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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

Blog # 37. In the Body of the Beholder: Some Notes on Voice by Kim Dana Kupperman


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.


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?

If we attempt to describe why particular writing resonates with us, we may be able to deepen our understanding of voice. Resonance, says Peter Elbow, occurs when writers are able to “use metaphors and tell stories and exploit the sounds and rhythms of language” (Voices, 19). Resonance may be the chief force behind style, another elusive and difficult-to-define quality in writing, though Virginia Woolf described it as “a very simple matter, it is all rhythm” (Letters, 247).(4) As E. B. White says, “Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzgerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper” (Elements, 66). (5)

Resonance, then, suggests that an auditory quality emerges from a visual context (i.e., words on a page) to evoke a response (a positive response in the case of “resonant writing”). Resonance implies a vibration, which can be felt even if sound is not perceived by the ear. The prefix re- indicates a sounding that occurs again, which implies there was a previous sounding, assumed in a narrative to have originated with the writer.(6) When we read, there are implicit, shared conventions between author and audience about how particular words are pronounced, and how the deployment of punctuation directs accentuation, pauses, emphases, etcetera. The mediator in this activity is our sense of vision, which transmits these printed characters (symbols) to the brain, which then decodes their meaning.

When resonant describes writing in its smaller units (i.e., sentences, phrases, words), there is the sense that, if spoken aloud, the words on the page would vibrate or echo, that a reader will hear or feel them again. Resonance may also be located in those details that provide dimensionality to narrative--ideas, objects, metaphors--details that, when a writer returns to them, unify a piece of writing. The repetition of a motif creates coherence because it echoes. Often, writers repeat (re-sound/re-sonate) a particular word or phrase. Joan Didion, for example, repeats the word inchoate often in her great body of nonfiction work; Loren Eiseley uses, respectively, marvel six times and miracles five times in his essay “The Judgment of the Birds.” Often these repeated words or phrases hint at a writer’s deeper concerns or preoccupations.

When we say that particular narratives “resonate with us,” we are also—and often—saying that we agree with the instruction, solace, advice, opinion, and so forth that the writers of these texts give us around a given issue, a specific event, or a series of observations. As Peter Elbow posits:

"If I experience resonance, surely it’s more likely to reflect a good fit between the words and my self than a good fit between the words and the writer’s self; after all, my self is right here, in contact with the words on the page, while the writer’s self is nowhere to be found (Writing, 300)."

Put another way, writing that resonates does so, perhaps, because if we had thought as a particular writer about the issue or event or observation at hand, we might have said what that writer had said, in exactly the same way. We might have echoed the writer’s thoughts. In other words, it may not be a physical voice, but a style of thinking, that resonates. As E. B. White observes, “Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition” (Elements, 84).

And those “attitudes of mind,” those styles of thinking,(7) animate and organize language, point of view, and characters, all of which are elements in what Kathleen Blake Yancey calls “the landscape of voice” (Voices, xix). Like an attitude, a style of thinking is neither static nor singular from writer to writer, nor from one writer’s work to another work, but fluid and multifaceted. To consider styles of thinking may help us to understand how writers shape ideas and thoughts, and how they use facts, memories, and metaphors to structure and propel their narratives. To reflect on styles of thinking in conjunction with resonance will, I hope, provide a way to talk about the specifics of the writing that moves us.

(1) We often use the word voice as both verb and noun to describe the actualization of an authentic self through writing. As a verb, to voice expresses the act of articulation while simultaneously evoking the breaking of silences and the narration of experience. As a noun, voice is used to describe writing and may be qualified as any combination of distinctive, singular, genuine, resonant, self-possessed, lyrical, even virtual, etcetera. Voice is said to be possessed of range, power, authority. When used to denote a writer’s self or presence, or to characterize the different personae a writer uses to fashion a narrative, voice the noun transforms into the action of the writer, who claims, finds/discovers, appropriates, constructs, and/or names his or her own voice.

(2) In his introductory essay in the Landmark anthology, Elbow provides a wonderful catalogue of observations about voice, reproduced at the end of these notes as a bulleted list.

(3)By heard, I mean the aural, physical, and visual perception of sounds.

(4) Woolf elaborates: “Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can't dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what
rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit in; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it” (Letters, 247).

(5) In “An Approach to Style,” White writes, “Creative writing is communication through revelation---it is the Self escaping into the open” (67), and “With some writers, style not only reveals the spirit of the man but reveals his identity” (68).

(6) In French, resonner means to ring again.

(7) If the term “styles of thinking” refers to a writer’s primary mode of organizing language to shape how thoughts are arranged, then perhaps we might use qualifiers such as declarative, interrogative, associative, inductive, or deductive to describe them.


From Peter Elbow’s introduction to Landmark Essays on Voice and Writing (pp. xxi-xxiii):

“Our speech often gives a naked or candid picture of how we’re feeling. […] Cicerco says the voice is a picture of the mind. People commonly identify someone’s voice with who he or she is—with their character—just as it is common to identify one’s self with one’s body (The word “person” means both body and self—and it suggests a link between the person and the sound of the voice. “Persona” was the word for the mask that Greek actors wore to amplify their voices [per + sona].)”

“Almost always, people learn to speak before they learn to write.”

“We identify and recognize people by their voices.”

“People have demonstrably unique voices: ‘voice prints’ are evidently as certain as fingerprints for identification.”

“We can distinguish two dimensions to someone’s voice: the sound of their voice and the manner or style with which they speak. The first is the quality of noise they make based as it were on the physical ‘instrument’ they are ‘playing’; and the second is the kind of ‘tunes, rhythms, and styles’ they play on their instrument.”

“Despite the unique and recognizable quality of an individual’s voice, we all usually display enormous variation in how we speak from occasion to occasion. Sometimes we speak in monotone, sometimes with lots of intonation. And we use different ‘tones’ of voice at different times, e.g., excited, scared, angry, sad.”

“Audience has a big effect on voice. […] Partly, it’s a matter of responding to those around us. That is, our voice tends to change as we speak to different people—often without awareness.”

“Though voice is produced by the body, it is produced out of air or breath: something that is not the body and which is shared or common to us all—but which issues from inside us and is a sign of life.”

“Voice involves sound, hearing and time; writing or text involves sight and space.”

“Speech contains more channels for carrying meaning.[…]For example, there is volume, pitch, speed, accent, intensity.[…]Writing has to achieve its subtleties with fewer resources.”

Works Cited
Peter Elbow, ed., Landmark Essays on Voice and Writing, Hermagoras Press, 1994.
--------- Writing with Power, Oxford University Press, 1998.
N. Scott Momaday, The Man Made of Words, St. Martin’s, 1998.
--------- The Way to Rainy Mountain, University of New Mexico Press, 1976.
William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, Longman, 1999.
Virginia Woolf, The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 3: 1923-1928, Harcourt-Brace, 1977.
Kathleen Yancey, ed., Voices on Voice: Perspectives, Definitions, Inquiry, National Council of Teachers, 1994.

Bio Note
An essayist and teacher, Kim Dana Kupperman is the founding editor of Welcome Table Press, dedicated to publishing and celebrating the essay. The author of the award-winning I Just Lately Started Buying Wings (Graywolf, 2010), she is also an editor of You. An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person (Welcome Table Press, 2013), the publisher of Essaying the Essay, edited by David Lazar (Welcome Table Press, 2014), and a contributor to many literary magazines and anthologies. For more information, please visit www.kimdanakupperman.com and www.welcometablepress.org.

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