Okay. The new Cosmos is long over, I know. (Still, for the record: Neil DeGrasse Tyson is like my personal hero.)
But I’ve just gotten around to watching the OLD Cosmos on Netflix. And I want to talk about Carl Sagan. And mostly, I want to talk about how Carl Sagan talks.
Have you watched the original Cosmos? You can get Netflix to send you the disks, or check it out on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLBA8DC67D52968201). Go take a listen. You know, if you want to and stuff.
Do you notice how Carl Sagan has a very distinct way of speaking? He’s definitely got a memorable inflection, and people have been making fun of the way he says “billions” for like thirty years now, so there’s that.
But the thing that’s interesting to me is that Carl Sagan produced Cosmos in an era where the standardized TV accent was well-established. Anchors like Walter Cronkite had been speaking in neutralized American English for years at this point, and American audiences would have been trained to expect the same from most documentaries, television shows, and the like.
Two things are immediately clear upon watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: (1) that Carl Sagan speaks exactly like Carl Sagan, and (2) that Carl Sagan cares about science and the things he’s telling us about more than anything in the world.
And I think it’s really the second aspect of that observation that informs a successful narrative voice. The original Cosmos is awesome, even thirty years later. The special effects–and yes, sometimes the information–are clearly dated in 2014, but the spirit of the show is still appealing, even years later.
Sagan didn’t sterilize himself–either his love for the natural world or his natural speech patterns–to make the show, and it was by all measures, hugely successful.
But as writers, we often seek to do this exact thing. We try to make our narrative voice “sound” like an author we admire. We try to make our grammar perfect. We try to make the writing match our expectations for “good” writing.
When this happens, we isolate the second part of Carl’s narrative–the part that cares–from the part that’s communicating. If you’ll excuse the squishy metaphor, we cut our own heart out of our words, and we sterilize the message to make sure it fits into our constructed expectation of good narration.
But good narration is YOUR narration. Your voice. It’s your job, much like Carl, to stretch your story or idea out there to pass it off directly to another human. This requires guts and integrity and authenticity, and because it is your heart and your story and your idea, it requires you.
Don’t cut yourself out of your narrative. It won’t survive without you.
And when you hear that voice that nags you to write the way you should, to follow convention, to do things right, remember Carl Sagan. He didn’t need to sound like a standard American to touch the hearts and minds of millions.
And neither do you.