For four consecutive weeks in late June and July I will be participating in the National Writing Project (Pennsylvania) workshop hosted at West Chester University. We met today for three hours.
One of the central conversations of the day asked "what is voice? Harder to teach than to define...but still no picnic to define...we examined a few pieces of writing which ranged from child's picture book (Twilight Comes Twice, by Ralph Fletcher) to a poem written by a high school student and one by a high school teacher.
Our groups reported out today that the following things seem to be present in the development of voice: repetition, white space, rhythm, personal pronouns, audience, specific details (or lack of), concrete images, and sentence variety. At the very least the groups discussed that the authors seemed aware of some of these things.
It didn't sit right with me. Because we moved onto other things in the class I wasn't ready to leave the conversation. On a second look my opinion has shifted about what we came up with today--I think we inferred but did not directly acknowledge the importance of the author knowing who he/she is.
Before you can have a voice and master penning it, you have to have an awareness of yourself. As teachers of young people of varying ages, we are going to have students of varying readiness to even begin to be aware of themselves and who they are.
That said, voice certainly includes opinion and tone, but I think it is bigger than those two items.
I asked the question in our group today, is it possible for our kids to write in the voice of the opposite sex? A colleague immediately jumped in and thought so since authors do it all the time. I can't say that I agree...we're talking about kids here, not accomplished, professional authors.
Can we ask kids to try, of course. But what my question was moving us towards was the concept of listening. To be self-aware means you have the ability to listen and observe yourself to even know if what you put down on paper is your voice. The same is true if I asked an 8th grade boy to write in the voice of an 8th grade girl--without instructing them to listen, to truly absorb what girls talk about, in what cadence, in what arrangement of words...the result would be what boys think girls are talking about. And at 13 the assignment may go well off the rails of intention.
I do believe voice is difficult to teach at every level for a few fundamental reasons. Of course the social maturity and self-awareness is a primary concern, but I also believe the development of voice has got to include the acknowledgment that you are allowing yourself to distort the cookie cutter rules of grammar, syntax, style, ethics, good taste, school, the individual teacher, and the previous umpteen years of classroom training.
It isn't enough to say give me more detail or use more accurate language; the development of voice is, at best, a work in progress for students.
Younger (less mature) writers may hear "voice" and translate that to their innermost feelings or worse, turn their writing into their diary. To teach young people that there is a distinction between you diary and your voice is a challenge.
We can use tools and mini-lessons which focus on things like repetition, concrete imagery, and the like, but without helping (talking with them about) students develop self-awareness and the ability to distort "the rules" then we are just adding more hard edges to the square of education.
If we want them to develop voice we have to make it clear that it is OK to soften the corners of the square a bit. Erase them a touch...manipulate...use...alter...defy? the cookie cutter rules.
Otherwise, they're just writing cookies.