When I was a kid I got lost while participating in a summer recreation program. I was terrified. So the ﬁrst thing I did when the group leaders found me was to laugh.
I was laughing out of pure relief at being found. And because even as a kid, my emotional stress relief valve was set to “humor.” I’m hardwired in such a way that I often laugh even while I’m crying.
I got in big trouble that day for laughing, and I continued to get in trouble whenever other people thought humor was an inappropriate response. Which led me to believe that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, I needed to use a serious tone. Humor, I had learned, would likely get me into trouble.
Guess what? None of those oh-so-serious things I used to write got published. The writing felt lifeless and artificial; it wasn’t reﬂective of who I really am. It wasn’t until an editor encouraged me to pursue the “hidden funny story” that she found buried in a manuscript of mine that I let humor back into my work.
That reworked story, complete with lots of “funny,” went on to become my ﬁrst published book.
I think that what we mean when we talk about “writer’s voice” is a writer’s personality showing up on the page. It emerges through many diverse writing choices, ranging from word usage to tone to rhythm. It’s a tough concept for students to grapple with. Yet editors say it’s a major factor in what they look for in a publishable piece, and writing programs include it as a key component. We can’t ignore voice just because it’s hard to teach and learn. So how do we help students ﬁnd their voice, especially given that some of them may have been told that the voice that comes naturally to them should stay lost?
I use an activity that encourages students to play with voice. I ﬁrst choose a group of things that exist as a collective, within which the different components have “personality” without being controversial. Examples are the four seasons—winter and summer have different personalities; or it might be colors—we can assign personalities to green and pink without coming to blows over it; or you could even use food ﬂavors. Then I have students write about a simple topic using contrasting choices from the group. In other words, I might ask them to describe the town they live in, ﬁrst using a dark chocolate voice, and then using a pickle voice.
It sounds odd, but I’ve seen it have surprising results. Somehow playing with voice in this way can set students on a path to ﬁnding the writer’s voice that was lost inside them all along.