Tag Archives: inspiration for writing

Teaching Voice with Poetry

By Chrissine Rios, MA, Purdue University Global Writing Center

While we work with our students toward effective sentences, they (we!) create outcomes, and one of the most important yet least considered of these is voice.  In having spoken with my colleagues and writer-friends, one suggested that the quality of voice is both elusive and immediate, but not abstract—even if not easily taught.  He suggested poetry as a way to bring attention to voice and better writing.  By including poetry in our conversations with students between drafts or in a seminar or workshop, we can highlight voice as an element of style as important as every other academic convention.  Students could learn that within academic writing too, like poetry, there is freedom.   They only need to cultivate it with their unique writer’s voice.

When teaching and tutoring writing for business, nursing, IT, and the sciences, we stress uniqueness all the time, but more so, “originality,” and our emphasis is anti-plagiarism not the cultivation of an authentic voice.  While stylistic choices of vocabulary and syntax will align writing with a category or genre—formal or informal, academic or literary—voice is what makes a piece of writing uniquely a writer’s own:

Before any thought of writing takes hold, we speak first, day to day, toward morning and our lives.  We talk and move and make ourselves within the piques and lulls as our sound gathers, resonates, and becomes meaningful.  We don’t ask ourselves that it could be either crisp and bitter or welcoming—we rely on the sound we make, our voice. (M. Callaghan, personal communication, April 14)

Voice is intrinsic in our speech and should be considered just as powerful in our writing.  Yet most mentions of voice in tutoring writing will be warnings against the passive voice, which we describe as wordy and unspecific.  For the sake of clarity, brevity, and other rhetorical reasons rooted in audience awareness, we encourage academic writers to use the active voice.  Avoid the “to be + past participle” construction, we say.  Leaving it at that, we strip the idea of voice down to a part of speech or grammatical unit.  We want so much for our students to succeed that we instruct on what not to do instead of what to do or how. 

With all the other don’ts combined—don’t write in the first or second person; don’t write fragments; don’t say “a lot”; don’t be superfluous—writing academically can feel as oppressive as low carb dieting, yet we restrict language choices for good reason, yes?  Readability is paramount:  Writing needs to be clear, accurate, and concise, so a reader can read it.

Yet you know as I do that readers seek mountains more from reading than readability.  Good writing does not equate easy reading.  Along with economical language, we should be encouraging students to make language choices that reflect their authentic voices.  We wouldn’t have to abandon the tenet of readability to do so.  According to writing teacher and author, Donald Murray (2003), “Voice is the magical heard quality in writing” that makes readers keep reading and then read the same author again (p. 195).  Readability is about voice. Instead of verbal dieting, or in addition to it, perhaps, let’s help students to hear language and savor it like every word matters in the same way that it matters in poetry.

Reading poetry is a tangible yet intimate and joyful way to connect with language and fall in love with it or at least hear how language reflects voice.  April, 2016 is the 20th Anniversary of National Poetry Month, so now is the perfect time to read and (re)connect with poetryresources are plentiful. I encourage you to explore and enjoy and invite your students to do the same. I will as well in the Writing Center.  Let’s help our students learn to love writing and reading by connecting them with great examples and inspirational voices in poetry.


Poetry Foundation

Academy of American Poets (Poetry.org)

How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry by Edward Hirsch (1999)


Why People Need Poetry a Ted Talk by Poetry Critic Stephen Burt

Reading by Norman Dubie of “Fever” and other selected poems


Poetry” by Marianne Moore

A Blessing” by James Wright

“The Avenues” by David St. John (Podcast)

“Winter Stars” by Larry Levis


Callaghan, M. (2005). Epigram. The grace of the eye. Traverse City: Michigan  

Writers Cooperative Press

Murray, D. M. (2013). The craft of revision, fifth anniversary

edition. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com


In a Hurry? This Book Review Is for You

The In-Between by Jeff Goins (164 pages)

Reviewed by Chrissine Rios MA, Writing Tutor

Who should read this book? Anyone who has ever been in a hurry, said, “I can’t wait!” or feels ready for a change but is unable to do it just yet.

The_In-Between_GoinsSummary: Goins illustrates his hurried attitude in a candid memoir featuring his life’s bigger moments from studying abroad to having a baby. His narrative takes readers to the streets of Madrid, across America in his band’s van, and through Illinois cornfields on a train home for the holidays. Meanwhile, his reflections reveal another journey in progress. While his inner dialogue leading up to his marriage proposal, and later, his son’s birth expresses the tender and uneasy emotions that would resonate with any reader who has lived through similar life changes, his personal growth also becomes more apparent as his indwelling narrows in on the hand-holding and the ultra-sound blips—the more ordinary and fleeting moments in the present instead of the event up ahead. Then, when Goins sits at his ailing grandfather’s bedside, essentially waiting for his grandfather to die, he hears his grandfather pray the only prayer Goins had ever heard his grandfather say, and this is a pinnacle moment for Goins who awakens to the in-between, realizing these moments, not the big events, shape who we are.

Why I picked this book: I had already been inspired by Goins’ blog and motivational tips for writers, so I knew it would not disappoint. Now, I’m not a pray-er; I’m a good-thoughts thinker, but Goins even made his prayer epiphany one I could relate to. Read the book and judge for yourself, but I’m pretty certain that if I weren’t a member of the “In-Between Insiders”—a generous giveaway Goins offered with all pre-ordered books—and I hadn’t already known that Goins’ had a Christian following among his wayward writer fans like me who have latched onto his message that our writing matters and tribe awaits, I would not have given a second thought to the few other times God comes up in his is memoir because they are subtle and fleeting moments too. In fact, I found his anecdote about his father raising him not to be a “Jesus freak” rather refreshing, and telling. Goins is a powerful writer who has masterfully integrated his faith and art to express a clear message about how we can embrace who we are and what we are doing today, a message that has certainly benefited me. Living like the journey is more important than the destination is not a new idea, but I need all the help and inspiration I can get. Do you? Read the book. Maybe it will help you start writing again, too.

