Is That Voice?

Listening to language, spoken melodiously, is a real treat.
Reading writing, written well, is even better.

The rhythm of language, keenly plucked, like a seasoned old bass in a jazz quartet, delivers the writer’s message.

We call such fusion of tone, idea, rhythm, and words—voice.
Like our signature, our writer’s voice is individual.

Many of us read certain authors because of their unique voices. Columnists, poets, novelists, and historians, to name just a few, draw us in, as we hope for another dose of their own brand of thought.

Teaching voice to young writers presents a special challenge.
The best way to teach voice is to show it.

Placing Ernest Hemingway’s short subtle monosyllabic word choice in “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” beside Gertrude Stein’s repetitive prose-poetry in Three Lives helped me to teach the writer’s voice to my high school students. William Faulkner’s excessive subordination, Southern idiom, and rich description in “The Bear” juxtaposed with Zora Neale Hurston’s comfortable early 20th Century’s black dialogue and dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God continued the lesson.

My students understood conceptually, but their earnest attempts to find their own voices became lessons in themselves. Using exaggerated melodramatic punctuation, swollen like make-out lips, they added semi-colons, double question marks, and exclamation marks cubed. I did my level best to affirm their brave attempts.

Part of my lesson on voice included these three warnings:

1. Do not use unrelenting punctuation, exacerbated by constrained vocabulary.

Example: Grace!!! My Goodness Gracious, Grace. Did you think (or imagine) that I—your capricious servant of salient salve—would abandon you at this primordial moment of catharsis????? No way! (sic)

Mrs. Sabraw, is that voice?

No, that is showing off in a very bad way.

2. Do not use unlikely scenarios overlaid with poorly selected adjectives and adverbs. (Here, I suggested they avoid most adverbs.)

Example: Grace! Your Gracious Goodness overwhelms me. The prodigious line at Costco, snaking conspicuously around the luggage and through the section of fine New York grown wines (which was small), weakened my defenses; alas, in my ignorance, I let down my Reserve and confidently recommended Opolo Winery’s 2006 Mountain Ridge to a snobby audience. Thank you for taking me home.

Mrs. Sabraw, is that voice?

No, that sentence cries out for context.

3.The use of indiscriminate profanity and sexuality, not applicable to the world about which the writer is writing, does not create voice.

Example: As Grace and I quietly urged our horses out to Taft Point, overlooking the spectacular Yosemite Valley, my eyes focused not only on the pristine panoramic view, but also on Grace’s a_ _, a fine one at that.

Mrs. Sabraw, is that voice?

{Mrs. Sabraw is, for once, speechless}

Andreas Kluth, writer for The Economist, who is also writing a book on Hannibal, The Carthaginian, reminded me of Rule #4.

4. Writing in the first person does not usually create voice.

Example: Grace, I know I begin many of my sentences with the word as and I overuse words such as vibrancy, trump, and of course (not to mention parentheses out the ying-yang), but my first person narration just makes it my voice, right? Grace??? Where did you go, Grace?

Now, let’s try again.

Voice is like a fingerprint, a signature, unique to each writer.

Finding the writer’s voice sometimes takes years. Life experience impacts voice and tone. The words we choose, the tone we take, the stories we tell, the rhythm we snap—all help to establish voice.

About Cheri

Writer, photograph, artist, mother, grandmother and wife.
This entry was posted in Writing and Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Is That Voice?

  1. Sailing Past Maturity Straight into Senility says:

    I wonder what other people ‘hear’ in their thoughts. To me, it is a coherent, logical speech pattern that automatically conforms to the rules of the English language (notable exception is my run-on sentences). So writing, to me at least, is simply writing out my thoughts… and then correcting the outrageous spelling mistakes.

  2. Neo says:

    does uh work? I uh, tend to say that alot, and I can’t help the overwhelming punctuation,,, …. ????
    I do see the point here… interesting it certainly was,

  3. Douglas says:

    You might have considered introducing them to Kerouac. I think his voice flows beautifully and powerfully. It is difficult to find one’s written voice, it’s like an invitation to be pretentious.

  4. twelvekindsofcrazy says:

    Do your students read any of Sandra Cisneros’ work?

  5. lakeviewer says:

    Your topic is a crucial one to teach and to learn. When do we realize and appreciate our own voice, enough to protect it and cultivate it, and still keep it authentic, sounding like who we are, how we talk and think?

    At what point do we stop imitating others we admire and dig deep enough to find the source of our own wisdom so we can express that wisdom with our voice?

    Thanks for a fine lesson and a crucial point to ponder.

  6. Kathy Brakhage says:

    Beautifully written…I hear your voice well

  7. Pingback: Perhaps not one for The Economist « The Hannibal Blog

  8. serenequeen says:

    Thank you, I enjoyed your post immensely and will subscribe to your blog – I’m sure I could learn much from you.

    I’ve just posted “Finding Your True Voice” on my blog, which takes a more spiritual look at finding your voice, but I am a lover of great language and so pleased to have found you.

    Kindest regards, SQ 31/7/10

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