Sunday, June 12, 2011

9 Rights Of Every Writer_Chapter 9

"Voice is the human spirit. It is the essence of self. It calls us from the page and says, "Listen to me. This is who I am."

It is a common misconception that voice is an afterthought, like salad dressing on the side. When we write from deep inside ourselves, voice emerges as naturally as the expression on a surprised, enraged, dismayed, or enamored face- unless we deliberately repress it. Voice can be controlled, but when we try to conjure it up, the result becomes self-conscious and artificial....when we write what we know, and when we feel passionate about the message, the voice literally boils over.

When a writer knows her topic inside and out, and believes in the message right down to her toes, there is no stopping the voice.
(p. 130-131)

This week consider the assignments that you as a writer have been required to write in a school setting (elementary, middle, high school and college) and/or the topics that you chose to write on for personal reasons (not school related). In either of these contexts (school or personal) which topics/assignments did you feel were authentically writing voice into your text and which ones felt forced/contrived? You should feel free to respond on your terms to this week's blog post on "voice".


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  4. There was one time I can specifically remember not using voice in my writing. I was eleven years old. I wanted to watch Cheers on television. My mom decided that it had too much sexual content and undertone for someone my age. She said that I had to write a paper about sex and turn it into her before I could watch another episode. In retrospect writing a dissertation on sex would give me no additional capacity to reason through all inappropriate banter in that show, but if that’s what she wanted…

    So, in the days before the internet, I stayed up past my bedtime looking through every book and encyclopedia in the house researching this farce of a paper. A whole year before the benefit of my 6th grade Growth and Development class, I began writing. Even as a fifth grader, I knew what I had to do to work the system. This is what it takes, then, ok.

    My midnight of the night before the Cheers marathon, I finished it. It was perfect. My abject attempt at tedium was completely premeditated. It was a masterpiece of drivel and banality. I cited my sources. I added a bibliography in APA format. I wrote about fallopian tubes with all the fervor of Fromman’s. I meandered about menarche with a sterility generally reserved for Massachusetts medical journals. I included information about ovulation, seminiferous tubules, and progesterone. I waxed never less poetic on topics including infertility and spermatogenesis; my terminology, so mind-numbing Brittanica himself would have been proud.

    So she read it. Her only comment: “You better not have plagiarized.”
    “I didn’t. Can I watch the marathon?”
    “Yyyyyeah…I guess so.”
    “Thanks, ma!”

    I caught an episode of Cheers last month. I had no business watching that show at eleven years old.

  5. Reflecting on my writing assignments over the years, I began to understand that most of my writing was for the purpose of assessment. Rarely did I write about topics that I cared about. Most of the writing that I produced was to demonstrate that I had actually done my homework.
    Writing became predictable and torturous. For me, earning an advanced degree took a considerable amount of self-discipline. I would joke each night, as I headed off to the office after a day of teaching, that I had to go chain myself to my desk. On the serious side, was that I would often sit in front of a computer screen for long periods of time before a paragraph or a page was written. Most of the writing that was required of me were short essays of 1000 words and answers to questions of with an expected length of 250 words. Week after week - write the 1000 word essay and answer questions with each answer a minimum of 250 words.
    So often I had heard that the purpose of education is to create lifelong learners, yet as a learner I felt corralled, restrained and limited instead of finding platforms to dive from. Writing was an assessment tool. Learn this and then prove that you have learned it by writing about it. I don’t blame my instructors because I also see that writing assessment can become messy unless the question has some sort of predictable answer. Creating assessments that measure what needs to be measured is difficult especially when they’re open ended. And, who really cares about what the student thinks anyway?
    How different could my educational experience have been if my teachers could have changed the directives from “learn this” to “explore this area and then, let me know what excites you”.

  6. As a child through Eighth Grade, I enjoyed having my voice come out in my writing. My best friend and I would always try to come up with clever little ideas in poems or essays. We were supported on these assignments so that we knew what to expect, we saw models and did examples with the teacher. We knew what was expected and from there we felt confident really letting our voice shine through.

    Something happened in high school, and I became very self-conscious in my writing. Coming from a small private school to a big public high school, I think somehow I thought other kids might be better prepared than I. For the first time, I didn’t know what to write about when given essays, much less let any voice shine through. I think the peak of this problem was when I was assigned to write a food poem in the style of Pablo Neruda. It had to be an ode, and mine was assigned to be about salt, a topic I had no passion about. I listened to all of my friends come up with funny little lines in their food poem, and I tried to do the same in the salt ode, but really, how interesting can you make it? Well, my teacher actually laughed awkwardly at mine, and that was the end of any voice coming out in her class, a teacher I had two years in a row!

    In conclusion, I think being supported to know the task in order to allow a child to be confident to let their voice come out AND to have a choice of the topic allows kids to develop voice. Had I only been allowed to write an ode to mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese, I am sure I could have done just fine! It took me a long time to get over that incident, and while I always did well on my essays in high school, I was always inhibited in what I said.