Favorite quote from the book: “All we have are these moments. What we choose to do with them is what we choose to do with our lives.”

My First Date

couple hugging


by David Werner, MFA, Kaplan University Faculty

I was in love.  Or so I thought.  I wanted to ask Patti (not her real name) to a ninth-grade dance but could never muster the courage to pop the question.  Growing up in a very small, working class, blue collar manufacturing town had not prepared me for the “worldly” conversation I thought ninth grade young women expected.

I had to find a way to bring the outside world to me; so I confided in Susan (again, not her real name) who worked in the school library.  She recommended I read Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.  The plan seemed simple.  My friend Jim would call Patti on my behalf and I would whisper his side of the conversation to him which he would repeat to Patti.  I remember, “A kiss is a secret which takes the lips for the ear,” which seemed quite impressive at the time.  Followed by, “All our souls are written in our eyes,” which appeared to close the deal.  It worked.  Patti went to the dance with Jim.

My librarian friend Susan felt my pain and thought I should broaden my horizons with Don Quixote, Hamlet, Robinson Crusoe, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Maltese Falcon, Swiss Family Robinson, and many others so I would have, at least, something to talk about if I ever got a date.

By my Junior year, I had begun dating Susan; which, or course, she had initiated.  One day I found an out of print book in the school’s library entitled The Human Nature of Playwriting (1949) by Samson Raphaelson.  I knew Raphaelson’s credits as a play and screenwriter of such films and plays as The Jazz Singer (1925), the first talkie; Accent on Youth, Skylark, Hilda Crane; and such classics as Trouble in Paradise, The Shop around the Corner, Heaven Can Wait, and many others.

“My God,” I thought.  “This man wrote for some of the best directors of the time, including Lubitsch, Viertel, Cukor, Hitchcock, Preminger, Minnelli . . .”

He also wrote a very controversial play in 1928 called Young Love, which I later adapted into a screenplay.

I devoured his book and everything became clear.  I wanted to be a writer!

When it came time to apply to college, I collected a lot of catalogues and just started to browse the programs and faculty.  When I came to the catalogue for Columbia University, a financially unrealistic choice for an application, I ran across his name – Samson Raphaelson.  He was teaching there.

So I applied and very much to my surprise I was accepted with a scholarship.  Still a teenager, I had high expectations for myself and thought I knew everything I needed to know before moving to New York (of course, teenagers do think they know everything).

My very first class on my very first day was truly a rude awakening.  I was surrounded by top faculty and peers from all over the world who came much better prepared than I in terms of literature, art history, science, music, architecture, and just life in general.

I resolved to spend every day in the library just trying to catch up so I would not be completely intimidated.  The first step in learning is to realize just how much you do not know.

When it came time to enroll for the second term, I wanted to take Raphaelson’s writing class.  No one could just enroll in his course – every prospective student had to audition for him.  For some unknown reason at the time, I was one of a dozen selected.  In my case, however, he had an additional requirement.  He would only admit me if I agreed to take acting classes with the famed acting teacher Sandy Meisner.  I told Raph, “But I don’t want to be an actor.  I get stage fright in just a classroom of people.”

“But,” he said, “There is little difference between acting and writing.  Both actors and writers must be able to expose themselves to the world and stand naked in front of their audience.”  He was right, of course.  I struggled through and learned the lesson.

By this point in his life, Samson was in his late 80’s or early 90’s, he never knew his exact age because his birth records had been lost, and he was quite ill.  We did not have class at the University campus but at his apartment overlooking Central Park West.

You have to imagine twelve twenty-something college students meeting at this elegant apartment with him and his extremely elegant wife; and the two of them were the youngest people in the room.  You could also tell they were very, very much in love with each other.

While Dorothy served us tea, he would question us relentlessly about our observations on life, death, love, sex, marriage, and why we write . . . everything you can think of.  Of course we all wondered what this had to do with writing but it soon became very clear.  I later realized the second step in learning was that human observations cannot be made up or fictionalized.

For some reason, Samson, or Raph as he like to be called by his friends, saw something in me and took me under his wing in a Mentor-and-Apprentice relationship.  I would take him for walks in Central Park and we would sit for hours just observing people.  “Look at the way that woman his holding her cigarette,” he said.  “See how she flicks her ash?” he asked excitedly.  Even at 90-something years old, he was discovering something new every day.  The third step in learning is you never stop learning.

Raph was not one to tell you the answer to anything.  It was a process of self-discovery.  He allowed me to discover for myself the key to good writing is to observe human nature around us.  This part of writing, as I mentioned before, cannot be made up.  Your audience will always know it’s fake and contrived unless it comes from somewhere emotionally authentic.

It wasn’t until several years after his death I continued to think about his question, “Why do we write.”  I did not have a satisfactory answer but eventually discovered it when I began teaching writing and directing.

We write, and read, because it’s our job.  It is our duty to be informed and articulate citizens for the common good.

Thirty-five years later I returned to that school library and looked to see if The Human Nature of Playwriting was still there.  It was.  I looked at the library card and I was still the only one to have ever taken the book out.

David Werner teaches and tutors at Kaplan Univesity