My Literacy Narrative

(FYI: If you’re unfamiliar with what a literacy narrative is, check out the following description from W.W. Norton).

Of all the Disney cartoon villains, the one who always scared me the most was Ursula, the sea witch from The Little Mermaid. Her voluminous form, her spiraling tentacles, and her maniacal smile once haunted many a childhood nightmare, but perhaps what scared me the most about Ursula was her proclivity for stealing the one thing that is truly unique to each person: the voice. The bargain that Ursula makes with Ariel struck me as grossly cruel; to take one’s voice is to take that which should be most precious to each individual. Losing my sense of self seemed – and, to this day, seems – terrifying.

This perhaps seems like a circuitous way to discuss my relationship with literacy and literacy practices, but I believe what drew me to reading was the way in which books manage to capture voices (without maliciously stealing identities). I was (and am) fascinated by the ways that text portrays identities; both the subject of our writing and the ways in which we write are intimate reflections of the way we think and feel about the world around us. Reading and writing may be solitary experiences, but when we read a book, we are inextricably connected to another individual in a way that is simply impossible otherwise.

As a child, I was drawn to novels with folkloric voices. I think this is fairly common for children. Folk stories and fantasies tend to be inviting forays into “new worlds.” My family encouraged me to read (both my parents are big readers/intellectual types) and I remember that Roald Dahl books were among my favorite. I have a distinct memory of being on a vacation with my family and, late at night, camping out inside our hotel room’s bathroom, unable to put down Roald Dahl’s Matilda while the rest of my family slept. At one point in the middle of the night, my mother noticed the bathroom light still on. I can still see her standing at the threshold of the bathroom, squinting through the industrial lights to find me seated in the tub, Matilda in my lap. While she seemed a little concerned about how late I stayed up that night, she never discouraged me from reading.

I can’t remember at exactly what age I was drawn to writing myself, but I know that by the fourth or fifth grade, I was inclined to tell people that I wanted to grow up to be a writer. For as long as I can remember, I loved English and History classes, drawn primarily to the stories that were told and the books we had to read.

In high school, I grew more confident in my writing, both creative and analytical. I was the copy editor for my high school’s yearbook, editor-in-chief of the literary magazine, and attended a summer creative writing workshop program for high school students at the University of Iowa, called the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. I also regularly updated a personal blog (a Xanga account!) for my friends. The ways in which I wrote in my “Xanga” account and for short stories differed dramatically. I approached my Xanga like a dialogue with my high school friends; I was very aware that it was a public space (and, reading those entries again, I notice a lot of entries that reflect my desperate desire for attention and positive reinforcement from my peers). On the other hand, my creative writing was much more intimate. My fiction often lacked a lot of plot or movement; I enjoyed capturing experiences, describing a moment simply to describe the moment without much vision of the “story” at hand. This was, perhaps, a weakness in my writing, one that I grew increasingly aware of as I began college with the aspiration to become a fiction writer. Still, I imagined that I would become a writer, a journalist, or an editor when I “grew up.”

By college, I lost a lot of confidence and faith in my fiction writing. Indeed, I applied to be a part of fiction writing workshops several times throughout my college career and was never once accepted. I went to a professor, my advisor for the college literary journal, and he suggested that I enroll in his poetry workshop. I had never seen myself as a poet (and had never written much poetry electively), but his workshop proved a turning point in the ways in which I saw writing. I grew to love poetry; the act of constructing a poem was an exciting and challenging mental exercise to me. Writing poetry required an attention to the rhythm and movement of language itself in a way that fiction did not. Given my proclivity to write “plot-less” fiction, writing poetry ended up feeling pretty natural.

Yet as I progressed through college, I no longer could see myself pursuing a career as a creative writer. I found that thinking ABOUT writing and what it meant to be a writer interested me perhaps more than creating my own art. I believe that this was due in part to my job as a writing tutor at the writing center. I loved working with other students on their writing. I was inspired by the collaborative writing I saw occur every day in the writing lab and saw how a student’s writing could be transformed simply by communicating with another person. Initially, I felt concerned that dialoguing with another writer about his/her ideas would cause him/her to lose his/her voice, but I soon saw that fear was unfounded. Voice was, again, the thing that no one could ever take away from writers.

Now that I am at the start of my graduate school career, I find myself still interested in voices and the ways in which voices emerge in writing. This is perhaps why I am also interested in digital literacy and technology studies. The ubiquity of the Internet has given individuals from around the world the opportunity to share their voices in a myriad of ways that never existed prior to the 21st century. Not only can I read other people’s voices in blogs and Twitters posts, but I can hear them and see them in audio and video clips. Access to intimate thoughts and ideas is instant. I find this incredibly compelling; I hope that my continued study will help me to better understand the ways in which the Internet is changing the ways that we write and represent ourselves.

7 thoughts on “My Literacy Narrative

  1. I had completely forgotten about Xanga! I, too, spent many hours cataloging my adventures for friends and family. Did you have any other public writing experiences until Facebook and this blog? Because digital writing is often (always?) public, has your interest in digital literacy changed your conception of “voice”?


