Building Voice in Gnarly Ways by Josie Weidner

Let me preface this blog post by saying that I wish I were one of those people who could effortlessly slip words like “gnarly” or “that’s so dope” into my every day vocabulary. I have always observed that the people who looked happiest in life were those who thought of everything in terms of being “gnarly” and “dope”; Sean Penn in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, laid-back rock climbers, chill surfers who hang out in the tropical waters of Fiji. Yet, those types of words sound so ungenuine coming from my mouth. As much as I wish I were a surfer in Fiji, I’m just a high school senior who uses the word “awesome” too much.

I didn’t start thinking about how important vocabulary is until this week, when I happened to flip through skating and surfing magazine Juice in a bookstore. They kept using words like “Outside” and “Barrel ride” and “Double axle curve, pineapple doing is best to remove all that sauce.” I had no idea what these words meant in the context of surfing, and they didn’t make sense in the context of my vocabulary. For some reason, I found these words to be so intriguing. This was true surfer speak.

Building vocabulary is a fundamental part of writing. Before, I always thought it was enough to replace words like ‘rural’ with ‘pastoral’ or ‘big’ with ‘enormous’. Now, I think about building vocabulary in terms of voice too. What I had read in Juice was a prime example of what a surfer might say. I realized that being able to use authentic vocabulary and voice like that expands the range of characters I can write about. There are so many different types of voice that conjure up specific characters like business jargon or teen lingo or mom voice. How these characters speak already says so much about who they are, just like the types of people who say “Gnarly”.

My ending point to all of this is that as writers, paying attention to how someone uses vocabulary in their voice creates more interesting, intense characters. Expanding what you read, listen to, and whom you talk with can build the voices from which you draw upon. Who knows, it may prove handy in life as well, when you’re surfing in the turquoise waters of Fiji and need to know that when someone shouts “Outside”, a new set of waves is approaching, and you better get paddling.

Josie Weidner, class of 2016


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