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Are you my voice?

Misty Doane, Junior, Professional Writing, Penn State Berks-Lehigh Valley College

All children ask, “Can you tell me a story?” From a small age, parents, family members and teachers fill children with written and verbal stories to both teach and entertain them. I would listen to my mother, grandmother, and aunts read fairy tales and books, one of my favorites being Are You My Mother? by Dr. Seuss followed by Little Black Sambo (it had not been banned yet). The tale of the Native Americans living in nature was gently whispered into my ear by my mother, so with every walk in the woods or canoe on a lake, the lives of my relatives long removed from their native lands would race through my head, bringing the Native Americans to life. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Lewis, read Charlotte’s Web and Little House on the Prairie during our quiet time and my grandmother bought me books of poems and fairy tales for Christmas. Audiotapes of Billy Graham and Jimmy Swaggart were my father’s way of introducing me to religion while my great-grandparents took me to Sunday school to learn and read about the stories of the Bible. From fifth grade I was expected to do book reports, science papers, essays, poems, and in high school I read and wrote essays on Romeo and Juliet, The Canterbury Tales and The Scarlet Letter. I walked away after high school with all of these papers, rules and stories in my head, but what was I going to do with it all? The only clue I had rested on one little poem.

     After reading “Who’s Afraid of Subjectivity? The Composing Process and Postmodernism or A Student of Donald Murray Enters the Age of Postmodernism,” an academic essay written by noted composition scholar Robert P. Yagelski, I began to ask myself how it was that I didn’t know exactly what my “voice” was, where it came from or when it started, especially since I had been writing for many years. Where was my “voice” and was it mine?

     Before beginning this essay, I began scanning my mind, thinking back through the writings I have done and the earliest “voice” I could remember was a tiny little poem I had written in eighth grade. I related this voice to Yagelski’s discovery of the formation of voice in a student:

Trevor, a remarkably bright young man who expended considerable energy devising ways to resist the educational system--and the individual teachers who represented the system. I remember the end of a difficult and trying year with Trevor, then a junior, when he suddenly seemed to catch fire in his writing and produced not only some of the angriest and most engaging indictments of schools I had yet seen from a student but also some well written and entertaining adventure stories. To me, Trevor had found his voice in writing. (209)

I had learned my “voice” similarly, through emotion, but my “voice” was not anger. This particular “voice” was grief shown through a poem I had written when my two-year-old brother died after drinking an acidic cleaner for gun barrels. My poem would not have been written and this “voice” would not have been discovered at that age if this tragedy had not happened. There was only one problem--this “voice” was an observation of what my family went through, their experiences, and woven into the text of the poem was Christianity and American rituals of burial and mourning, shown in such lines as “the long ride to the home,” “you say a little prayer,” and “you tend to lose some weight.” I participated in American Christian rituals chosen for me and I didn’t lose any weight, so I asked myself if there was really any “voice” of my own in my writing or was my writing a small product of everything I had observed, been subjected to and influenced by? If that was the case, then where was the me in my writing?

     Next, I thought back to my high school years. I began writing papers that conformed to rules set forth by my teachers and felt much like, as Nancy Sommers describes in an essay entitled “Between the Drafts,” one of many students that “defer to the voice of the academy, and write in the voice of Everystudent to an audience they think of as Everyteacher” (223). After reading her essay, I began to envision my famed high school English teacher reading the same droll sounding essays year after year, but perhaps his search for proper structure, not content, was what kept him focused. Through writing the papers to fit his conformity, we were writing his paper, not ours. I had no voice in high school. I had his voice.

     College, the next step, brought challenges I had never been confronted with before. English 15 brought on a research project, a subject of our own choice, so I reached back into my childhood, the place where things were bright, cheerful, and imaginative, where a tiny bird found his mother and a small child in Africa could defeat a huge tiger, a place where I could do anything. My mother’s whispers rang louder than the rest of my childhood tales and stories, so I chose to do a research project on the Native Americans of my hometown. This unleashed a “voice” I had never known, for there was nothing--no information, no artifacts, and no history of the Native Americans that inhabited my home town. There was nothing but information on who had erased them from the earth forever--Captain John Sullivan.

