Voice is a dance between its elements. But which one should take the lead?

Late last winter, a brown Muscovy started nesting in the pond at a nearby park. I see him during my morning walks. Some days, the geese splash beside him. On others, he tries to befriend the solitary blue heron. But often he roosts on a metal pipe, all alone.

Something about this duck touches my heart. Maybe it’s his constancy, which sometimes feels like loneliness or a faithfulness to a place no other bird calls home.

Apparently, I’m not alone. The other day, a couple who walk their dog along my route told me a little girl had named the duck George. Soon after, I spoke with Lady Who Feeds the Animals about him. She wonders if friendly George was once someone’s pet. She recently took pictures of him for the local wildlife center to make sure he can safely winter in our area. George certainly seems domesticated. I’ve seen both the couple and Lady Who Feeds the Animals stand right beside him.

By the time I left the park, I cared even more about George and the neighbors invested in his welfare.

So many voices are rooting for him.

And there’s so much our voices can do.

Last month, I explored the first chapter of Voice First: A Writer’s Manifesto by Sonya Huber. In it, she invites us to get to know our many voices. In chapter two, she grounds us in the theories around voice that will inform the rest of her lessons.

She begins by quoting University of Massachusetts Amherst professor, Peter Elbow, who describes “voice as being composed of three strands ‘audible voice,’ or what the author sounds like, ‘dramatic voice,’ or what kind of speaker or writer is implied, and ‘one’s own voice,’ or the relationship between the speaker of the text and the real author.” 

These strands dance with the various elements that make up voice, including:
Genre: the mode you’re writing in
Form: the specific thing inside the larger, looser category
Goal: your reason for writing this piece (i.e., to persuade)
Ethos: how the author comes across to the reader
Audience: the people who will read your work
Persona: the role the author plays
Tone: the piece’s mood

Sonya uses “a messy, sprawling metaphor” to help us visualize how these elements work together. She sets “genre as the big container, say a room or house that’s usually devoted to a specific purpose… forms are the little containers inside each of these large containers… voice is whatever in the universe might go into these containers… voice is the reason these containers exist, and voice is so powerful that it can bust right through the sides of the container.”

The goal when engaging with these elements is to play around to see which element informs the other, and to give yourself permission to put voice first. For example, what might happen if instead of saying this is an essay, memoir, or short story, you simply wrote and discovered the voice that wanted to speak? What if that voice dictated the form?

To find out, she encourages us to experiment and play with certain forms, like the hermit crab, which happens “when a piece of writing lives inside an unexpected form that it has adopted as a home.” Think of the short story in the form of a shopping list, the essay written as a syllabus or bottle of body wash. These forms and the distillations they require can teach us things about our voice we might not otherwise discover.

To truly understand the dance among the elements, you’ll need to read her book (click here to purchase). To give you a taste of the insights it can give you, check out this exercise from chapter two:

“Experiment with form and voice from both directions. First, write a standard letter to the editor about a cause you care about, arguing for a specific policy change. Next, start with a rant about something that makes you upset and turn that into a letter to the editor during a second or third draft. What’s different in content and voice between the two? How did both feel to write?”

This exercise makes me think of George and the many things my neighbors and I might write about him. While I’ve never heard his quack, he speaks to us and through us, making us more connected as neighbors and better citizens who will support his one wild life as he also enriches ours. Interested in seeing a picture of George? Check out the one below with his pal, the Canadian goose.

So, what speaks to you and through you? If you completed Sonya’s exercise, what did you learn about the voices living inside you? Send me an email with your answer. I’d love to hear from you.

Until then, pay attention to the world around you. Let it speak to you and inspire you as you always write on.

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