Michael Steinberg's Blog--The Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
March 17, 2015
This month’s guest, blogger, Kim Kupperman, is one of our most versatile, accomplished, personal essayists.
I first met Kim fourteen years ago when I was teaching in the University of Southern Maine/Stonecoast MFA Program. Since that time, I’ve followed the path of her remarkable career as a writer, teacher, and, more recently, as the founding editor/publisher of Welcome Table, an independent press devoted solely to books of/about the contemporary personal essay.
Because of our work together at Stonecoast, Kim would most probably claim me as a mentor of sorts. But I believe that I’ve learned at least as much, and quite possibly more from her, about writing and teaching the personal essay than she has from me.
Her piece, “In the Body of the Beholder,” is to some extent a rethinking of what all writers and teachers of personal narratives refer to as “voice.” Although it’s one of most important elements of what we call style, and although I believe that finding the right voice for a given work is essential to that work’s authenticity, still, whenever I try to describe “voice” to colleagues and/or students, I’m never quite certain that I can describe or clearly explain what I mean by the term.
Sometimes I’ll talk about “voice” as the writer’s presence and/or his/her point of view. Other times, I’ll refer to it as the sound of the person who created the work and/or the overall impression we get of the writer behind the work. To be honest, I seem to best understand “voice” as a feeling or as a sense of something palpable, something I can’t quite articulate or pin down.
If you have any of these same hesitations, I recommend that you take a look at Kim’s thoughtful, intelligent, examination of this complex, elusive, matter. Like me, hopefully you’ll come away with a new understanding about what we mean when we talk about (no pun intended) voice.
IN THE BODY OF THE BEHOLDER: SOME NOTES ON VOICE
Kim Dana Kupperman
Recently, a friend remarked that talking about voice in writing felt to her like talking about God. “We can’t define it, so we talk around it,” she observed. Perhaps this is why “voice in writing”(1) has become a metaphor we’ve used too often to signify too many meanings. As I. Hashimoto points out, voice “is something we can’t discuss and analyze but can only feel or participate in” (Landmark, 76, emphasis mine). Thus, he suggests,
"We should watch out when we slip into easy generalizations about everyone having a “voice” and about “voice” being more important than anything else in writing. We ought to be careful about using vague, metaphoric language simply because we can’t quite put our fingers on something more specific (Landmark, 82).
“Voice is produced by the body,” writes Peter Elbow, who reminds us that having a conversation about voice means that we “import connotations of the body into the discussion—and by implication, [are] interested in the role of the body in writing.”
(Landmark, xxi-xxiii).(2) To examine what voice really is, then, we might start by acknowledging the physicality of sound and that it originates in the body—where emotion is perceived, fed by all the senses and perhaps most of all by that which is heard. (3) As N. Scott Momaday reminds us: “In the beginning was the word, and it was spoken” (Way to Rainy Day Mountain, ix). Sound, as Walter Ong puts it, “situates [us] in the midst of a world” (Landmark, 29). Momaday argues that oral storytelling is one of the most powerful narrative forms; he asks that we consider which sounds are stilled and resound against silence, and which, as Adrienne Rich puts it, are weighted with “the heft of our living.” Thus, Momaday advises us to read aloud (to give sound to) the three voices he uses in The Way to Rainy Mountain so that they “remain, as they have always remained, alive at the level of the human voice. At that level their being is whole and essential” (Way to Rainy Mountain, ix).
Reading aloud—our writing and that of others—and listening to work being read (including our own) is one of the most concrete and effective ways to develop both the physical voice and the ear that hears it (reading aloud is also one of the best ways I know to catch errors in punctuation, syntax, and usage). Paying attention to what the body does when we read aloud provides valuable clues to what the words evoke: Do we sit or stand, slouch or maintain perfect posture? Do we hold our heads in a particular way? How is our weight distributed? Where does tension surface? Do we feel warm or cold? Are we blushing? Are the words clear? Do we want to sleep or go for a brisk walk? How are we breathing? (more…)