  2. Mary, thanks for your thoughts! Yeah, it’s amazing how quickly Xanga has disappeared from our cultural consciousness!

    I kept another blog (on Blogger, actually!) for a short period of time during my third year of college. Alas, I gradually lost interest in the venture (perhaps this has something to do with the lack of “immediate” feedback) and it is now but an “orphan.”

    You ask a really fantastic question about whether my conception of “voice” has changed. Indeed, to a certain extent it has: when we write online, I think we’re compelled to alter our voices to fit a certain set of social mores. We read other blogs, other people’s Facebook statuses and aware that certain people write in certain styles. I think about “hipsters,” for example, writing in a way on Facebook that is very different than, say, Facebook users of my mother’s generation. Therefore, there’s a kind of self-consciousness in the online voice that (I feel like) is not part of a printed voice.

    At the same time, who’s to say that published authors are not equally as self-conscious about their writing ventures? Who’s to say what an “authentic voice” is in either digital or print forms? Food for thought!

  3. The concept of voice has always felt a bit too abstract for the writing teacher in me, but your use if The Little Mermaid makes it seem a bit more concrete.

    I never would have anticipated putting those words together in a sentence.

    But there they are, and they get me thinking about how the concept of voice is thrown around in writing instruction circles: “It’s our job to help each student find her voice!” Every time a composition teachers says that, I want to ask what method of instruction they would use to achieve such a goal.

    I am not denying the importance of voice or doubting it as an important concept. I can recognize the voice of friends, family, and favorite authors, but I do have trouble describing the concept. The way a person “sounds” on the page is unsatisfying.

    Do people find their voice or develop it? Is there a lesson or an exercise that is specifically geared toward facilitating that process? Can a person have more than one voice?

    1. I wonder if by “voice” we often conflate two separate concepts. I see capital V “Voice” in much the way Hogan is describing: as a real but personal, airy, thing–hard to capture or quantify. I think of this it recalls expressivist aims of “finding your voice.”

      But I do deal with “voice” often in my own classrooms. When I do, it is more closely identified with tone–as in “does your voice in this argument seem appropriate for your intended audince.”

  4. Hogan, I’ve certainly asked myself similar questions about what it means to capture one’s voice. How do we know that we’re representing our voices “authentically” and how do we encourage other writers to do so? I can remember several writing workshops where my peers danced around issues of authenticity in writing without being able to articulate what it MEANS to write authentically.

    I’m inclined to say that people both find AND develop their voices merely with practice. Perhaps that’s a bit of a reductive answer, but I think that writing that is “voice-less” is that which is tortured by processes of editing and re-editing. Works that lack voice are those composed by writers uncomfortable with putting their own thoughts to paper. Those who ARE comfortable writers end up naturally allowing their “voices” to shine through. I hope that makes this more concrete. I still feel like I’m dancing in a bit of an abstract space.

    I, too, wonder about activities that encourage students to find their voices. Hogan, I know you’ve had a lot of experiences teaching writing; I’d love to hear your thoughts on how (or if) you’ve broached this in your own experience.

  5. Ha, yes. Bathroom refuge reading. I finished The Lovely Bones late one night while camped out on the floor of a hotel bathroom a few years ago. My family and I were on a Disneyland vacation, and they were crashed on the beds and couch. I won’t go into the sobbing afterwards, but I will say it was a weird and haunted Disneyland visit that time. I just couldn’t get my head out of Alice Sebold’s world.

  6. This is a fascinating discussion about voice. I’m particularly intrigued by the concept of “authentic voice.” Is there such a thing as “authentic voice”? If so, what is an “authentic voice?”

    First, an interlude: this discussion reminds me of a college professor who read my first paper and commented that it “sparkled.” I got an “A” and she mentioned my sparkling paper to the class on a number of occasions. That same professor was not as pleased with the papers that followed, as they somehow lacked the “sparkle” that she had seen in my first paper. I never did figure out what she meant by “sparkle”–perhaps my “voice” was not as authentic in subsequent papers?

    In thinking about the different writing situations to which I often respond, I can’t say that my voice is ever really present. The choices I make concerning words, their forms, and their arrangements in sentences all come down to using the style that I feel is appropriate (or expected) in a given situation. When writing a professional email, I write in professional style (clear, concise sentences; well-organized, coherent message); when I write an academic article, I write in an academic style (I’m still trying to figure out what this means); and when I write posts to Facebook, I write in a casual but professional style (clear, correct writing but more conversational).

    One can edit for style. Can one edit for voice? If so, does that not make the “voice” inauthentic? Perhaps voice is something that appears in some genres but not others? When I think of voice, I think of storytelling genres–feature articles, editorials, love letters, poems, and so on. I do not think of professional genres (reports, proposals, memos) or academic articles. Essays, however, strike me as a genre that allows room for voice. If genre is a factor, what online genres allow room for voice? Does it all come back to audience, purpose, and context–the writing situation? Or back to Jenae’s point about online writers “altering voices to fit a certain set of social mores”?

    These are way too many questions to answer at once, but I hope at least some are good ones for a class discussion.

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