a great listen for sequential stories with surprising endings. If you’re trying to nail down an “…and I learned that…” ending without sounding trite, Snap’s stories can help. If you’re trying to up your humor, they’re often very funny, too.

Start with: The California Confederacy, Like a Virgin, and Seeking Asian Female

If you can’t figure out whether an incident is a story, or are struggling with finding dramatic movement in a reflective essay:

Third Coast International Audio Festival has its own podcast series, but something that’s served me well is the recordings of workshops and panels at their biannual convention. In particular, check out the “Pitch Perfect” and “Pitch Panel” sessions. After listening to several in a row, I was able to start distinguishing what was a story and what was a vignette or an observation even before the panel responded to the pitcher.

Start with: Pitch Perfect Session 2 from the 2012 Conference

If you’re approaching a difficult topic:

Love+Radio producer Nik Van der Kolk is a master of revealing a nonfiction story like a mystery. His use of low-fi sound and recordings that would be considered “flawed” by other shows is fascinating. Listen to the way information is slowly revealed to suck the listener right in before they shy away from the topic.

One to start with: Jack and Ellen (Most of Love+Radio is not kid- or work-safe. Again, incredible story, put in your earbuds or have grown-up passengers)

Happy listening–and if you’ve got a favorite podcast or episode, post a link in the comments–I’m always on the lookout for a good listen!

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