Writing Lessons: The Steps To Finding Your Writing Voice & Structure

9-1FINDING YOUR WRITING VOICE requires experimenting. It’s as simple – and complicated – as that. And when I say this to my classes, I frequently get back accusatory stares. I think people feel cheated by this suggestion, as though I know how I found my voice and I’m not saying. What am I am saying? Experiment. When you do, you may find that your structure follows. To illustrate how to experiment your way to your own writing voice and subsequent structure, I’ve asked Nancy Sharp, author of just-out memoir, Both Sides Now, to illustrate how she found her way to write a book that Kirkus calls, “eloquent and fiercely hopeful.” That’s a voice to listen to. Read on.

Find Your Voice and Find Your Structure

by Nancy Sharp

Five years ago I sat down to write a memoir about losing my young husband Brett to cancer and then unexpectedly finding love again with a widower halfway across the country. Well, actually, my new husband Steve and I started to jot this journey together since he’d had a similar experience of loss and single parenting. The book wasn’t our idea. Not at first. It’s just that every stage of our relationship—from the engagement, to the honeymoon, to being newlyweds—people kept talking about the hopefulness of our story and how it ought to be a book (or a movie). Eventually we were intrigued enough to map an outline and begin writing. Our vision was to alternate voices, “mine” and “his,” until we wove our individual stories together at the end.

This isn’t a bad premise. Just a challenging one we learned because our voices were entirely different. At the time Steve was a TV news anchor and reporter. He had a marvelous ability to write visually (read: short scenes), but all those years of traditional journalism training made it tricky for him to access his emotions. That wasn’t his style, nor did he feel comfortable exposing his feelings. My own literary voice was still emerging but it was clear that my style was contrary: I sometimes wrote long sentences; I used metaphor; I wrote reflectively; I was unafraid to convey sadness and fear on the page. With coaching, we might have been able to pull such a book off. But the real stumbling block was Steve; he simply didn’t want to do it.

That opened the door for me to write the book on my own. I began by writing the story the only way I knew how, which was to tell it straight out, chronologically, using a conventional structure with longish chapters. I enrolled in a nonfiction writing class at Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop with the award-winning Harrison Candelaria Fletcher. Week by week I added new paragraphs, new chapters, and while early on I felt motivated, all excitement waned the more I wrote.

Here’s why: the structure stifled me. I couldn’t see it at first, the signs of unease subtle, but gradually, I came to feel overwhelmed by the lack of white space on the pages. I needed to hit the pause button to absorb what I was writing. Then it occurred to me that if my own feelings were this strong, readers could have a similar reaction. At the same time, our group read more nuanced memoirs that started to alter my vision, books like Michael Ondaatje’s Running In The Family and Abigail Thomas’ Safekeeping. Everything came together shortly thereafter because I saw a better, truer way to write my memoir.

I would write it in fragments since grief, after all, is among the most fragmented of life experiences. Anyone who has been bereaved—and let’s face it, loss is universal—understands that there is little linear movement in the process. I would tell the story chronologically to help lead the narrative but I would be especially selective of the scenes and moments I chose. And I would unconsciously use long and short chapters—akin to the dance of healing.

Thus Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living was born. Now there was a rightness to it all that felt organic and real. One other deliberate choice I made was to experiment with the second and third person. I read Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index and saw how she successfully did that. So I decided to address Brett in the second person, as “you,” when he was still alive in the story. This created intimacy with readers, drawing them inside our world. Later in the text, after Brett dies, I switched to the third person. What this did was increase the emotional distance on the page, something that proved necessary for me as a new widowed mother, but also for readers.

Seeing takes time. Writers, I think, must be exceedingly patient and flexible in order to visualize the right way to tell their stories. Experiment with structure and voice. Play with different forms. Reflect upon theme using a multi-sensory approach. Do these things and eventually you will discover the best way to render your story.

Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living, an excerpt  


THE ONLY PROOF OF CURE IS LIFE. With these words I trusted that the future rested on today.

Now you were here. Now you were well. Now we wanted children. We took the first appointment we could get. It was August 16, 1999. You arrived by taxi. At that time of day, mid-afternoon, it was easy to flag a cab outside your office at Time Inc. at Fiftieth Street and Sixth Avenue. I preferred the anonymity of the subway, only two short blocks from our apartment. Bottled water and The New Yorker in hand, I sequestered myself on the downtown No. 1 train, riding four stops to West Seventy-second Street, where I transferred to the crosstown M72 bus. Eleven streets later and through the pretty stretch of Central Park overlooking Strawberry Fields, I exited on the east side, at York Avenue. From here, the hospital was only a four-block walk. The waiting for the trains and buses, meandering on foot and intercepting taxis, it was a way of life. Back then, there was a rhythm to it all.

We’d waited weeks to see Dr. Davis at the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility, and now we sat in his windowed office politely eyeing each other. Dr. Davis was studying you, smiling at me. Why are we here? I remember thinking. We’re not infertile.

But we did have a problem—not genetics or age or miscarriages— but cancer. Remnants of cancer, I should say, because certainly all traces of the tumor that had lodged in your brain two years ago were now gone. Why else would we be here? We knew before your chemotherapy treatment began that it would make you infertile so we banked your sperm. Now, the decision to withdraw your frozen sperm, thaw and mix them with my genetically activated eggs, and then implant the result into an overly stimulated me, was just another way to life unfolding organically. The way it was meant to.

Dressed in a starched white shirt and blue paisley tie, with your summer blazer resting on the back of the chair, you concentrated hard. You were resolved.

Dr. Davis plotted a variety of scientific scenarios, gesturing with his hands to engage us before jotting notes on a small white pad. You reached for my sweaty hand. Every pore in my body resisted being here, but I wanted badly to be a mother, and in vitro fertilization was our only shot. You saw the unease in my eyes and gripped my hand tighter. I watched your slender fingers caress mine, and then looked at you, trying to protect me, while bearing down on all that Dr. Davis was saying. I loved you so fully in that moment. I would do this for you, for us.

But first I had to stuff my sadness over the past, not the grief of yesterday but the way your cancer would etch out a different course for us today and maybe in the future, too. I told myself that it was little more than a mind-set, this business of baby making that Dr. Davis was describing. Like building a model plane: first you identify the parts, then you follow the step-by-step directions; you glue and mold and wait for those pieces to dry before adding accessories; and finally, you’ve hatched a baby plane, ready to fly.

“There are no guarantees,” Dr. Davis told us. “But I think your chances of conceiving are good.”


Author bio

Nancy Sharp is an author, keynote speaker and speechwriter and who frequently talks to large groups about bold living.

Nancy holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College and writes regularly for The Huffington Post.  Her work has appeared in national magazines including Dr. Oz The Good Life, Woman’s Day, MORE, Marie Claire, SELF, and National Geographic Traveler. She has written for numerous online outlets as well as regional media like 5280 Magazine, The Rocky Mountain News, and The Denver Post.

Nancy authors two blogs: Vivid Living: Life in Full Bloom…Thorns and All, and Tasting Life with Nancy Sharp. Both Sides Now, published by Books & Books Press in February 2014, is her first book.  She lives in Denver with her husband, Steve Saunders, and their four children, ages twelve through twenty-two.

Nancy is available for interviews, book group discussions, and speaking appearances. More information can be found at www.NancySharp.net


I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each weekly installment takes on one short topic addressing how to write memoir.

It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.

Love the author featured above? Did you learn something in the how-to? Then you’ve got to read the book. And you can. I am giving away one copy, and all you have to do to win is leave a comment below about something you learned from the writing lesson or the excerpt. I’ll draw winners at random (using the tool at random dot org) after entries close at midnight Monday, March 31, right in time for the next installment of Writing Lessons.

