One of my favorite things about being part of a community of English teachers both in my building and online (Hi Teacher Twitter Buddies!) is that every once in a while this really fun thing happens where a piece of writing gets published somewhere with really powerful voice or a really fun structure and all of a sudden this group of teachers become like seagulls spotting an unguarded bologna sandwich on a beach. One of them catches sight of it and sees how delectable the language in it is or how clever the opening is and starts to cry out about it through whatever means are at their fingertips at the moment and within hours all of Edu-Twitter or the entire English hallway of the school is filled with this wonderful squawking and fussing about how great it is. And then everybody pulls from it what they can use for their classes like seagulls divvying up the toppings and the bread crust and then we all fly back home again, sated and happy. It’s the best.
One such gathering happened over the past few days with a bunch of our Twitter buddies when The New York Times published a fun and fascinating article by Nellie Bowles profiling a wilderness survival trainer named Lynx Vilden. In addition to her other robust survival skills, Lynx plays a flute carved from a deer leg bone, so you can imagine the quality of anecdotes we’re talking about here overall. The rest of this article is all about how that article got us thinking about voice, so take a second and read it for yourself before continuing on. Hattie sent it along to me and then later we both discovered that Rebekah had beaten us to sharing it out on Twitter (to the tune of 33 likes and 5 retweets within a day).
There’s plenty to love and laugh and marvel at in the article, which is exactly what led Hattie and I into the intriguing conversation we’ve now become completely engrossed in. The article certainly has some very quietly voiced critique of Lynx and her methods early on–her demonstration of tree-felling, for example, is quietly observed by the author to bring said tree down “a foot from my tent.” She also observes Lynx asking the tree for its permission to kill it–an observation made with mostly objective language, but in that way good writers have where what they’re really saying is, “You seeing what I’m seeing here? This lady is ca-ray-zee!”
But by the end of the article, something else seems to happen. Bowles admits that when her survival crew returns to civilization for supplies, she feels the usual trappings of city life to be sort of grating and even dislikes “the spasms of (her) phone” coming back to life in her pocket. And in the final paragraph she describes cleaning her own deer leg bone using a piece of obsidian. The “carnivore” in the group eats the meat and the remaining bone, she says, “This would be my flute.” Hattie told me to get ready for a belly laugh when I got to the end, but when I reached that line I was more confused than anything: So Bowles went from recognizing and profiling the silliness of this survival extremism all the way to…adopting the lifestyle by the end?
NO, Hattie said, she’s clearly ridiculing it. When we reached out to Rebekah she said she felt the author fell “somewhere in between” poking fun at the lifestyle and embracing it. Thanks for nothing Rebekah–can’t you see we’re both trying to use you to win an English teacher argument here?! Which left us with this larger question about writing craft: What do we talk about (measure? account for?) when we consider voice and tone?
This isn’t an entirely new conversation for Hattie and me–voice is a huge element of my English 11 writing curriculum, and Hattie does oodles and oodles of voice work with her AP writers. Oodles I tell ya.
But then along comes this article that demands a closer attention to voice than we’re used to. We definitely weren’t imagining at least a playful joshing about the extremism of the survivalists early in the article, but the transition to earnestness by the end felt muddy and uneven even upon rereads. It was still a fun article to read and I can’t wait to show it to kids, but I think the conversation we have about it as a voice model for narrative nonfiction is going to be a complex one. Here’s what Hattie and I are pretty sure of, which we invite you to consider on a nice clean mathematical grid, if you’re into that sort of thing:
- Voice has one very simple aspect that most kids can identify–a range from positive to negative, which we can think of the X axis. A joke about a tree almost taking out her tent is a negative detail, but only mildly so, added more for a laugh than a condemnation. An author in a political article calling a political adversary a “pox on society” starts to scootch farther towards the negative end of infinity.
- Voice also then has what we might call an intensity factor. “Pox” is both negative AND pretty strong–it implies an awful lot of bodies piling up. So we might consider this a Y axis of voice–there are super strong means of taking a positive or negative stance and then there are milder ones. If you’ve ever written a lukewarm letter of recommendation for a student who wasn’t a bad kid but wasn’t so great either, then you’re used to manipulating this Y axis.
