Traveling Abroad

by Lisa Bullard

Swiss ChaletIn col­lege I spent a month trav­el­ing in Europe. I savored dozens of excit­ing new foods.

But it was the ketchup — some­thing I usu­al­ly took for grant­ed — that stood out. For­eign ketchup was so for­eign. Had ketchup become so famil­iar at home that I’d stopped notic­ing its taste? Was it because I was eat­ing ketchup in Switzer­land that it seemed like I was tast­ing ketchup for the first time?

To me, the elu­sive con­cept of “writer’s voice” is like for­eign ketchup. I know, now you’re say­ing, “Seri­ous­ly, ketchup?” But teach­ers are being asked to help even young stu­dents devel­op their writ­ing voic­es. The first step must be to define voice, yet adult writ­ers strug­gle to grasp what it means. Is a condi­ment com­par­i­son real­ly so out of line?

The best defi­ni­tion I have for voice is that it is the writer embed­ding her per­son­al­i­ty, his­to­ry, essence, into her writ­ing. Is it true that there are no new sto­ries? If so, then voice is the thing that makes us want to hear the old sto­ries told over and over again — because each new voice makes those sto­ries seem fresh and surprising.

Voice is each new writer say­ing to you as the reader:

I’m going to tell you a sto­ry… about being afraid… about los­ing some­one… about find­ing your true self… about stay­ing a good friend. Sounds famil­iar, right? But I’m going to tell you this sto­ry in the way that only I can tell it, so you’ll hear it as if for the very first time.”

My sto­ry, told in my voice, will taste like for­eign ketchup to you.  Still rec­og­niz­able as the condi­ment you take for grant­ed. And yet also so unex­pect­ed, so new­ly noticed, it will seem as if you have nev­er eat­en ketchup — or heard that par­tic­u­lar sto­ry — ever before.


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