"There is writing in my voice, and voice in my writing." -Overheard at an open-mike poetry event
Why even talk about writing or writers as having “voice”? I’ve been thinking of this in light of some of the readings my graduate students are preparing this week—articles such as Irvin Hashimoto’s “Voice as Juice: Some Reservations about Evangelical Composition” which disparage voice, at least as discussed by Peter Elbow and process-minded individuals.
To skeptics, voice-in-writing sounds like some sort of MFA program gimmick at best or else as a fool-hearty worship of the individual-as-artist. Others, like Hashimoto, see voice as a nebulous, anti-intellectual concept used by writing instructors for questionable purposes: “the term ‘voice’ may have become nothing more than a vague phrase conjured up by English teachers to impress and motivate the masses to write more, confess more, and be happy.”
But voice is more than “being original”—as in “she’s an original voice in contemporary American fiction.” Voice isn’t always so ego-laden. It doesn’t have to be about possessing some sort of uniqueness (like a fingerprint or DNA code) that becomes one’s good fortune in that it manages to make one attractive to readers.
In fact, there are quite a few noteworthy reasons to take voice-in-writing seriously. (I’ll talk about one here and others in a later post.)
Voice isn’t the claim receipt for originality. Instead, it comes down to tasting and hearing one’s own voice as one writes.
Being able to just notice one’s voice—no matter its quality—as one writes indicates that one is mindfully writing.
It’s as Walter Ong says in his marvelous book Orality and Literacy: if you see the water buffalo, that’s one thing, but if you hear the water buffalo, that’s entirely another thing. You’d better watch out! Sound means something is not static; to hear means presence and the possibility for engagement. Voice-in-writing is the activation of time.
There’s a sensory, real-time experience to writing, and hearing one’s writing (the inner vocalization as one forms words) is part of it. Voice is tied to the present moment of writing.
As you write, if you remain mindful, you hear your words echoing and refracting and then stabilizing in your own head—at a pace and in a condition that’s different probably from your normal speaking voice—but nevertheless recognizable as how you sound. You also feel the sensations of typing, of contact with plastic keys, of the movement of your finger bones, the hula-dancing of your wrists.
You might even be able to taste your voice—the after-image of the morning’s bitter coffee, the contact your tongue makes with the Stonehenge arrangement of different teeth, or how the tongue presses in calm moments at the back of certain teeth (you’re breathing through your nose)—like a shy child pressing into its parents legs.
When you write, if you can hear your voice, it means you are present. Voice-in-writing signals that something is happening in time and that you are sufficiently aware enough to witness it: moment to moment, word to word.