Saturday, July 4, 2015

Finally: Voice Lessons for Readers and Writers

No more stumbling over explaining voice!
I’ve been edging ever closer in the last 2 years to practical ways to get kids to read like writers. (Or even to identify for myself, so I can turn my brain inside out for students to see, what it is that I subconsciously do that causes my reading to shape my writing—not just the content but also the form. What is it that good athletes do when they watch better athletes in order to appropriate moves they observe to improve their own performance?) 

Now it’s even more urgent because I’ll be teaching AP English Language where one of the curricular requirements is that students are able to explain “how various effects are achieved by writers’ linguistic and rhetorical choices” (Scoring Component 7). A colleague from the AP institute I attended 2 weeks ago enthusiastically recommended the book Voice Lessons, which takes 5 aspects of voice. Each lesson starts with a sentence or two taken from a work of literature, and includes 2 discussion questions and an application activity. I was sold from the first lesson, on page 3, on diction:


“Art is the antidote that can call us back from the edge of numbness, restoring the ability to feel for another.” (Barbara Kingsolver, “Jabberwocky,” High Tide in Tuscon)

  1. By using the word antidote, what does the author imply about the inability to feel for another?
  2. If we changed the word antidote to gift, what effect would it have on the meaning of the sentences?
Brainstorm with the class and develop a list of medical terms; then write a sentence using a medical term to characterize art. Explain to the class the effect this term has on the meaning of the sentence.


One word--antidote--transmutes the rest of the sentence into an analogy, identifying lack of empathy as a poison.  Isn't that remarkable?

So after reading a number of Dean’s lessons, I decided to glance through some books I’d recently read to see if I could pick out sentences and identify the effect authors achieve with deliberate choices. Here are a couple I found:

(1) From Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, chapter 1: “Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers."

Du Maurier creates a sinister atmosphere from the very first description of the setting by personifying nature (a she with fingers), using a couple of adjectives and a verb with strongly negative connotations. If you don’t believe me, just read the sentence substituting these synonyms (supplied by my desktop thesaurus) for the bolded words: covert, subtle, and disturb.

(2) From Marilynne Robinson's Home: “‘Home to stay, Glory! Yes!’ her father said, and her heart sank. He attempted a twinkle of joy at this thought, but his eyes were damp with commiseration.

The first time through, I didn’t catch what was going on in these first two sentences of the book, and I spent a lot of time playing catch-up, figuring out what the character’s attitudes to each other were. Going back and reading it now, I remembered the instructor at the AP institute did an exercise just like this, stopping us after the first 2 sentences of a reading, asking us to identify whether the author’s attitude to the subject was positive, negative, or ambivalent, and give support. 

Here the first two clauses sound like a celebration of family reunion. The juxtaposition of the next phrase—her heart sank—says the daughter is not as happy as the father sounds. But words can be a smokescreen. The next sentence lets us know that’s happening here. He attempted a twinkle of joy—the word attempt implies failure. In addition, Kingsolver doesn’t just tell us he’s near tears, but shows us the detail of his damp eyes. Finally, commiseration tells us that not only are they both individually unhappy, but the father, at least, understands that the feeling is mutual.

Such intertwined sadness and tenderness, desire to protect and failure to connect, all in two sentences. Aren’t the resources of language amazing?

I’m planning to use some of the lessons in Voice Lessons with my 10th and 11th graders next year, and I’m also planning to keep my eyes open for how authors use these resources, so I can model my observations for the students as we read and model my applications of them as we write. 

How about you? How does an author you’re reading use language to create an effect? How do you use it when you write?

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.