“If I had a stack of essays without names on them, I could probably pick yours out.”
A former professor of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at my university told me this–in his charming, southern twang–and, since, it has stuck with me. To be honest, I did then and still do now take acknowledgements of “voice” as the highest of compliments. That someone hears me in my words is, really, all I want.
Obviously, I’m not all that up-to-date on how controversial the subject of “voice” is/can be in the field of Writing Studies.
Lucky for me, good ol’ Peter Elbow outlines the issues and concerns with “voice” in the community with his typical attention to detail and to contradiction in “Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries”. Elbow provides some pertinent background information about the rise and fall of voice’s prominence in the field before delving into what I found to be most interesting about this piece–an exploration of theoretical and cognitive contraries and an embrace of a kind of plurality when it comes to concerns of voice in writing.
Wow! That’s a mouthful! As someone who is unfamiliar with the controversies surrounding voice in writing, I found Elbow’s breakdown and resulting compromise of the subject to be helpful in providing my conception of voice with necessary nuance.
See, what seems to be one of the biggest strikes against emphasizing the development of voice through writing is that doing so can be misconstrued as declaring that having a distinctive voice is all “good writing” requires. Basically, how you say/write something becomes more important that what you are actually trying to relay or communicate. And, I definitely agree that that is a large problem which can quickly become pervasive. Speaking as a current citizen of the US and a–(n) unfortunate–survivor of the 2016 election, the effects of what happens when large groups of people allow the sound of someone’s voice–their supposed sincerity–to be of more import than the words they are actually saying are not “great” and do not pave ways for things to be “made great”. So, I understand why allowing concerns of voice to trump others is contentious.
Still, like Elbow, I don’t agree with researchers who believe that any consideration of voice whatsoever in writing should be dismissed. More, I disagree with researchers who believe “voice” should be dismissed because it simply does not exist. The idea that the voice heard in any given work is purely the creation of one’s context and culture colliding just chafes, if you will. Like, it doesn’t fit. I would never argue that context and culture don’t colour one’s voice–they’re inescapable in every other sense, so why would that change when it comes to our writing?–but I would also never argue they are a writer’s voice. Maybe it’s idealistic of me but I believe we all have this piece of ourselves that we keep tucked deep down inside, away from the world and it is this intact piece that makes some writing more impactful than others–like, we can hear when it is being tapped into, if that makes sense? I don’t want this to get all soul-searchy though so let’s move on!
Another reason why I think the idea of voice in writing being the creation of external factors alone doesn’t sit right with me is that this conception not only robs writers of their agency but tells them they never had any. I don’t know about anyone else but I certainly don’t appreciate feeling like a marionette.
Albeit in regards to reflection and not purely to voice, agency is something Yancey touches on also in “Reflection in the Writing Classroom”. In this article on the importance of teaching reflection as an integral stage of writing in the classroom, Yancey explains how, in this way, reflection becomes a means for students to articulate their own self-awareness. Reflection facilitates the joining of learning and knowing and so culminates in the development of the self. Basically, we come to know ourselves through explaining what we are learning and how we are learning it to ourselves. We self-actualize, develop agency through reflection.
Now, in my opinion, reflecting is not just a means of exploring one’s agency but also for developing one’s voice. It is reading what we’ve expressed back to ourselves and hearing what is going on in the text. I know Elbow emphasizes in his article the importance of being able to analyze purely the words written on a page, detached from any perceived voice, but, to me, when it comes to reflecting on one’s own work, it is as important to listen to what’s been said as to think about it. Really, when it comes to personal reflection on writing, I don’t think there should be a decoupling of those things. They should be integrated because they operate simultaneously in the writer–voice and text–regardless of how the conscious the writer is of this fact. However anyone else wants to define what I call my “voice”, it is how I hear my own writing as I am composing it! Sometimes, I’ll admit I don’t notice it–usually when I’m in the process of writing a more formal, academic work–but that doesn’t mean it goes away. Taking into account how words sound, listening for the self in writing, I believe is important to reflection.
If writing is, like Elbow asserts, a transaction between humans then reflecting is a transaction between selves. And, that, I think connects to something else Elbow said in his article that really resonated with me: “We don’t have to read or write the same way every time” (183). Reflection is a means for realizing that.
~Till next time~