Good luck!




  1. Mary Ellen Gambutti says

    The last paragraph of the introduction grabbed me: “Experiment with structure and voice….Reflect on theme using a multi-sensory approach.”. I’d love to read Nancy’s book. Thanks.

    • says

      Thanks Mary Ellen. I couldn’t agree more with what Marion wrote about experimentation. In my experience, it’s the only way to genuinely render your story.

  2. says

    Nancy, your first four paragraphs were so well crafted, I turned right around and re-read them. When I teach, I say over and over that you set up the question(s), tone and compass for all the writing that follows in the first paragraph(s). I’m going to be using your example as the mentor text. I felt breathless with the back story, front story, future story all at once. Thank you. Can’t wait to read it.

  3. says

    I would love to read this!

    The phrase that struck me was about the lack of white space on the pages. I suppose because I’m a visual person but the idea of less is more just gave me an immediate feeling of peace. And I had just listened to Ariana Huffington talking about her book and saying that “you can complete a project by dropping it.” Trying to get myself out of Overwhelm . . .

  4. Diane Bush says

    “Seeing takes time.” Too often I write before I’m ready. And it’s not just about me getting something down: it’s about my readers. I should think about them too.

    • says

      Thanks, Diane. This is actually one of the most important takeaways from my experience, in terms of how I wrote the book, yes, but more broadly, how I’ve come to integrate my past into the present. Thus, Both Sides Now.

  5. Allison says

    Talk about coincidence and I don’t believe in them. You mentioned M. Onkaatje’s Running in the Family, and I was just today I cracked open that book. It’s on my MFA Creative Writing Reading list. I lost my father when I was just 26, and it took quite a while for me to find my way again. Thank you for this articlel. I am currently writing a memoir about a very intense relationship I had 4 years after my dad died and has its connections to his death as well. Thank you for this article

  6. Katherine Stevenson says

    I loved everything about this post! I have to admit what stood out the most was, “So I decided to address Brett in the second person, as “you,” when he was still alive in the story.”

    That was so powerful to both think about and then read.

    Can’t wait to read this book!

    • says

      Thanks Katherine. Obviously, the use of the second person can be risky business and a few people didn’t respond as well to this choice (although the majority love it). I experimented quite a bit in the drafting process but ultimately I had to make the final call that alternating second and third person was best. Madeleine Blais, one of my graduate mentors from Goucher College’s MFA Creative Nonfiction program, was hugely instrumental in this process. She’s the person who turned me onto Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index.

  7. says

    Nancy, I love your writing style. You can feel your emotion. I too am a widow and working on a memoir – it is a slow process. Will definitely have to read your story.

  8. says

    I’m a published author for self-help psychology books, but now I’m writing my memoir of my relationship with my stepson who is mentally ill and adicted to substances. Thanks for the information on combining two person (you and we) point of view. I hope to use I and we in mine, and this post was quite helpful.

  9. says

    Good luck to you Joyce. Certainly, alternating voice is doable, especially if you write both voices. You book sounds very compelling, and I’m going to check out some of your others, too.

  10. Stephanie says

    Thank you for sharing this lesson. I am writing a memoir full of life, loss, and trauma, and now I see how important the structure is to capturing the essence of those events. Blessings to you and your family!

  11. Elle says

    I learned that you don’t necessarily have to have a structure. I always feel like I need a structure and it deflates my excitement to write, as well. This story is inspiring– I only hope I can one day publish a book as good as this. The excerpt reads well as too. I’d love to read it.

    • says

      Thank you Elle. I wanted to clarify something. Structure is in fact necessary for any book. It’s the glue that holds everything together. What’s important to note is that structures may vary; they needn’t be rigid. Write your story. Write it as passionately as you can that first, second, and yes, maybe even third draft. Ultimately you will see the structure that works best for your book. To your writing life!

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