     It was then that I found another “voice,” one of anger, hurt, and betrayal, not only from the atrocities bore by these Native Indians, but that my mother had told me only of the lives of Native Americans, not their fates. Sure, I knew the Native Americans weren’t there anymore, but I was made to believe they were off on a nearby reservation, not totally obliterated. This new voice drove me to the point to where I was getting little sleep, for I would rather be revising or writing my paper. I spent countless hours in front of a green screen (computers were DOS then, no Windows), so many hours that my eyes quit tearing. People needed to know that Sullivan marched from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania to Horseheads, New York, killing every Native American man, woman, and child on the way, no matter how little sleep I got or how many drops I had to put into my eyes to make them tear. Still, was this my “voice” or was this essay a conglomeration of facts I obtained from books and local historians? Sure, I was passionate about the subject, especially being Native American, but how did my “voice” actually contribute to this writing? I’m not sure that it did for I hear the voice of Sommers saying, “don’t follow us, don’t reproduce what we have produced, don’t live life from secondary sources like us, don’t disappear” (223).

     With three strikes, I began to think the tone of the game was set and I was right. My next memorable attempt at finding my “voice” was a project for my Technical Writing class in which I was to define something so completely, there would be no room for any other information about it; I chose poetry. I attempted to define poetry by presenting different examples. I wanted to show how poetry did not have to conform to the rhyme and structure we learned through listening to music and nursery rhymes. The problem was that I was just bringing together different works of different poets to try to define what poetry was. Still, no “voice.”

     After that semester, I had to leave college for family reasons and realized that I wanted to live someplace other than Pennsylvania, so I packed my things and headed for Tampa, Florida. Looking back, it was here that I discovered something I hadn’t seen clearly before. I began ritualistically calling my family every Saturday, telling them of the experiences I was having in my new life. I spoke of beautiful sunsets, dolphins jumping between the waves in a magical dance of natural beauty, a pair of sting rays that took a walk with my girlfriend and me along the beach, gliding along in perfect timing with our strides, poisonous brown widow spiders in the garage that I walked past in bare feet and shorts, and the huge wood spider that sent my girlfriends children running from the room because, as they screamed, “He was chasing us!”

     I had quite a following in the office I worked in, especially after I had to tell, many times over, the story of a Sago crane flying off the grill of a Mack truck, wings fully spread, legs oddly bent, that bounced off the side of my car while his beak threatened to stab me through my open window. There were also the stories of the narrow miss of a loose cow, an alligator and the occasional black snake. My car, after all of these animal mishaps and destruction of my front bumper and air conditioning after I hit a deer, became “The Animal Magnet.” It was a co-worker I overheard say, “Boy, she always has a story, doesn’t she?”

     That was it! There was my “voice!” Though I had achieved decent grades on my previous writing projects, what was missing was a bit of myself, my own experiences that were painted like a picture to bring life to an otherwise drab piece of work. This is exactly what Sommers spoke of when she said, “I want my students to know how to bring their life and their writing together” (224), and this is what I do. Bringing a little piece of all that I am, a little story constructed through family, readings, writings and experiences, puts a little life into a lifeless writing. As Sommers explains, students that when students are

[g]iven the opportunity to speak their own authority as writers, given a turn in the conversation, students can claim their stories as primary source material and transform their experiences into evidence. They might, if given enough encouragement, be empowered not to serve the academy and accommodate it, not to write in the persona of Everystudent, but rather to write essays that will change the academy. (224)

     I may not have written (or am able to write) an essay that has changed the academy yet, but after reading Yagelski and Sommers, I looked back to find and learn where my “voice” is in my writing and why it is useful or helpful in my writing. My “voice” is not in the poem of others’ experiences, in the reviewing of facts or in the description of poetry. My “voice,” the me in my writing, is the me that absorbed all of the stories told or read to me by my relatives, the writings I have created thus far and my life experiences to make the ordinary seem extraordinary. I have created writings “Everyman” wants to read. Hopefully, that is what I have done with this essay, for if you found yourself relating the academics to a few of my stories, learned something while enjoying my experiences, I have, at last, truly found my “voice.”

Works Cited

Sommers, Nancy “Between the Drafts” Landmark Essays on Writing Process. Ed.
         Sondra Perl. Davis, CA: Hermagoras, 1995. 217-224.
Yagelski, Robert P. “Who’s Afraid of Subjectivity? The Composing Process and
         Postmodernism or A Student of Donald Murray Enters the Age of Postmodernism.”
         Taking Stock: The Writing Process Movement in the 90’s. Ed.
         Lad Tobin and Thomas Newkirk. NH: Boynton/Cook, 1994. 203-217.