Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Voices

Ok, this is my second attempt to start this post. At first I was just going to talk about blogging voices, but then I realized that what I want to talk about is bigger than just that, and so here we go. Take two.

Voice, as any writing teacher knows, makes a huge difference in the readability of a piece of writing. It's also one of the most difficult aspects of writing to teach. A writing voice is something that one develops over time, and it is the product of the interplay of the writing situation, the persona created by the writer, and the writer him- or her-self (if such a thing exists, and for my purposes today I will say that it does). In fact, it's this whole "developing over time" thing that makes this so difficult to teach because students don't tend to dedicate time to their writing - or not the kind of expansive and thoughtful time that it takes to develop a writing voice. Of course there are exceptions, but generally students focus on the mechanics of writing or they focus on controllable things like organization. Yes, those things are important, but we've all read that perfectly edited and organized essay that is still - for some reason - not an A. And as an instructor, one tries to pinpoint ways in which the student can develop his or her voice without characterizing it in those terms, because when you start talking to students about "voice" their eyes glaze over and they really don't get what you're talking about. (Just as they don't when you talk about "flow.") And so as an instructor you talk about things like word choice and the cadence of different kinds of sentence structures and experimenting with ways of articulating a point and still sounding like oneself. Sometimes some of this makes a difference. Sometimes it doesn't.

And some writers have a natural gift for developing writing voices, for making you see them behind their words. And ultimately I do think that this is something that is to some extent innate. Yes, it must be cultivated. Yes, it takes energy to develop and cultivate that innate talent. But sometimes I do think that either one has it or one doesn't.

Now, I'm going to make a radical (and arrogant) claim. I think that this is something that I have - this innate talent with developing voices of my own within my writing. Part of the reason I think that I can do this is because I've kept a journal since I was 12 and I've always been a writer. It comes naturally to me, but also I've spent a lot of time thinking about how my writing works. The reason I say this is not to be some boastful jerk, but rather to try to find a starting place for the thing that really motivates this post, which is I've been trying to think about the linkages between my blogging voice and my academic voice. I've been writing a lot about this in my diary - especially as I was finishing the article.

On the one hand, I think I've always taken my ability to make my readers "hear" me in my writing for granted. It always seemed like a gimmick or something that masked over the fact that I didn't have good ideas. In my first year of my PhD program, I got a comment on my end-of-year progress report that still haunts me: "Dr. Crazy has an engaging critical voice, but she needs to work on presenting her ideas with greater sophistication." Or something like that. At any rate, I then spent the next five years editing my unsophisticated self out of my academic prose. I performed "sophistication." And I got pretty good at it. And I was able to preserve some of my own individual voice even as I tarted it up in the trappings of sophistication. The only compliment my adviser ever gave me (and no, I'm not kidding about that) about my dissertation was that my voice really came through in the prose and that it was a pleasure to read. (As I write that, I begin to think that he was lying. What dissertation is a pleasure to read? Wow. I am really susceptible to flattery, even when it is obviously a total lie.)

You'll notice, though, that in both cases, both with the critique and with the compliment, my graduate school experience was typified by people noticing my style and not paying much attention to the substance of what I had to say. And so all through graduate school, while I worked on sounding "sophisticated" and "theoretical" and all of those things that were so revered in my Fancy Program, I felt like my actual ideas, well, like they weren't very good. Or like they were good but that somebody else could do more with them than I ever would be able to do.

And so then I enter my first tenure-track job, and I embark on some new research that is unrelated to the dissertation, and all of a sudden people are paying attention not only to the style of what I'm saying but also the substance (which just goes to show that talking about something that you know very little about can make people think that you have a fresh approach to things rather than an ill-informed one). But I still didn't feel comfortable. And it was after that first year on the tenure track, after three conference papers and feeling a little... unsure of myself in this new identity as Professor, that I began my first blog and developed this writing persona of "Dr. Crazy." The Dr. Crazy of the first blogspace was a consciously hard and irreverent voice. Part of my aim was to distinguish between that voice and my academic voice, and I think also I didn't really know what kind of voice I wanted and that's what I got stuck with. At the same time, I was trying to develop an authoritative voice as a professional and a scholar, and so the hardness in the blogspace probably also related to the fact that I was grasping for authority in other kinds of writing.

