This month’s guest is Randy Albers, a writer and teacher supreme. For many years, Randy was the Chair of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College in Chicago where, along with workshops in fiction, he established a substantial number of classes and workshops in creative nonfiction, long before the genre became recognized as a form of literature.
Randy’s essay is about an issue we’ve all encountered; that is, what can and what can't students in our creative nonfiction classes write about. And how can teachers "create an environment where students can find freedom to choose their material and find their most authentic voice."
*PERMISSION and DISCLOSURE; HANDLING REVELATION in WRITING
by Randy Albers
Some years ago, when I was the Chair of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College in Chicago, we taught the core fiction and nonfiction classes using the Story Workshop approach originated by former chair, John Schultz.It was an approach meant to create a safe space for experimentation.
This process-rather than product-based approach focused on the development of image and voice. And so it used activities and exercises to establish the widest possible permission for voice and subject matter. It is not enough to tell students to feel free to write about anything, to take risks, to use their liveliest, freest voice, to break whatever rules they might feel compelled to break. In fact, with some students, telling them these things will only make their struggles worse. Instead, teachers have to create an environment in which students can find freedom to choose their material and find their most authentic voice. And teachers also must recognize that the movement past the self-censoring impulse toward authentic freedom does not happen overnight, that students may move through many stages—just as we ourselves may have done. Sometimes, it calls for a Zen-like patience.
A student in one of my creative nonfiction Prose Forms workshops, Marianne, was having trouble early in the semester finding her material. She was one of those students who had learned to play things very safe, a good, dutiful student who did everything that was asked, and who seemed more focused on getting things right than discovering anything new. The first part of this course focused on what we term Personally Observed instances, scenes that may be from a student’s own past memories, something observed directly, or something told to them. Marianne wrote about work, and in truth, work, especially worst jobs, are excellent fodder for essays. But the instances seemed to be going nowhere, and she herself seemed only moderately connected to the material. Her voice was flat, the seeing was not sharp, and she didn’t seem to have an idea of where she wanted to go with that material.
Then, three or four weeks into the term, she read a journal entry about her father who had raised the children alone following the death of her mother. The writing showed more life, and I asked her if she was going to go on with that material. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I just needed a journal entry to read for class.” “Well,” I said, “you might think about going back to it.”
We moved on to Researched Instances in which students were to pick a subject to explore through extensive reading. Marianne termed hers the “death instances,” focusing on what happens to families when a parent dies. When, after a week or so, she wanted to move off of this topic, I asked why, and she told me that she didn’t want to have any of these instances read in class because she was afraid that students might not understand, might think that she was just feeling sorry for herself. I told her that the writing had been getting better, and if she were fearful of revealing too much, she might try some in a fictional third-person, or try writing a series of letters to various family members. I also told her that if she wasn’t ready to delve into this material, that was fine. “But do come back to it,” I encouraged gently.
When she handed in her next instances, I saw that she had indeed decided to stick with this subject and try out my suggestions. She made some headway in what she called a fictional scene, but the real breakthroughs happened in letters. One went to her sister, where she described their mother’s funeral. A second went to her mother, in which she got to her sadness about her death. But the third was the one that revealed more life than at any point so far. Addressed to her father, it started with a flash of anger at him for not being there for her after her mother died and went on to recount scenes where she had needed him but he was nowhere in sight.
A few weeks later, in her first draft of the main essay assignment, she pushed the questioning of her father further, along with some of the results of his absence—feelings of abandonment, occasional acting-out, and so on. After the in-class reading of the draft, the other students asked some questions about her family, as well as about the writing, and I asked a few, too, about her relationship with her father. I didn’t force her to answer on the spot, just wanted her to think about them in a way that might point to her rewrite.
When she turned in the next draft near the end of the semester, I was stunned. The semester’s writing that had started with work instances, then moved to her parenting instances, then to death instances, was now focused almost entirely on father-daughter relationships, and ended with a vivid, straightforward telling of her father often coming into her room at night after her mother’s death, crawling under the covers next to her, and forcing himself on her. She would, she said, feel herself float out of her body, glide upward, and hover close to the ceiling, watching her father’s gropings as if it were happening to someone else. (A not uncommon occurrence, as therapists will tell you.)