  7. Spandel - Chapter 9
    The Right to Find Your Own Voice
    Part 1

    My wife calls me a music snob. I enjoy music that is written, produced, and performed by the musician, not by a singer who merely sings what someone else has written. Music to me has to be unique and innovative, not derivative and banal. I relish a song by Neil Young with distinctive voice and guitar style more than I do a more polished performer who sings well. I embrace the inherent imperfections in rock music with its overly simplistic reliance on pentatonic scales because such imperfections are what make the music human and personal.
    The same goes for writing. While reliance on formulaic writing and correct usage can help a writer produce texts, it is not writing that is much worth reading. It lacks heart, it lacks connection to the human condition, it lacks innovation. In short, it lacks voice. It is voice that Spandel argues holds readers’ attention, is highly individual, makes writing immediately recognizable, is a unique in writing as in speaking, and develops over time (p. 129).
    I recall vividly an assignment from my third grade teacher, Joan Daley, in which we were asked to imagine ourselves with special powers. What would our special power be and what would we do with that power? I chose to slow down time so I would enjoy the benefits of my new powers for as long as possible. I don’t recall many of the other details I included in my story, but I do remember that response I received from Ms. Daley. She loved my creativity and commended me for thinking differently than other students. My story was displayed prominently in the front office. I read it to the principal and to other classes.

  8. Part 2

    I realize now, looking back, that Ms. Daley encouraged me to discover my voice in writing. I don’t recall her drawing attention to the errors in my writing. If there were imperfections in my story, she didn’t let me know about them. After my success, I became more confident in my writing and was willing to take greater and greater risks. With greater confidence comes greater conviction in ones ability to express what he or she wants to express, what Spandel suggests necessarily comes before voice. “When we understand where voice comes from, our [teachers] focus is on what precedes voice, and gives rise to voice, namely the writer’s passion, knowledge, and sense of conviction” (131). My voice developed over time, in large part, because I believed I had something to say. And because I was allowed to say it without judgment, criticism, or focus on my mistakes. Imperfection is part of the human condition. Embracing that imperfection through our writing endeavors allows us to discover our vulnerability and our uncertainty and to share it with confidence with others.
    I have attempted, over the course of the last several years, to encourage my students to discover what it is they want to say, to uncover their voice. An added challenge has been the movement away from standard forms of print to an increasing reliance on digital expression. One of my goals is to encourage my students to express themselves more readily without fear of judgment or criticism in a digital setting. How to encourage them to do this while possibly exposing their vulnerability is the challenge, one that I hope to confront head on this summer during the Institute. In this context, I hope to help my students to take risks, to innovate, to create distinctive style on the way to discovering who they are.

  9. Hello! And HAPPY Father's Day!
    What a huge topic. Who are you and who will you present yourself to be through your writer’s voice for this or that given assignment? Voice changes, when the topic and audience changes. It is something blatantly clear in a bilingual classroom or household. It is in all households really as we use different registers for different situations. Growing up with a Mexican mother and a dad from the state of Washington I remember very well having to switch registers whether I was speaking to my uncle who was the president of his bank in Beverly Hills and loved Jazz music or my aunt who lived a few minutes away from us in a one room, concrete floor house with six other people. There was a constant switching even between mom and dad and it somehow impacted individuality. I remember my mom explicitly telling me that I change my way of being and even my tone of voice when I was with my Oregon born best friend versus with my Vallarta cousins. She was questioning my individuality as I tried to exist in many different registers. I see this flipping, switching or changing with my own students when they are with other bilingual students versus with English only students and little personalities change. At this point mostly to do with an imbalance in ability to use both languages with equal ease. Recent immigrants to the country often begin speaking very formally as if imitating a textbook while 2nd generation Spanish speakers in the U.S. tend to begin with English slang or the English seen on TV. My favorite quote from chapter 9 is: “Truth thrives in a classroom atmosphere in which it is safe to share writing, where students know their writing will be received with respect and acceptance. Where truth thrives, individuality also flourishes.” (p.140). So true in a classroom environment and beyond the classroom walls as well.

  10. Spandel writes that voice stems from passion, knowledge, and sense of conviction (131). I know that all of my students have something they feel passionately about. However, I have trouble envisioning one writing assignment that will give rise to voice for all students. This year we focused on narrative writing during the first trimester, expository writing during the second trimester, and persuasive writing during the third trimester. What was interesting to see was how each student’s voice came out in certain assignments and seemed to go dormant in others. The vivid picture Katie painted of her thoughts and feelings on the day she found out her cat died stood in stark contrast to her less than convincing essay on the drawbacks of social networking. Ashley, on the other hand, vaguely described her first softball game, only to blow me away with her passionate appeal to ban the plastic bags that threaten our marine mammals.

