Finally! I’m hearing voices!
For the last week, I have been relentless, tormenting my English students, trying to bleed them so that their unique personalities will pour out into their writing.
My torture techniques are working. Some of them are actually catching on!
Sadly, we English teachers have taken a bad rap for stifling our students’ creativity. As much as I hate to admit it, in some cases, it’s true.
We force our darlings to conform to the state-mandated guidelines that require them to write a five-paragraph persuasive essay in 35 minutes. The results are carbon-copy essays: Introduction, body 1, body 2, body 3, conclusion.
Yada yada yada.
Of course, there’s a place for academic writing, but I want my writers to be in control of their writing—not to be controlled by it. I want them to choose to use academic writing, not use it by default because they aren’t aware of other options.
Dr. Frankensteins, that’s what we English teachers have become. We’ve created mindless little monsters. We’ve conditioned our pupils to follow such rigid rules that their writing has become stiff and unimaginative, displaying no evidence of personality or individual style.
Thank goodness there are a still few teen rebels out there who are willing to try something new—even if it means sacrificing their A for innovation. Most are too afraid of lowering their GPA to take a risk.
In the last week I’ve tried all sorts of methods to breathe life into my teens’ writing. Yesterday, I had them respond to me in class, using the “voice” of a well-known character or celebrity. I heard “The Situation,” Elvis, Paris Hilton, Eminem, Britney Spears, and even the Water Boy.
Ah ha! Once these kiddos realized they had to alter their diction and syntax to create a “voice,” they caught on.
But when I asked them to pour out themselves on paper, they didn’t know what to do. Once again their words sounded almost identical. I don’t think I could tell one paper from the other if the students didn’t put their names on them.
My evaluation sounds harsh. Don’t get me wrong. I have the BEST students in the world. They are wonderful, respectful, hard working and creative.
But writing is HARD for most of US, especially when we have to put ourselves on paper for the world to critique. It’s easier just to write “safe” without revealing our vulnerabilities.
Bottom line, my students have voice problems. They don’t know who they are yet. Some of them are nervous to test the waters, so they’re reluctant to develop their own unique styles.
Newbie novelists like MYSELF have this problem too.
We’re still in the process of getting to know our characters. Until we really get to know them, they all sound alike, or, even worse, they may not sound believable at all.
I write these words of wisdom as though I’m some kind of writing guru. I’m not.
It’s just that I myself have started to catch on to this wonderful element of writing called voice.
Earlier this fall I met with best-selling YA author Ellen Hopkins at a conference in Nashville. We are so different! Yet she offered me advice that transformed my writing technique.
“Voice. Work on your character’s voice,” she said.
My first manuscript is written in limited third-person POV. Ellen suggested I re-write part of it—as practice—in first person POV so that I could hear my character’s voice. I wasn’t too crazy about the idea at first, but now I understand why.
My main character TJ Westbrook has his own style, his own diction, his own syntax—just like those characters and celebrities I asked my students to emulate.
In order to create a convincing character with a unique voice, I first had to get to know him, spend time with him.
I took Ellen’s advice and revised my manuscript. I actually left the comfort of my sunroom, where I do most of my writing, and I found a cozy spot where my characters and I could “talk.” We went on a date.
So here I am now an official participant in NaNoWriMo. I must write fast and furiously. Yes, I can revise later, but I think I can do a better job and write more efficiently if I totally immerse myself in characters’ lives so that I can hear their voices.
No, I’m not going to the extreme as some method actors have. Daniel Day-Lewis trained 18 months with a former world champion for his role in The Boxer. Robert De Niro worked 12 hour shifts as a cabbie in preparation for his role in The Taxi Driver. We all know how Heath Ledger’s personality shifted when he took on the dark role of The Joker.
So don’t worry. It’s not like I’m going to go to school with a “mojo hand” and dare all my wayward students to meet me at the crossroads. (Think Memphis. Think the Delta blues. For my current WIP, my main character mixes it up with a little magic as he returns to Memphis to find out who killed his best friend.)
But I do need to make time to go on a few “dates.” It’s not like I’ve got time for a five-hour trip to the Blues City Café—unless one of you suggests an impromptu road trip. I’m up for that.
More than likely, I’ll just chill out in my sunroom and listen to a little Stevie Ray Vaughn. Then again, I might have to make it to the nearest BBQ place in town. But the point is, I may be on hiatus from Serendipiteeblog for a few days as I get into the groove my NaNoWriMo endeavor.
I’m not sure where TJ and I will go on our next “date.” I just hope he’s paying—or, better yet, he and his voice pay off in the form of a book contract.