Marianne’s movement through the semester, a step forward, a step back, two steps forward, and so on, until she took that daring leap at the end, taught me perhaps better than any other example how important it is for students to test their own limits and move toward overcoming self-censoring impulses at their own speed in order to find permission for meaningful, authentic content and telling.
At any point in the process, if I had discouraged that movement, or had given a message, consciously or unconsciously, that such material shouldn’t be told, or if I had allowed the rest of the students to indicate, in any way, that revealing death or father-abuse stories to the world was not permissible, that they were not fit subjects for essays, might offend, might hurt someone else who had been in a similar situation, or simply might have been told too many times already, Marianne would have quickly retreated down the rabbit hole where she had so often hidden. Instead, she left the class with a newfound confidence in her ability to render difficult material in a way that avoided the maudlin, the clichéd, or the sensationalistic. I have been prouder of very few students.
When I recounted this story during a question-and-answer session at AWP, a very fine poet announced that she never permitted rape stories in her classes because there might be someone who had been raped and they would be rendered uncomfortable, perhaps silenced. While I understand that fear, the focus on the work rather than the person in class helped Marianne get an important story told that would have been banned in this poet’s class.
Marianne existed at one end of the permission spectrum, fighting her own fear of revelation. At the other extreme, we see many students who, suddenly aware that they have received a permission never given to them previously, settle for writing such material in a self-consciously (even proudly) confessional tone—or who simply play for the material’s shock effect on the audience, focusing on graphic details in order to get a reaction without really interrogating the experience or without identifying the elements of good writing that would add depth, lift the language, exhibit the teller’s reflective capabilities. They decide to push the limits as far as possible. You get lots of sex, blood, gore, guts, and veins in the teeth. They mistake attention from the titillated audience as a sign of real value. And as much as the Mariannes, who tiptoe toward touchy material as if walking through a minefield, these students who think to win over their audience with a shock and awe assault have their own issues to deal with in getting to quality writing. And their process may be even more challenging for the teacher to deal with.
Another student, Jim, was writing instances from his childhood, most of which were focused on things like blowing up mailboxes with M-80s. He had been getting away with audience titillation in previous classes, but one day, after reading his work in class and hearing it evoke the usual round of laughter from the audience, I dropped an M-80 of my own. Sensing that there was perhaps something more to this story, instead of joining in the laughter, I asked him simply, “So why do you think you were blowing things up?” He thought for a long moment, brushed his long, shaggy hair out of his eyes, and said, “I was hyperactive.” “Lots of kids appear hyperactive,” I said. “No,” he said. “I mean, I was diagnosed hyperactive. My mother didn’t know what to do with me.” He paused, his customary grin gone, his voice low and full, “She gave me Ritalin every morning. For years.” He seemed on the verge of an important discovery. The rest of the class was watching the interchange silently. Finally, I asked, “And did it do any good? Do you think you needed it?” “No,” he said quietly. “It made life worse.” For the next few weeks, he wrote more memories of struggling in school and at home, and did research on hyperactivity and Ritalin therapy. His essay, which he entitled “I’m No Angel,” moved from the humorous mailbox explosions and other pranks to serious, even powerful moments of reflection on the confusion and stigma he had to deal with during his younger years.
Just as with Marianne, Jim’s process reflected a number of stages. Hers had been a movement toward overcoming self-censorship. His had been a movement in the other direction, from shock, bombast, toward something more meaningful, displaying honest self-examination and thought, something that was not simply an outpouring but rather carried a wider application for his audience. When I had asked him who his audience was, he said that it was anyone with an interest in the subject but especially those who might have gone through similar experiences and were left wanting in some way, feeling that something was wrong with them, that they were always on the outside and seeking acceptance.
