Write Like a Jellyfish

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I smooth out a new page, unzip my red pencil case, and attempt - along with these college students - the art of writing with flair. The rain outside transforms to ice. We hear its tiny fingers pelt the window begging for entrance into this warm space.

With my own pencil poised, I ask the question again: "How do we get our own voices - the authentic ones deep within our hearts shared by no other living soul - onto the page?" Lately, I've made the writing lessons all about voice. Early in my writing teacher career, I learned that high school and college writing instruction attempts to remove voice from writing. Make it academic. Make it sophisticated. My students always, always ask me (in a timid, near whisper) if it's OK for them to use the word, "I."

It's like they're trespassing, violating some rule. If they put the voice back into their writing, somebody will cross out the sentence and send them back to their desk to imitate some other scholar's prose. The subtext: Don't sound like you. Sound like us.

But there's something that only they can say, in only their way, in their own voice.

How do I write like a jellyfish?

We start with a warm-up exercise to simply narrate their morning routine. One student reads his sentences, and we feel like we've cracked something open in him. The voice comes out; we encounter a living person in this writing, and for a moment, nobody can speak. He's written about shining his shoes in such a way that finally, a classmate says, "Dude, that is so you how you wrote that."

But how do the rest of us become writers with real written voices? I can be practical about this. They love it when I'm practical, and they scramble for fresh paper. I tell them the Big Secret of Voice.

It's the word undulate. Imagine jellyfish. Imagine the sea.

I have them count the words in their new sentences, and they discover that every sentence has a word count between 20-25 words. It's this strange phenomenon of college writing. Their sentences all have the same length, and not one of them shimmers with voice. Nothing moves. Nothing undulates. I have them break the phrases apart, like we're tilling soil, and then punctuate every one differently. We experiment with semicolons, parentheses, dashes, and colons. We dare to italicize.

I need the sentences to undulate. I flutter my hands in and out like a jellyfish. I describe the jellyfish moving within the waves of the sea, advancing and retreating. When a person speaks, he doesn't compose perfect 25-word sentences. His sentences constrict and expand; they vary. Why can't writing sound like I'm talking?

As class comes to an end, I realize sentence undulation is the tool to deliver the voice - to get it out - like a baby from the womb. I share the story of how Carl Sandburg's wife sent a postcard to the poet at the point of his despair over his own writing. She wrote, " I know the poems are in you, Carl. We just have to get them out of you."

I know the voice is in there. And it is my work, my sacred vocation, to extract this precious and mysterious entity. A writing teacher ushers in incarnations - spirit made flesh.

My students nod. They pack up, find umbrellas and scarves, and ripple out the door into the cold sea of students.

  • What advice would you give to writers about getting more "voice" in their prose?
  • What makes it so hard to write in an authentic voice?

"Jellyfish" by nicoatridge. Used with permission. Post written by Heather Holleman.

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