As you all know, I ultimately felt too hemmed in by that voice to continue with it, and so I reimagined it and moved my Crazy self over to this blog. But as I was working on the article last week and writing in my diary after a night of working on it and thinking about the blog in relation to journal or diary-writing and my academic writing, I think I realized that what blogging has enabled me to do is to experience the development of a writing voice in a sustained and public way. Sometimes that has been uncomfortable, but I think it also has given me confidence, not only in my writing but also in my ideas. For the first time, as I was writing that article, I wasn't worried about sounding unsophisticated or about being all style and no substance (or being responded to as if that were the case). And I was able to detach my "self" from the academic writing and to think of what I was doing there as just another persona, just as I can detach from "Dr. Crazy" as a writing persona.

In all of these voices, there are similarities; there are points of convergence. And so there's something about blogging, I think, that has been incredibly valuable to my scholarly or professional writing, even though I don't tend to write in a substantive way about my scholarly or professional work, and I don't tend to post in detail about deadlines and what I'm doing and such. In other words, the blog has not been a mechanism of accountability for me, but a space that is in-between work-writing and personal-writing. And I think that has enabled me to develop a richer voice that translates into the work writing, if that makes sense.

Ok, but enough of this navel-gazing. One of the things (aside from my ability to think about myself ad nauseam) that inspired this post was this post and this post over at Anastasia's blog. Also some posts on other blogs that I read that have cropped up in recent weeks. I think that one of the frustrations of blogging can be in feeling like the voice that one has developed for the blog no longer fits what one wants to write about, or that the voice that one has on one's blog doesn't fit in with the larger community of bloggers that one reads. It can be a frustrating and alienating experience, and it's pretty much contrary to all of the positive things that I've noted above. I went through that frustration and alienation at the hands of my blog last december. I don't know that I have any answers, but I do think that some blogs do run their course. I also think that sometimes one's frustration or alienation via blogging isn't really related only to blogging but to the frustration and alienation that is so deeply imbedded in this profession - whether as we train to become certified (or certifiable) members of it or as we work within it. I wonder whether anxieties over blog voices or blog identities or blog content constitute a legitimate way to express deeper personal anxieties about who we are as academics - anxieties that we cannot express for fear of looking stupid or for being kicked out of the club.

10 comments:

seadragon said...

Good post.

And I fear your last sentence might nicely summarize the reasons I have starting thinking about killing my own blog. How embarrassing for me.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks, Seadragon :)

And don't be embarassed, even in a funny way - the whole reason for that last sentence is that I think it's something that many of us have felt, and I think that maybe admitting that is a positive thing?

Who knows. I just reread the post and I think that I am totally a self-absorbed ninny :)

Anastasia said...

not any more than the rest of us :)

this is just it. to me, the value of having a blog is undeniable, but I think I need a new blogging space because the specific voice I've developed may in fact have done its job for now. I'm not through with anastasia but I might be through with this version of her.

I want to think more about your final comment because it strikes me that you are on to something there. I need to mull.

Jill said...

That's a really good argument for pseudonymous blogging, Dr. Crazy... I mean, I've found a lot of the same things you're describing in my real-name blog, but having it real-name makes it a lot harder to ditch the voice when it's no longer working and try a new one.

Blogging has been immensely important in my construction of an academic voice and public voice that I actually feel confident about and that feels like mine rather than like something I'm copying.

And it's not voice, of course, it's voices.

