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Finding Your Writing Voice

By July 6, 2021 No Comments

By Echo Montgomery Garrett

 

When I read book reviews, I often see references to the author’s unique voice. There are certain writers, whose voices are so distinctive, that devoted fans know within the first few paragraphs that they are reading the work of one of their favorites. Personally, I love the works of authors Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief), Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird), Jeanette Walls (The Glass Castle), Lee Woodruff (In an Instant), Delia Owens (Where the Crawdads Sing), Michael Lewis (The Blind Side), Robert Hicks (The Widow of the South), and Isla Morley (The Last Blue). I’ve put in parentheses the book that introduced me to their work. 

 Their genres vary, and their voices are distinctive. The common thread? They write stories that move me, stories with heart and substance, stories that matter. The kind of writing that sticks with you and that you find yourself pondering long after you’ve closed the book. Yes, I’m one of those, who prefer print books that I can keep forever if I choose to do so. 

As an author, who has collaborated on or ghostwritten almost two dozen books, I’ve sometimes read the comments about voice and felt a pang of insecurity. It’s been top of mind since I turned 60 and started contemplating writing my own memoir. After all, my career has hinged on my gift for channeling other people’s voices: The billionaire, who came from abject poverty in Ohio and went on to create one of the most successful pet food companies in history (Clay Mathile, Dream No Little Dreams); the founder of the executive coaching movement in Europe (Graham Alexander, Tales from the Top); the couple, who agreed to sacrifice his heavy-hitting career as a managing partner with a top accounting firm, to start a nonprofit to help those in generational poverty find and retain jobs (Liane Phillips, Why Don’t They Just Get a Job? One Couples Mission to End Poverty in their Community); the accidental salesman, who has built a 47-year career in one of the toughest fields imaginable – selling life and accident insurance (Douglas Thompson, Knock! Knock! Lessons Learned and Stories Shared – A Ride-Along with Sales Superstar Doug Thompson); and a mini-memoir/self-help graphic nonfiction book about a young boy, who grew up around mobsters and motorcycle gang members in Las Vegas and was homeless at age 15, earning a full-ride football scholarship to Georgia Tech (Sam Bracken, My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journey to Radical Change), to name a few.

As a journalist for almost 40 years, I’ve covered a lot of different topics from money and investing to entrepreneurship to travel and home design to food and music and much more. When you write books, the traditional publishing world bangs one drum: platform. You must be known for something, and the narrower your scope, the better. I take an original approach to stories that others might pass by. I enjoy tackling challenges and working to find creative solutions. When I think about the books that I’ve written almost every one of the people I’ve written about or with shares that characteristic.

But it was Clay, who inspired me early on to think about my mission/vision when it came to my writing career. For his book, we interviewed more than 100 people (some more than once), who had been part of his life and/or had been with The Iams Company during his 20 years building it into the powerhouse it became. His integrity, kindness, and commitment to excellence astonished me. He didn’t just talk about mission/vision. He lived it, and I had to the opportunity to see it in action. He had more than 2,000 employees when he sold the company to Proctor & Gamble for $2.3 billion. When we flew into interview different folks at the plants in 2001/2002, he knew workers on the floor by name. He’d inquire about their significant others, their children, even their pets – usually by name as well. You could tell he genuinely cared about other people. 

After spending two years working closely with Clay, I wrote my mission: I write stories that inspire others to greatness. I vowed that I would only spend time on such stories for the remainder of my career. My opportunity came quickly. In the fall of 2004 after I’d finished Clay’s book, my husband Kevin, a professional photographer with whom I wrote guidebooks and travel articles and had just started our company in 2001, was rear-ended and suffered a mild traumatic brain injury, which was misdiagnosed for seven months. 

Our lives were turned upside down, and we had no idea what the future might look like. One of the avenues we were exploring was adopting a daughter out of foster care to add to our family. Our sons were 14 and 11 at the time. We no longer saw that as a viable option and prayed that God would take our dream of helping one child and magnify it. The next week I made a connection with Sam Bracken. As soon as I heard his story, I knew it was a direct answer to our prayer.

Sam and I shared a dream to start a nonprofit based on the principles in the second half of his book. Sam’s 7 Rules for the Road comprise the transformational process that he went through to become a successful adult. We, along with Michael Daly and Diana Black, launched the Orange Duffel Bag Initiative (www.theODBI.org) in 2010 to do executive life plan coaching for young people (14-24), who were experiencing aging out of foster care, homelessness, and/or high poverty. I ran it as the unpaid president for the first two years of our existence, using a lot of what I’d learned from Dave and Liane Phillips and their nonprofit Cincinnati Works. 

We’re the youngest nonprofit to earn recognition from Emory University as a Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Honoree. We’ve graduated more than 1,500 students from our evidence-based program, which is designed to help students stay on track for their educations and provide ongoing advocacy for them. I overcame my lifelong terror of public speaking to speak on behalf of our students, who are some of our nation’s most vulnerable and underserved teens and young adults.

My son Connor Judson Garrett, who is also an author and my partner in Lucid House Publishing, recently helped me realize that I have built a platform. “Your brand is to spread love and positivity, Mom,” he said.

Although every single project I’ve done is wildly different, what matters is that I give voice to a story that I believe deserves to be told. And in the case of My Orange Duffel Bag, I helped bring life to a story that has allowed more than a thousand young people to find the courage to share their stories and start to create a new one.

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