In Man on Fire (2004), John Creasy (played by the incomparable actor Denzel Washington) has to match wits with the amorphous character of La Voz (the Voice), the leader of a kidnapping ring in México City . La Voz’s presence is thick in much of the film, hovering over the city like oppressive, curling smoke. Yet, in the Mexican media, no one has seen his face or heard his live voice. Enter Creasy- a man on a mission who roots out La Voz. The outcome is truly unique (read: Go watch the film).
Promoting a writer’s growth involves provoking him or her to come out of the shadows and to write with an authoritative voice. In Peter Elbow’s “Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries,” he cites Aristotle’s unique perspective on this issue:
Speakers can fool listeners and persuade them with a consciously constructed voice…[Aristotle] talks about the ability to ‘make ourselves thought to be sensible and morally good’– noting that this is a matter of skill and not character169.
Elbow goes on to explain that contraries should be embraced (176). We should think about the written language through both the lens of text and voice (not at the same time of course). By text he means “words on a page” and he construes voice as “the spoken medium of language.” He explains:
…The text highlights the visual and spatial features of language as print (etymologically ‘text’ comes from weaving – note ‘textile’); the voice lens highlights language as sounded, heard, and existing in time. The text lens foregrounds language as an abstract system…in which words have the same meaning whoever utters them in whatever context– words as interchangeable and not attached to persons; the voice lens highlights how language issues from individual persons and physical bodies and how the same words differ depending on who says them and how.175.
Elbow advocates for both types of writing. I agree with his viewpoint. Developing voice requires a level of maturity and sophistication that is built over time. Just as we gain experience from life, our perspectives may change, which will influence our voices. I disagree with Elbow’s point that voice comes more naturally to beginners, because they are accustomed to the spoken word (177-178). I think Elbow places too literal an emphasis on voice in this section.
Elbow’s exploration of somatic writing is very interesting (179). The idea of feeling words in your body is something that resonates with me because as a writer of poetry, I must have a visceral/gut reaction to the words that I use. If do not, the paper is relegated to its proper place in the rubbish bin. Poetry is rewarding because it gives a sense of immediacy to my voice even when I am writing from the perspective of another person. I am always there in between the lines, right in the thick of the ink.
I understand the value of not attending to voice in text, despite the fact that it makes my soul a bit uncomfortable. It is definitely important to develop good critical reading and voice can interfere in this goal (180). It is also vital that we test out “pure reasoning” (181). I learned this in my undergraduate class in Logic. As citizens of the world, we have to be able to understand an argument and concomitant counterarguments in a logical, systematic way. It is only then that we can insert our voice in picking a viewpoint and espousing it. Elbow is also correct when he suggests that the message must sometimes take precedence over the medium (182). Pure objectivity is valuable and it certainly has its place in fields such as medicine and certain scholarly work. Id. I also agree with Elbow’s assertion that voice is dangerous when it is bound up with a static notion of the identity and self (183). As writers evolve, they take the voices of others and in doing so, social good is effectuated by means of empathy.
Elbow also explains that reaching a compromise between textual and voice-based writing is untenable and bad. He astutely notes that it is a “method of letting each side lose as little as possible…[f]or a true win/win outcome, we need to break out of this either/or frame of reference” (174). Of course, when we sign off our computers or close our notebooks, compromise is a daily part of life.
I cannot leave Elbow’s article without expressing my displeasure for William Coles’ disdain for Holden Caulfield, the protagonist in The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Coles says that Caulfield’s voice is a fraud and a lie because it doesn’t match any real character behind it (185, FN1). First of all, how does he know that? Second, I first read this book at fifteen and it resonated deeply with me and other teenagers in our English class. Dear Mr. Coles’: Are our emotions therefore counterfeit as well? Rant over.
Brannon and Knoblauch’s “On Students’ Rights to Their Own Texts: A Model for Teacher Response” is a great segue from Peter Elbow’s article. It hearkens back to the notion of the teacher as designer/facilitator, a point Patricia and Dr. Zamora spoke about in our last class meeting. The authors make crucial points that struck a chord with me:
We are not suggesting that student texts are, in fact, authoritative. But we do argue that incentive is vital to improvement and also that is linked…to the belief that one’s writing will be read earnestly…Denying students control of what they want to say must surely reduce incentive…Regardless of what we may know about students’ authority…we lose more than we gain by preempting their control and allowing our own Ideal Texts to dictate choices that properly belong to writers.
…Teaching from the vantage point of the Ideal Text is paternalistic: the teacher ‘knows best,’ knows what the writer should do and how it should be done, and feels protective because his or her competence is superior to that of the writer.159.
The notion of the Ideal Text is daft. This is why the authors capitalized it! The ultimate goal of writing is clear communication. Teachers need to work with students in praising their strengths and helping them to shore up points where the students are having difficulty. Moreover, “[a]t the start, students and teachers need to share their different perceptions as makers and readers of a discourse” (162).
As we have discussed in class, there needs to be a flow of communication between instructors and students. This happens through honest conversations as well as drafts. However, ultimately, students’ voices should not be stifled: “The point is to return control of choice-making as soon as possible to the writer, while also creating a motive for making changes” (163). Writers make choices and this implies that they take the reins by means of those choices; thus, they have immense power.
This leads me to a consideration of The National Writing Project’s “Civically Engaged Writing Analysis Continuum (CEWAC).” This is truly a brilliant movement. Writing is an activity that most individuals will have to undertake, no matter what field of study they pursue. Yet writing is also an important currency in the marketplace of ideas. As such, it has the power to move socioeconomic and political needles.
CEWAC encourages students to be stakeholders in the public forum. The only way change can be effectuated is through open discourse; the pen is mighty in this regard. CEWAC promotes all of the great hallmarks of writing, including arguing based on logic and reasoning and utilizing an effective structure to convey positions. CEWAC encourages voice through the expression of often polar opposite viewpoints for the purpose of critical argumentation. It sounds cliche, but it is absolutely true that today’s young people are tomorrow’s voting citizens.
I am in such strong support of CEWAC’s mission because it hones in on advocacy, which starts at the grass-roots level. Colton Colger, a Montana teen, wrote his local newspaper about the need for advanced life support to be conveyed to rural, off-the-beaten-track areas. In doing this, Colger implemented a public voice. CEWAC encourages students to utilize their voices to advocate for their communities. Zealous advocacy is not the exclusive province of attorneys! CEWAC puts power into young people’s pens/keystrokes and as we have seen with other social movements of our time, they all involve civic-minded youth. The National Writing Project has truly done something special and I hope it continues to catch flame.