The teacher who privileges only one kind of writing, whether it’s the very careful or the very shocking, the dialect-bound or the high style, the humorous or the vein-opening, is sending a message that narrows permission for all and that plays into the hands of those students who would level the class—that is, bring the group to the lowest common denominator, which is to say, their own. There’s a good deal of pressure on the teacher here, above all to resist this leveling. The instructor conveys by everything she or he does and everything she or he does not do that permission is more than something simply to give lip service to. It takes attentiveness in every minute of the class to the nonverbal as well as verbal messages.
Graeme Harper has argued, rightly I think, that our attention must be on the process more than the product in the classroom. Writers have to write their way to truth, and it often takes a long time. “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Forster wrote, a line that Bellow borrowed. We need to help students learn to say it all or they won’t be able to get to what they really think or know. Whether it’s truthful or not doesn’t much matter to me along the way. In fact, as I mentioned, in my Story Workshop class, I have them doing fictional instances along with personally observed or experienced instances, both in order to explore the cross-pollination of fictional techniques in nonfiction that makes nonfiction worth reading and to give them an out if anyone asks them if it’s true. I’d rather have them writing the material than shying away from it because it’s too close to the bone, and this gives them space to experiment.
Let me close with a story that I have always found illustrative and which I sometimes tell my students.
Some years ago, I invited the great Chicago writer, Harry Mark Petrakis, to come to Columbia. He read a short story about a young boy and his Greek Orthodox priest that took place in Chicago’s Greektown. Following that, he read an essay about growing up in the same neighborhood. After the reading, a student asked a question, “Mr. Petrakis, you read what you said was a short story and then what you called an essay. But I didn’t hear any difference between the two. Can you tell us what makes one fiction and one nonfiction?” Harry smiled and allowed as how, for him, the border between fiction and nonfiction was very blurry. “Let me explain,” he went on. “One day, many years ago, I was walking down State Street and went past a Woolworth’s. In front on the sidewalk, they had put a scale—one of those where you’d put in a penny and you’d get a fortune along with your weight. As I passed, I saw a guy standing on it—huge, well over 300 pounds. He was bending to read his weight, and what got me was that he was holding an ice cream cone. It struck me as humorous. I passed on by, but the image stuck with me.
“Later that night, I’m at home with my family, having dinner, and I start telling them about the guy I saw on the scales. But at the crucial moment, as I recounted how I approached, instead of saying that I just passed by and went on my way to the train, I told them, ‘And then, just as I got there, the large man straightened, spotted me, and turned to extend the cone in my direction. “Here,” he said. “Would you mind holding this?”’
“Now, was that true? Did it really happen? No. But it made a better story.”
I have students who say to me, “I am not sure whether my work is fiction or nonfiction. I am using a lot of material from my own experience, but I can’t remember every conversation, and sometimes, when I am focusing on getting it all right, it sounds like bad journalism.” I often tell them, “Just write it. Try some as fiction and some as what you would call nonfiction. And if anyone asks you whether it’s true, you are free to lie. I’ll help you decide later, when you get ready to publish it, whether the contract is going to read ‘fiction’ or ‘nonfiction,’ and how you might have to revise. The main thing right now is just to tell the story— as well as you can.”
And isn’t that what we are all about as writers—finding the best, most promising material for story and telling it as well as we can?
Randall Albers, Professor and Chair Emeritus at Columbia College Chicago, headed the graduate and undergraduate writing programs of the Fiction Writing Department for 18 years. He founded the Story Week Festival of Writers, received the college’s Teaching Excellence Award, initiated exchange programs with Bath Spa University, and co-founded the International Creative Research Partnership with Bath Spa and the University of Technology, Sydney. Selected fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Chicago Review, TriQuarterly, Writing in Education, Brevity, F Magazine, Briefly Knocked Unconscious by a Low-Flying Duck, and Creative Writing and Education. A Story Workshop® Master Teacher, he has presented at AWP, NAWE, and numerous other conferences on the teaching of creative writing.
*Permission and Disclosure originated as a panel presentation at the 2012 NonfictionNOW conference in Melbourne, Australia.
Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction