Nothing is more beautiful than an authentic voice that comes straight from the heart and soul of another human being. I can’t think of a better illustration of this fact than Susan Boyle’s first appearance (2009) on the TV show Britain’s Got Talent, which electrified the audience and, eventually, the world. Even if you’ve watched this video a dozen times, as I have, watch it again.
Susan has a signature story. She comes from a village in Scotland so small that she even forgot the name “village” while waiting to perform. She obviously did not impress the audience or the judges at first glance. She described herself as someone who was unemployed and had never been married or even been kissed.
She looked the opposite of a diva in every way — clumsy mannerisms, frumpy dress, overweight body. When she said she was 47 years old, the audience laughed at her.
If this were the Gong Show of the 1980’s, she might have been gonged off the stage before she opened her mouth.
But then she did open her mouth. Within twenty seconds, she started bringing the audience to their feet. The song she sang, “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserable was perfect.
Here are five lessons from Susan’s story to help you create our own personal essay that sings.
1. Be yourself. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Susan wanted to be a diva, to move people with her music, but she didn’t focus on trying to change her dumpy image (that came later). She looked and acted like a woman from the village. In the end, her authenticity yielded an amazing surprise. Had she somehow managed to lose thirty pounds, squeeze into a designer gown, and have her hair and face lifted, she would still have wowed the audience, but she could never have been Cinderella. And the audience would not have identified with her the way they did.
2. Laugh at yourself. When she couldn’t remember the word “village,” Susan didn’t get all flustered. She just kept going. She didn’t hang her head when she said, she’d never been kissed. She laughed and said, “Shame.”
3. Share your feelings and go down deep. Susan chose the right song. The dream of Fantine from the musical Les Miserables was really her own dream. As soon as she gave that dream her all, the audience was on its feet applauding.
4. Tap into your audience’s dreams as you express your own. In the end, the judges recognize a great truth. We feel shame when our stereotypes and prejudices based on external appearances are revealed to us. But what we really want to feel is redemption. Susan Boyle forgave that audience before she sang to them, knowing that they could not see what mattered most about her until she showed them herself. The audience began by looking down on Susan. Soon, they were looking up to her, hanging on every note.
5. Find your own rhythm. Watch Susan’s face as she sings. She knows the audience is waiting for her to hit the high notes. So she pauses a milli-second to make them want it even more. When she finally explodes with passion, they do also.
From Singing to Writing
Moving from one art form to another may not always work exactly, but surely when you sit down to write an essay about your own life, you can find ways to apply the lessons above from Susan Boyle.
1. Think of the worst thing about yourself. In Susan’s case it was her looks and her age and her desire to be loved. Is there a secret you might prefer to hide? Not every secret should find its way into print. Start with a little one and find a way to reveal it. Focus on what embarrassed you in the past. Don’t overplay or underplay it. But if you don’t admit it, the reader may admire you but will not fall in love. We don’t give a fig about your accomplishments or your misery unless you come across as aware of yourself in all your complexity. Full out in front of us. Like Susan.
2. Even if you are writing about painful conflicts and injuries, don’t forget to keep a light tone.
3. Reveal your dreams. The reader wants to know why you write. Wants to feel it. Wants to be carried away by it.
4. If you, like me, have been taught the dangers of pride and of focusing on the self, re-frame that thought. Think of your work as serving a larger community. Nothing stimulates my own dream more than seeing you fully realize yours in print. I like to refer to this spiritual connection with the South African name “ubuntu.” If you can tap into this universal source of joy, you will have us singing too. Your pen has the power to heal wounds and stimulate goodness, even greatness, in others.
5. “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing!” When you have written and polished your best essay, read it aloud. You will hear and see things you missed by reading only in your head. Repeated words, unecessary clauses, and word order will all “sound” different to you. Read and tweak. Then read again. Practice your essay outloud in front of a group. When do their eyes glaze over? Do you ever have them on the edge of their seats? Like Susan and Duke Ellington, you’ve gotta have rhythm.
Okay. Now what did I miss? Watch the video again and either correct me or add to this list. I’m really interested in your ideas — and your stories.