The Power of Voice

Leighton has struggled in his writing this year. His curriculum is asking him to write essays and creative writing projects of five paragraphs in length. It’s often difficult to get him to go from an outline, to a rough draft, to a completed paper in a week’s time. He isn’t a very fast typist (which seems to be only a big deal in the past ten years since he’s lived – I learned to type when I was a freshman in high school). I’ve come close to just abandoning the curriculum and going back to more simple writing projects.

This week, he’s on a two-week assignment to write a children’s story. The nice thing is, if he’s able to complete the written portion of the assignment in time, I can show him how to make a children’s book using some software I used to create my own children’s book. Having a completed story in e-book form that he can read on his Kindle would be really cool, but it’s getting past the writing and the idea-creating that is most challenging for him.

I watched him struggle over a blank page, and suddenly a thought hit me. One of the odd talents Leighton has is telling these weird stream-of-consciounsess stories to his brothers in the backseat of the van to pass the time on longer car-rides across town. His brothers say, “Tell us a story!” and then Leighton just starts talking and doesn’t stop talking for about forty minutes. Usually there’s a lot of random explosions and body-humor, and most of it doesn’t make what you might call a “coherent narrative,” but he and his brothers seem to love it.

I thought, “What if Leighton recorded himself telling one of these stories, and then played back the recording while dictating his story on paper?… What if Leighton is a verbal storyteller?” Some writers need to talk out their stories, and they record them and then later write them down, editing them for the written page. I am definitely not one of those writers, but maybe Leighton would do better with that medium.

I had him grab an old iPhone I had turned into an iPod, and showed him the voice recording app. He excitedly jumped up and ran for headphones, and a few minutes later, he was in a room by himself recording his story with his chosen characters and setting for the assignment. About thirty minutes later, I asked him to stop for lunch, and then fifteen minutes later I had to get him and drag him away from his work on the writing project. By the end of lunch, he had a solid five paragraphs of rough-draft writing on his paper, dictated and edited from his verbal recording.

I thought: This is brilliant! I wish I had thought of giving my students this option when I taught middle and high school. I wonder how many young blocked writers out there would benefit from just recording a stream-of-consciousness voice-session as a pre-writing tool.

But the most important benefit of this is that, if Leighton is a verbal storyteller, then recording, writing, and editing his stories, in that order, will help sharpen his verbal storytelling. If we put this into practice in his life, his backseat stories will become more coherent and have more of the traditional story-arch. In short, I think he’ll become an even better verbal storyteller after having written his stories down for editing.

I’m really excited about this. It’s a skill that I wish I had, and many great novelists have it. They often write with a very natural voice. I don’t know if he’ll ever be a great writer (though I hope he does), but I’m glad at least we found a way for him to complete his writing assignments with a little more excitement.

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