Finding a Voice

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This blog was originally posted on April 21st, 2014.

Voice is that elusive category we talk about with students—“find your voice,” we urge, as if they left it somewhere, in a dresser drawer, perhaps, or as if they could purchase it on Amazon.  But there is no lost and found drawer for voice, no way to shop for it, or seek it out.  Voice is something students have to write their way into, something that takes practice and play, and numerous attempts while listening for their own idiosyncratic take on the world.

Teaching creative nonfiction this semester has given me an opportunity to talk more about voice, something that too often seems missing from the over-crowded academic writing class, with its rush from analysis to argument to research writing. There’s plenty to teach about voice in academic writing, especially its absence in stilted, dull prose, or its presence in particular genres, but, unfortunately, in first-year writing the subject of voice often takes a back seat.  A creative nonfiction course is over-crowded in its own way, as we move from one assignment to the next, practicing dialogue and crafting scenes in one exercise, handling the passage of time with back-stories and reflections in the next, and always reflecting on what draws us into the world of the essays we read or those which students write. Voice is center stage in every discussion about subject, style, shape, and narrative technique; it is always on the page and in our workshops as students figure out who they are—and who they want to be—in their own narratives.

One way to approach the elusiveness of voice is by not talking about it at first. Instead, I talk with students about the ways in which all good creative nonfiction—and all good academic writing, too—has, at its center, a writer trying to figure something out— struggling with a problem,  a dilemma or contradiction—a “not knowing” which gives the writing its reason for being. As students plan their narratives, I ask them to write from curiosity:  What is it you want to understand—what doesn’t make sense—what pieces don’t fit together?   These questions and the spirit of exploration they engender don’t guarantee that students will write their way into an engaging, compelling, genuine voice, but they encourage them to write away from certainty and cliché, and into complexity.

In writing creative nonfiction, students discover a freedom of form that often leads to the kind of explorations that bring them closer to a voice they recognize. In handling the passage of time, for instance, they often need to question the reliability of memory—a subject in itself– or think against themselves and test assumptions in order to see perspectives other than their own.  Or in wrestling with the complexity of family secrets, for example, they often need to interview relatives, examine evocative photographs and objects to understand the personal and historical back-stories behind these secrets.  It requires plenty of practice and play to be comfortable on the page, and doesn’t happen with a single assignment or writing course, but when students explore a question or problem that really matters to them, they start listening for their personal, quirky, idiosyncratic take on the world.

Dear Readers:  How do you talk about voice with your students?  What exercises or assignments help your students find a comfortable voice on the page? Please share your ideas by leaving a comment below.

About the Author
Nancy Sommers, who has taught composition and directed writing programs for more than thirty years, now teaches in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. A two-time Braddock Award winner, Sommers is well known for her research and publications on student writing. Her articles “Revision Strategies of Student and Experienced Writers” and “Responding to Student Writing” are two of the most widely read and anthologized articles in the field of composition. She has also created three films—Shaped by Writing, Across the Drafts, and Beyond the Red Ink—to bring the voices of student writers into a larger discussion about writing instruction. Nancy Sommers is currently the coauthor of Diana Hacker’s best-selling handbooks: The Bedford Handbook, A Writer’s Reference, Rules for Writers, A Pocket Style Manual, and Writer’s Help (see Her newest instructor resource, Responding to Student Writers, offers a model for thinking about response as a dialogue between students and teachers.