    Is it enough that each student wrote one piece that she felt passionate about, albeit at different points in the year? Or should I expect the student who has found her voice in a passionate letter to the editor to look back at the lackluster narrative she wrote earlier in the year and “write voice into it?” I don’t think she could. She might read other narratives for ideas, confer with me, and revise her essay a half-dozen times. The piece would improve, but only so much because she never really wanted to write that story to begin with.

    When I was in the 6th grade, I was asked to write a narrative based on imaginary characters and events in a place that I knew and loved. The previous summer I had visited Kauai for the first time and found it to be a magical place. Choosing my setting was easy. Unfortunately, the whole time I was writing, I felt frustrated because I wanted to write about the places and people who had made that brief stay on the island so special to me, not someone else. Similarly, I have always struggled with “reports of information.” I often seek out biographies, histories and historical fiction to read, but every time I have been required to write one, I’ve found myself simply going through the motions, writing for a grade rather than writing with conviction.

    When I write about my own experiences or draft a letter on an issue that is important to me, however, the elements that precede authentic voice start to bubble to the surface. Obviously, I get to choose my own topic so it holds meaning for me. It’s important to me that I accurately convey what I am trying to say so I spend time pouring through my notes and often realize that I need to do more research. I’ll lose myself entirely in the writing process, drafting and revising until I have created a piece that I can hold in my hands and think, “Yes, this is what I wanted to say.”

    Perhaps I’m selling myself short, but I’ve never written a report or review I felt that same sense of ownership for, and the idea of writing a fictional narrative, as much as I love to read them, stirs nothing inside of me. I like to think that I might write a somewhat interesting narrative if I worked at it long enough, but I have my doubts as to whether I would discover a passion for it. And without that passion, the conviction that someone must read this, how could it be that good?

    I think this speaks to the importance of facilitating a writer’s workshop in our classrooms in which the students write often and in a wide variety of genres, giving students the opportunity to discover both topics that are meaningful to them and the writing style that is the best fit for them. It also has huge implications for assessing writing. I know I can write a far more effective persuasive essay than I can write an intriguing fantasy narrative. Which essay do you think I would prefer went into my cumulative file? Each trimester I let my students choose their favorite composition to go on the wall. The more I think about it, this is also the piece on which their writing should be evaluated. Most often, it’s not. Hmm . . .

  11. When I write personal letters, I can hear my voice. There are no niceties, nothing contrived, just me...talking to my friend. I suppose that there would be the occasional swear word and a sufficient amount of detail to support any woe I had recently suffered. For sure I would include a new recipe and off-the-record advice from personal experience. My love for my well-known reader would shine through as I would be too far away to embrace them.

    And good God, do I hate reports. Nothing will silence my voice faster than a good, old-fashioned "Theeeeme," as Ralphies teacher would say. However, once I was asked to create a short Greek Myth and still kinda consider it one of my greatest pieces of writing. What a shame I peaked in seventh grade. What can I say, I dug Aphrodite; so worth writing a "Theeeeme" for!

  12. After reading all of your comments, chapter 9, and thinking about “voice”, and how it is developed, I believe that “voice” is developed and achieved at different times for all, during different times of expression. I am right now visiting 5 Friends from childhood. This evening we discussed teachers who let us discover and let us express ourselves, through writing and let us use “voice”. It was pretty amazing. This time, our reunion was with women I have known for a long time. I have known 2 of them since I was 3 and the others since I was 5. That is pretty amazing. One woman began the evening with, “do you remember “Holley” when you were slapped in the face and began to bleed because you were singing out of pitch?” I totally had blocked it out of my mind. So, in some since my voice was not heard. But. It did not stop me. My memory of my education is one of happiness, love of school, and I dearly loved and respected the teacher that slapped me. What was it that made such a positive impression on me that I did feel and believe that I did have voice in other writings during my elementary and high school experience? Thinking back on my early education, I believe that I was encouraged and supported to have voice while writing. M husband on the other hand does not have any positive memories of his academics, which would include having the experience to express ones voice through writing…

  13. Chapter 9

    I do not feel I have developed my own voice in writing. As I read through my journals from past years I found that my writing is very matter a fact. There is not the emotion the facts just the facts. I can only recall one time in my early education when I was encouraged to write from my heart. I was in Mrs. Mortonson’s 4th grade class and we were exploring a poetry unit. Throughout the week she encouraged each of us to share our ideas and she gave us praise for our efforts. As I reflect I believe she was trying to allow us to explore our voice through our poetry. In most of my educational writing I wrote to an assignment, not to a passion and this transferred into my personal writing as well.

