Chasing Voice: On Trying to Capture an Elusive Definition

by Greg Feezell

 

Voice is how the writing feels.

Raindrops fall steadily, glancing off the window, tapping against a drainage pipe outside our classroom. Despite the rain, two neighborhood crows confer noisily. Inside, dry if not warm, I confer with a writer, age eight.

I teach third grade at Saint Maur International School, in Yokohama, Japan, and my student is writing about a recent class visit to the Nissan automobile factory in nearby Oppama. She’s re-told the events of the trip with lists of vague statements, such as After we got off the bus we went to the toilet. It’s a familiar pattern in certain students’ writing. They order events chronologically and leave the reader to wonder: So? What’s it to you?

Writing like this strikes a peculiar tone, being coldly impersonal despite being written in the first person. It’s as if the writer wasn’t an active participant in the events being described, but an indifferent observer, perhaps in a trance. We went to the place where they make the cars. It was big. Would sharing our feelings enliven the writing, creating a stronger sense of voice?

Later, I gather my students to share a story, a mentor text that I hope will inspire our writing. I ask my students to tell me how the writing feels. Instead, they explain how the character feels.

“Velma feels lonely.”

“Do you feel lonely when you read it?” I ask.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m not Velma.”

I’m at a loss for words, and the English as an Additional Language tutor who works with my class, a published writer himself, comes to my rescue by suggesting that voice is like the flavor of writing. Yes, yes, I think, and I wonder at how quickly we get pulled into the vortex of metaphor and simile. Voice is like…

Voice is the flavor of the writing.

What flavor does the writing have?

“Mint,” a student offers.

Intrigued, I ask, “Why mint?”

Pointing to the book’s cover, he answers, “Because she has a green shirt.”

“Sour,” says another boy. “Because she’s feeling lonely. I think it would taste sour.”

Voice is the music of the writing.

The novelist Richard Ford wrote: “To me ‘voice’ is probably just the music of the story’s intelligence, how it sounds when it’s being smart, or when it’s working on the reader. And that music, like a story’s style, can change, and does change.”

Another day, another mini-lesson on voice. How does the writing sound? What kind of music do you hear?

These questions are greeted with a long silence, as if I’d asked them to name their favorite composer of Renaissance madrigals.

I wait.

“I think it’s a slow, sad music.”

I’m encouraged. The children giggle as I pantomime sawing a violin.

A girl raises her hand and says, “But when it says ‘spectacular spelling,’ I think the music should be fast.”

It’s a small, blissful moment, but it’s only a prelude. We’re hearing the connection between voice and music. How will we learn to make our own music?

The trouble with teaching small children about voice is that you’re trying to explain something about which even the experts don’t agree. Ask different writers what voice is, or read their opinions, and you’re going to get different answers. Richard Ford seems to be suggesting this when he says, “to me.” To me, voice is like this. This is how I see it.

Voice is like Shinjuku Station

When we take our students to performances and exhibits in Tokyo, we often travel through Shinjuku Station. It’s the world’s busiest commuter hub; two million people pass through every day.

The endless flow of humanity provides ideal conditions for commerce. If you have a business, there is a huge supply of potential customers; if you are a consumer, a wide variety of goods and services are available in one easily accessible location. For some commuters, it is a connecting point in their journeys, but for others it is a destination in itself. The station is a city within a city, complete with banks, restaurants, department stores, and entertainment.

Perhaps voice is an intersection. Not in the most basic sense—voice is not merely the stop sign at the corner of Characterization Court and Point-of-view Parkway. Voice is a hub, an intersection of intersections, a place created by the coming together of myriad choices writers make. Voice is like Shinjuku Station, with different players and elements, points of view, words, letters, punctuation all coming into play, each decision changing the dynamic, in small or dramatic ways.

That works for me, but it’s a doozy for third-grade students. I need a simpler example.

“Our class has its own voice,” I say. “It’s made up of all our voices. It changes day to day, depending on how we’re feeling and what’s going on. It’s different from your class last year and it will be different next year, too. It changes a little bit when one of us is absent. It’s made up of lots of little things, like how we treat each other, the questions we ask, and the things we do to make each other laugh or smile. “Voice in our writing is like that, too—the little things we do when we’re writing create voice. Today, let’s think about what some of those things are.”

Voice is a cornered lizard.

As a boy, I discovered a lizard in my home on the shag carpet next to the mantle. I had had my share of encounters with lizards, always out of doors, and always following the same pattern. First, I’d notice the lizard. Then I’d freeze in midstep so as not to frighten the lizard. The lizard would stay perfectly still. Cautiously, I’d move closer, and the lizard would vanish instantly.

It seemed as though being indoors would give me a home-field advantage, a fighting chance to catch a lizard, but this was a false hope. Indoors or out, lizards are ridiculously quick. I pounced. He zigged, he zagged. I pursued. He darted, flitted, bolted. Yet, despite my utter failure to keep up with him, I realized that he retreated from me in a predictable manner. Thus, by approaching carefully, I could maneuver him into a corner. Even this was not enough to capture the lizard. When I lunged into the corner, all I got was a fascinating (if gruesome) consolation prize: the lizard’s tail.

Defining voice is like trying to catch the lizard and nabbing only his tail. You realize there’s more to it than this, but the whole eludes you. You’re left with a part, not a sum.

And so…

It’s easy to tell teachers how to teach voice, much in the same way it’s easy to give advice on how to lose weight. Cut out the hot fudge sundaes, count your calories, ride your bike to work. Eat grapefruit—it suppresses the appetite.

Collect marvelous writing that uses voice in ways you admire. Include picture books, poetry, articles, as well as examples of your students’ writing. Read these examples aloud, over and over again. One reading isn’t enough to appreciate voice or to understand how it was created. Encourage your students to play and experiment with voice, and be pleased when they try, whether or not they are successful. Be a role model by sharing your own writing. Make teaching voice a priority in your classroom.

Eating a grapefruit couldn’t hurt, either.

“When the writing has voice, it’s like a person is talking to you,” a student tells the class. “But when there’s no voice it’s like a robot.” For me, it’s lizards, but for this young writer, it’s robots. The important thing is not the example, but the idea it represents. It’s helpful to offer a variety of explanations—not all students will connect with one way of thinking about voice. For some, thinking about flavor may be helpful; for others, it may be music or the lizard story. This student has gone a step further. She’s outgrown my ideas about voice and struck out on her own.

Voice is…

 

This article originally appeared in Teachers & Writers Magazine, Summer 2013.

Greg Feezell taught elementary school in California for over a decade before venturing across the Pacific. He lives with his wife in Yokohama, Japan, where he teaches at Saint Maur International School. His writing has previously appeared in The Reading Teacher.



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