Connecting Voice to Touch: What I Learned About Writing from Max DePree

“Find your own voice,” say the writing experts.

Easy to say. Hard to do.

In another post on voice, I described how helpful it was for me to try to visualize my voice as a farm. Today I am pondering the role of another of the senses–touch. How does one sense inform, enlarge, or restrict, another one?

Here’s a thesis to consider: a writer whose voice touches us usually has been touched profoundly by others. Have they been touched gently, intimately, wisely? Or has the touch been rough, unknowing, uncaring? What places inside us do they reach, and how do they touch us?

I first learned about voice and touch from Max DePree. Max likes to joke that he is a “born leader” because his father owned the company he later led. He eventually became CEO of the progressive, high-quality furniture company Herman Miller Inc., makers of the ubiquitous Aeron Chairs and famous for hiring the team of Charles and Ray Eames, who designed the quintessential modern chair included in the MoMA collection, the Eames Chair. When Max agreed to be my mentor, back in 1998, two years after I became president of Goshen College, I was deeply moved. I love to hear his voice, and his presence in my life has influenced me in ways neither of us can fully comprehend.

Max has written a lot of books about leadership, most famously, Leadership is an Art (1989, 2004) and Leadership Jazz (1992,2008)

After one of our long conversations, in Holland, Michigan.

After one of our long conversations, in Holland, Michigan.









But the story that touched me most from Max comes from his experience as a grandfather rather than as a CEO. It comes from a now out-of-print book called Dear Zoe, one of the most beautiful childbirth and childhood stories ever written. Max wrote this book as a series of letters to his granddaughter Zoe, who was born prematurely (24 weeks inside the womb) and weighed 1 pound 7 ounces and was eleven inches tall. Max could slip his wedding ring up Zoe’s arm all the way to the top. When he dies, he wants to give Zoe his ring on a gold chain.

Here is the passage from that book that catches me in the throat every time I read it. It describes Grandpa Max’s encounter with a nurse after Zoe had, to the amazement of all, survived her first few days. Listen, please, to Max in his own voice:

“While we were looking at you, a wonderful nurse named Ruth came over to chat. After a few minutes she turned to me and said, ‘For the next several months, at least, you’re the surrogate father. I want you to come to the hospital every day to visit Zoe, and when you come I would like you to rub her body and her legs and arms with the tip of your finger. While you’re caressing her, you should tell her over and over how much you love her, because she has to be able to connect your voice to your touch.’

I’m sure Ruth’s suggestion is going to be very important in our relationship together. I also have the feeling that she has given me something enormously profound to ponder.”

As I write these words, a little boy is getting ready to be born in New York City. I don’t know his name yet, but I do know that I want to touch him and that I will love his voice. He will make me a grandmother for the first time, and I hope that he will always connect my voice to my touch. His doctor says he could come any day now, and we wait prayerfully for him and his mother as they prepare for the amazing journey toward birth.

Have you learned anything about the connection of voice and touch from your children or grandchildren, if you have them?

What touches you in another person’s voice? You can describe either physical or metaphorical reality. As you read or write, are you aware of times when your voice and your touch connect? What happens?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on March 19, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Shirley, What your post(s) touch in me is excitement that your voice and leadership gifts were and are being heard within a Mennonite community and that maybe the ‘golden fuse’ within me can also be released. DNS

    • shirleyhs on March 19, 2011 at 5:04 pm


      So wonderful to know you feel inspired! Yes, voice and touch are available to all, and yours is one-of-a-kind! Blessings as you continue to speak, write, grow!

      Sent from my iPhone

  2. Jerry Waxler on March 20, 2011 at 2:19 am

    Oh, this is inspiring and contains much about writing that is uplifting and rich. Your images of your mentor connect me with the leadership and inspiration you have experienced. The thesis that those who inspire have been inspired is at the heart of what drives us to write. And your illustration of a voice that connects person to person is so powerful. Thank you!

    As for my own ideas about voice, I have been on a quest to find a voice, and until now would have something like “a voice is what happens after you write for a long time.” Having read your piece, I can see that the voice I really want is one that connects me person to person with my audience. I love this image. Your musing has touched my imagination, just as I hope to touch the imaginations of my readers.


    • shirleyhs on March 20, 2011 at 11:55 am

      Jerry, your response makes my heart sing! Thank you so much for being open and owning your deepest thoughts. If you reflect on five times you were deeply touched and then right about those, you will hear the Jerry voice– and so will your readers!

      Sent from my iPhone

  3. Richard Gilbert on March 20, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    Shirley, This is so interesting. I have thought a bit about voice in the past five years as I have written my memoir. The concept of flow enters into this. In flow, the sentences have a natural, varied rhythm and length. This derives from the writer having an emotional connection to what’s written, I think. It produces sentences of varying lengths and constructions. But especially some short sentences. When we are just writing out of our heads instead of our hearts, sentences get longer and mushier. Now, what if one isn’t in the right mood and just needs to get some words down? I have found that revising prose for flow can reconnect me to the emotional subtext. Prose that is alive, that has voice, is coming out of heart and head.

    • shirleyhs on March 23, 2011 at 1:16 am

      I like short sentences, too! And I also enjoy riding the waves of an idea, beginning with a small eddy along the edge of the ocean, and watching it expand and contract with the tide–unless, of course, a little child breaks my reverie by deciding an eddy is the perfect place for a castle–and proceeds to build Kubla Khan right there in the sand.

      Thanks for this fascinating analysis of head and heart. I quite agree that a voice that unites both jumps right off the page, and we can’t get enough of it. The correlation to length, however, is a new thought for me. I’m still playing with that idea. The sign of a really helpful comment!

  4. DazyDayWriter on March 22, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    What an exciting time in your life, Shirley! A new life … a new voice … a new connection of such importance. And thanks for the info on Max DePree — it’s always fun to learn about a new author. Re your question, what touches me in another person’s voice, I’d say … empathy and compassion. Often those lovely traits have been learned via life experience, and it always shows in their written word. Enjoy the upcoming weeks — they will be very special indeed! –Daisy

    • shirleyhs on March 23, 2011 at 1:20 am

      Yes, Daisy, one can just tell when a voice has been tested by fire and has become more warm and kind as a result.

      And thank you so much for your good wishes for our family in the days ahead. I am looking at the orchid my son gave me four years ago. It is about to bloom again. I take delight in the synchronicity of new life.

  5. Catherine Beaton on April 28, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    I love this piece and the comment interactions. I liked it so much that I just posted the link to it on the De Pree facebook page. Thank you for writing it!

  6. Gloria on August 28, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    Hi Shirley ~ We met several years ago when you were with Fetzer. I was searching the Internet for this exact story from Max’s preface to Leadership Jazz (I believe). I must have loaned my copy to someone. Anyway, thank you for sharing this post. It’s great to see your warm words & shining presence.

    I trust that all is well with you.

    Warm blessings!

    ~ Gloria

    • shirleyhs on August 28, 2012 at 2:13 pm

      So glad to be of service to you, Gloria. I’m sure you told the story with all your verve and wisdom. Returning thanks for you. Shirley

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