    When I began to teach writing and shared the aspect of voice to my students I had difficulty defining it because I did not have a voice in my own writing. Spanel’s chapter on voice defined it in a meaningful manner that makes me understand how each piece of writing must be personal and heartfelt. I was not given the opportunity to explore myself through writing except for that one unit of poetry, so I want to strive to help my students to explore their use of voice and write to a passion not just an assignment.

    Holly French

  14. When I write for an audience consisting of myself or people who I am very close to, I have the comfort to use my voice when writing. Very similar to an oral conversation, I love to talk about things that I cherish, such as chocolate. It is a lot easier to use the freedom of blabbering, than to write in accordance to a set of guidelines. I find my voice more prevalent on topics that are personal regardless if it’s for personal, professional, or for business.

    There have been many times when I felt forced to write. This form of restricted writing does not allow my inner voice the freedom to create sentences, use a certain tone, or chose specific vocabulary. Instead I have to carefully express myself to meet the request of the reader, such as in a dissertation.

  15. I lost my voice in starting in middle school, continuing through high school and college. When I am analytical, expository, or argumentative papers; when I am more concerned about citation, thesis statements, and voice disappears. There are very few times that I can remember writing (for school purposes) where my voice was in my writing. There was one paper, my junior year of high school, where we had to write a family story. I interviewed my parents, at different times, and talked to them about when they met. Watching them each bring up the same little details (again I interviewed them separately) was so powerful. The paper evolved into a story entitled "Baby Blue Pinto." To this day, it is still one of my favorite pieces I have written because it was personal and I was passionate about convey each of those little details that they both talked about. The only other time I felt like my voice was in my writing, for school, was the fiction writing course that I talked about in college. It was just fun and enjoyable. It was my creation, no formula, no restrictions, just write...that is when I have voice...when I just write without worrying about being docked for MLA format, or other requirements.

  16. I have never seen myself as a writer. I wrote to prompts that I was given, but never felt compelled to write with passion about too many things.
    I think I have mentioned a college paper that I still look back on and think of as my shining moment where I went beyond what the teacher wanted and wrote exactly what I wanted. I wrote a paper for my Natural Disasters class about what type of natural disaster I would want to be in: a tornado or an earthquake. For the first time I was excited to look at research and discovered that I would, in fact, rather be in a tornado than an earthquake. Sadly, I live in California.
    Not many topics stick out. I do remember shortly after I started really reading for fun, I started to fantasize about people’s lives and started thinking plot lines and character traits. I would spend hours by my family pool playing the mental story as a movie. I think I once attempted to sit down at our family PC and write it out. As I stared at the green screen I was overwhelmed with the task and very quickly left to play with Barbies. The book lost in my brain.
    Basically I feel like there has never really been a true writing task that I felt 100% expresses my voice. That’s pretty sad to me.

  17. After reading the chapter and the responses posted here, I started contemplating times when I truly felt I was writing from a place of passion, with true voice. It is sad, but I can't recall a time throughout my k-12 career when a wrote with an authentic voice.

    The first time I wrote with a sense of purpose, intensity, passion, and a strong voice was in college. I believe this can be attributed to the teachers I have had - no one challenged me or created a situation for me to express my true feelings through writing in the earlier grades. It was in college, that professors challenged my writing, slashed my papers with red ink, sat me down and discussed the ideas I had posed.

    Another place that I have expressed my true voice, in reference to education, is through email correspondence with a good friend and fellow teacher. We will argue and discuss aspects of teaching over the course of never-ending emails. Sometimes the conversations will become heated - we will reach a point of contention that will lead to the secession of emails for several nights, only to have us both return searching for the next topic of discussion in our on-going dialogue. It is at times in this process that my writing feels the most alive and personally important. I re-read these emails and reflect of the philosophies and rhetoric I have offered to my friend to be criticized and conflicted. These emails help me organize my thoughts and create a sense of release as I confront the daily challenges of being an educator - I only wish that, at times, I had a bigger audience.

  18. Like many of you - I did not find my voice in my writing until my college years. I was always dabbling with lyrics/poems/songs in high school - but they were formuliac and imitated. I feel that my college writing challenged me to own my voice - both in content and a concise awareness for the reader. My current writing really stays true to my voice because there is honesty and passion.

    You cannot fake these elements. I am feeling voice as I write, I am sensing voice when I revising, I am noticing voice when I read my work. I am confident - however my confidence lies within the boundaries of the genre I write.

    In essays or personal statements and especially fiction, I struggle. However, I do have moments of gloriousness. I was very proud of my letter of intent for the SDAWP - I felt as if I truly owned my voice and let the reader know who I was , what I could do, and what I wanted to do. What I wrote was the truth and thus it read a such.

    I am looking very forward to learning and owning my voice with vignettes, and short stories. I have a lot of work to do...I know this.

    Andrew stated that music and words which lack heart clearly stands out. I could not agree more. A true artist, musician, writer, teacher must speak with sense of truth to find voice clarity in order to connect with their reader, spectator, or audience.