So far so good. But it feels like there is also some third dimension to considering voice (this would be the Z axis if you haven’t done any graphing lately–imagine it pushing out of the computer screen towards you and out the back side of the monitor too). It’s just hard to pin down exactly what that Z axis represents. Some theories, ranked by how well they help us to unravel the mystery of this wild wild wilderness article:
- Maybe the Z axis is a way of considering how visible the voice’s intentions are to the reader. This would explain why that final line about making her own deer leg flute is so confounding. If readers find the whole article to be a faithful recording of a group of people losing their sanity, then the line scans as Hattie initially saw it–a laugh-aloud funny closer poking fun at the nuttiness on display throughout. But if readers are more tuned in to the moments where the author at least acknowledges that yeah, society kinda sucks too, then this line reads as more sincere, albeit representing a pretty extreme jump from “I’m a NYT caliber journalist” to “I make musical instruments from animal bones now.” (Hattie wants to point out here that she is “tuned in” enough to Mike’s tone that she feels attacked.)
- Maybe the Z axis is a measure of the consistency of voice throughout a piece. This need not be a judgment (tone shifts all the time and for good reason), but might be helpful when we consider text complexity for our students. Whatever conclusions you draw about Bowles’ attitude towards Lynx and the Wildcats (which is what I’m calling her band of survivalists from here on out) in this piece, it’s objectively obvious that there are voice shifts throughout, even from playful to reflective and back (in addition to ranging along the X axis of more or less judgmental of the movement). Helping students to recognize where and how voice begins to shift beneath their feet while they read a piece could be really helpful, especially for students who struggle with recognizing figurative language or examining concepts like author’s purpose when there isn’t a clean, crisp thesis statement smacking them in the face.
- Or, maybe the Z axis is actually something that does demand a touch more criticism from the readers. Maybe the Z axis is about clarity. As much as I enjoy reading this article, it’s entirely possible that at at least a few critical junctures, Bowles simply lost her way in terms of expressing to readers how she feels about all of this. It’s not so hard to imagine a writer really wanting to express a kindredness of spirit with a group of grubby mountain people (High Plains Grubbers–oohh, that might be an even better nickname!) who do seem to be enjoying a tech-free life while still wanting to get in one last ribbing (legging?) joke about just how far they’ve taken their lifestyle. Likewise it’s not hard to imagine her observing that the tree was uncomfortably close to her tent without really meaning it as a broader criticism, even though for reader’s it’s hard not to meld such an event with their existing skepticism of the entire movement.
There could be other possibilities too. If I remember math correctly–and I absolutely do not–then I don’t think we can have more than those three axes because they represent all of three dimensional space. There’s always the fourth dimension–time–but for crying out loud this is an English blog not a study of wormholes. Maybe voice has far more nuance than we consider when we try to help kids see it in mentor texts. The notion of even three elements at play suggests the need for a more expansive approach to exploring it than we sometimes make time for.
Consider the casual questions we sometimes ask of kids in class discussions or on assessments. “What is the author’s tone in this piece?” Any singular or even hyphenated answer to that question regarding this article would be insufficient at best. That being said, consider also the possibilities that come with helping kids to see how wide open voice can really be in their own writing. Not sure how you feel about something? Maybe that’s what you need to convey to readers. My students do a pretty good job of injecting personality into their writing once I’ve modeled it for them, but the idea of actually capturing their evolving thoughts and feelings about a topic inside of a piece of writing would certainly be a novel experience for them.
This is where I (Hattie!) come in. Mike and I often approach our teaching friendship like the meme of those two little kids interrupting their dad’s conference call.
Mike is the one marching in with the big idea…I’m following up with jazz hands saying, “oooh oooh let’s try this!” I immediately tried to figure out how I could start this conversation with my AP Lang kids. We are working on some blogs right now and I tested the waters by introducing the X and Y axis concepts. Not gonna lie-it was a little rough. So, that’s next month. I’m playing around with how to get my kids to start thinking about this 3D model for voice and I will (hopefully) share what happens. Stay tuned.
Whatever the case, we find ourselves fascinated by the Lost Axis of Z. Our exploration of it has only begun. The hum of my cell phone buzzing text notifications at me is already a background noise over my shoulder. This will be our bone animal music making…uh…thingy.
What’s yours? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter @hattiemaguire and @zigthinks or reach out to us on Facebook.
–Mike and Hattie