Finding Your Voice

When I started planning for last week’s class, I had no idea how I was going to help my students “find their voice.” I’m not even sure I’ve found my own. But as I began researching and assembling a lesson plan, I realized I already had the resources that would help all of us.

Early in the planning phase, I decided that individual writing exercises would be the best way for the students to explore the topic of voice. But first they needed some examples. So I began by reading excerpts from Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson and The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard. Then we quickly dove into our notebooks. I asked the students to make three lists: things I want most, things I love, and things I fear. Then they combined words from these lists to create potential story titles. I didn’t ask them to share their original lists, just their titles (if they wanted to). Then I asked everyone to choose one word and write for five minutes about its meaning and why it was on the list in the first place. Students could incorporate memories, stories, beliefs — whatever made sense to explain their connection to the word.

Next, we talked about metaphors. I gave the definition and some examples, and I explained how the writer’s voice determines the metaphors she creates. In other words, no two writers will draw the same types of comparisons that form metaphors. This is why Aristotle said developing metaphors is the only truly human creative act. So, the students used words on their lists as starting points for creating some unique metaphors.

Finally, I asked them to answer a question for themselves: What is the story only you can write? I gave them ten minutes to jot down some notes, drawing from their lists and memories and life experiences. I explained that they wouldn’t share their answers because they were probably extremely personal, but that this question is one they can return to again and again in order to help them write what really matters. We talked a bit about going into the deep, dark stuff of our lives to find where our voice comes from. And then one student said she wouldn’t want to write the story only she can tell because it’s too painful. She’d rather tell someone else and get them to write it. I said that was fine, and maybe her ability to write about her own life would change over time. Maybe it won’t.

Either way, I felt like I’d witnessed a powerful transformation — not just within her, but within each of the students. They dug deep and discovered something true about themselves. I’m pretty sure many of them had never been asked to think about their lives in this way — to consider what they might be able to share with the world in a way no one else can. I hope that in doing so, they found a new sense of self-worth. But even if they didn’t — even if I’m giving this lesson way more credit than it deserves — I can say with complete confidence that the class was transformative for me.

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