One of my crises of blogging - an incredibly fruitful one as it turned out - was right after a bad breakup that I was simultaneously not blogging and blogging in every single word I wrote. I refound a post I wrote then that is exaclty about voices - and the fear that my voices might not be acceptable...

I'd forgotten that. But it's certainly something that keeps evolving, and I think doing it in public makes it more tangible than when it's only in the mirror or in a diary.

BikeProf said...

Dr. Crazy--Awesome, awesome, awesome. I want to post on my blog, "Yeah, what she said." I see many of us now expressing these same anxieties that you have so beautifully articulated, that it almost gives me hope: Are we about to enter a new era of clear, beautifully articulated academic writing? Probably not, but we can dream, right?

I remember reading somewhere recently (don't remember where, though) that the academic blog might be the space where the long-absent public intellecutal will finally be able to resurface. I say this now because it feels to me that the public intellecutal, if she is to have a dynamic and interest position in society, must have that clarity of voice that is all too often hiding or completely missing in so much of our (my, at least) academic prose.

BikeProf

Piss Poor Prof said...

I will add my kudos to the articulate post, which I expound on here. I blog anonymously in order to be more honest. I do not want some future committee (of whatever ilk) judging my exploration and musings. It also allows time and space to stretch out and try on new things.

Thanks for the encouragement.

hot mess said...

i think you're right that voice can be innate. all of my writing has a singular "me" voice to it--i mostly write academic pieces, personal essays, and documentary nonfiction, btw--and i've been told that people who have read other work of mine can pick up that voice after just a few sentences. whether that's good or bad, i don't know.

bitchphd said...

It's funny, I was thinking about blogging and writing today too. I was having a kind of knee-jerk moment of feeling guilty b/c my husband does all the housework while I sit around and write blog entries. And then I thought, "you know, another great way to look at it is to be grateful to him for enabling me to write so often, and to be pleased with myself for having developed the ability to write, even when PK is climbing on me, even when Mr. B. is talking to me about the laundry, etc."

Voice yes, for sure. Really happy about that. But even more, I think, just the constant daily practice.

Now, of course, I want to work on getting rid of the hangup I have about distinguishing writing I "should" do from writing as just writing; about my anxiety over writing for money or for a job. But somehow thinking about having become a pretty good writer in the Tillie Olson "As I Stand Ironing" way made me think maybe I'll get there soon.

Dr. Crazy said...

You're so right about the practice aspect of this - though I will say it becomes VERY easy to blog instead of doing "real" writing (i.e., work writing). The anxiety about writing that you "should" do vs. writing that you do just for the heck of it is one that is a real one, and I often feel that as well. For example, in my post above about writing letters of recommendation, as I was reading the comments I thought at one point, "you know, maybe it is unreasonable that I expect this much lead time to write a letter of rec. when clearly I have tons of time for writing blog entries," but then I thought to myself that I shouldn't punish myself for doing writing that isn't work and that it's ok to spend maybe an hour a day on that kind of writing and to put some kinds of work writing on the back burner. That's not to say that it's not important to do those, but that this other writing is important, too. Actually, this reminds me of Dean Dad's post about students not having any free time/space to play with ideas - maybe we are in the same boat as professors?

Ok, well that was a rambling response :P

droughneckman said...

Dr. Crazy, forgive me for all of the wrong and mis-spelled words in my comments. I was trying to google on the typic of developing an arthorative talking voice.
I am a military man and I know It is not what you have to say that will make people listen to you but how you say it and deliver the message. Take Bill Clinton for example the man could be telling outright lies and the people eat it up and I was wondering why. Another example as I was listening to KPBS today a guy was asking how to clean a keyboard? Putting it in the dishwasher would not be an option, but If you can say put it in the dish washer authorativly enough even though that person saying it had never done it you will belive it and try it with out any second thoughts.
So is it a connection between the way we talk in choosing words and articulating those words with or with out confidence, and the way we choose to write.
The last thought is if it is a connection between speaking in general and writing then what was can we syngertecillay improve both.