Writing Outside the Lines:

Finding Your Authentic Voice


As a college teacher, I spend a lot of time teaching students how to write within the boundaries of conventional modes of discourse: comparison/contrast, classification, argument, and so on. This has its uses: Students can write in a way that meets the expectations of college professors, prospective employers, and other educated people. And yet, it's not always clear to what extent the student masters the discourse and to what extent the discourse masters the student. What limits do the conventions of rhetoric place on students' thought and expression?

Hence this workshop. I wanted to think of ways to encourage writers to recognize those artificial limits and break past them. You'll spend some time learning to recognize and decode cultural scripts--the ways in which social conventions nudge our thoughts into certain pre-defined tracks--and then practice ways to write "outside the lines," those lines of dialogue and thought that are constantly fed to us, always available but never quite ours. The goal of this workshop is to help participants listen to and speak with a voice that has its origin inside each of us, rather than in the external culture into which we happened to be born.

George Orwell, in "Politics and the English Language," argues that you should never use any phrase that you are accustomed to seeing in print. In the media-saturated cultures of the late 20th century, it's almost impossible to avoid the prefab phrase. Many of us read the paper in the morning, listen to the radio in the car, watch television in the evening, surf the Internet at night. We have our magazine subscriptions and our lists of must-read books. We are immersed in the sound bite, the catchy phrase, the buzzword of the moment. And this affects how we think and write.

Original thought needs original expression. Pavlov rings his bell, and the dogs salivate. Are the dogs actually hungry? It doesn't matter; the response to the stimulus is immediate and automatic. And that's how cultural scripts work on us. We hear a catch phrase and we respond--not in any meaningful way, but on the surface. As writers, what we should be after is not the surface-level, soon forgotten response. We want not to make our readers salivate, but to call forth and explore their deep and true hunger in response to our own. We want the authentic, not the automatic.

To do that, we must learn to recognize cultural scripts and let our thoughts stray outside conventional modes of discourse and figures of speech. We've got to look beyond the edge of the world and see what's there. To accomplish this, I'm going to ask you to try an experiment for the next eight weeks. This experiment involves three things:

Cultural scripts do have their place. The ritual of "How are you?"/ "Fine, thanks, and you?" is simple greeting and acknowledgment, not an opportunity for meaningful self-expression. (Just try describing your late-night leg cramps or credit problems in response to a friendly "how are you" and you'll see how fast people stop asking!) As writers, however, we want to keep those scripts in their place, not let them govern our writing and constrain our thoughts.

So, to begin: I'd like you to start with an introduction to the e-mail list. I'd like you to spend some time this week "collecting" culturally scripted lines--the kinds of familiar phrases that Orwell counsels we avoid. Look for them in the newspaper, on TV and radio, on billboards and ads and magazines, and so on. You'll be using them in Exercise One.

When you've finished an exercise, post it to our workshop's bulletin board to share with other participants.

Here is an overview of what you'll be doing in the coming weeks:

Exercise One: Recognizing and Re-Energizing Cultural Scripts

Exercise Two: Beyond Stimulus/Response

Exercise Three: What Is Authenticity?

Exercise Four: Taking Your Thoughts Out of Words

Exercise Five: De-scripting Description

Exercise Six: Writing from the Senses

Exercise Seven: Using Metaphor

Exercise Eight: Authentic Words, Authentic Ideas

Here's how to get the most out of this workshop:

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