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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

#44 Part 4, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers (Part 4) by Karen Babine

Introductory Note: I've gotten a good deal of positive feedback to the first three parts of Karen Babine's "Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers." This is the fourth of a five installments. If you missed the first three, they appear right below this one. I'll post the fifth installment on December 16, one week from today.

Below. is my original introduction to the piece:

This month’s guest is Karen Babine, the founder and editor of the very fine, online magazine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies assayjournal.com

Karen’s contribution, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers, is, as its title suggests, a personal, yet very detailed and meticulously researched piece on/about using the essay to teach “place” to first-year-writers. Although it’s aimed at first-year students and freshman composition teachers, this essay, I believe, will be of great value to just about anyone--both experienced and beginners--who teach and write literary nonfiction.

For those who follow this blog, Karen’s essay is a departure of sorts. For almost four years, I’ve been posting personal/teaching essays on/about matters of genre and craft. I've written some and selected guest writer/teachers have written others. Karen’s piece, an expansive essay--a thoughtful, thought-provoking, personal/critical essay. Not only is it an informed, in-depth, study on/about the teaching of place, but it also re-visits an important conversation about teaching writing, about the relationship between creative writing (in this case, literary nonfiction) and composition, and about the writing process itself--a passionate, transformative, approach to writing that began in the 1970’s. The movement included a host of concerned practitioners, rhetoricians and theorists, and beginning teachers of composition. It thrived for almost three decades before being replaced ,in the late 80’s, by a traditional, heavily prescriptive, outdated, methodology, an approach that’s being taught today in most public schools and in many colleges and universities as well.

This essay is a reflective, complex (and a very important, I believe), piece. And so, I’ve chosen to post one segment each Wednesday for five consecutive weeks.

The fourth segment appears below.

Note: In this and in each subsequent post, I'll include the full list of citations.


FINDING THE MIDDLE VOICE: ARTICULATING DISTANCE

The struggle to articulate why their experiences or thoughts should matter to an outside audience, to people who do not know them and do not know the place they are writing about, mostly comes down to the element of exposition. This is what we felt was missing from Elizabeth Dodd’s piece, ability of the writer to navigate the distance between the self who experienced the event and the self who is writing about the event. This is the important link between valuing an experience as a writer and valuing it as a reader. Mark Tredinnick writes that “the essay depends on a world and on an author: it stretches between them, author and solid earth, speaking of, made of, both of them” (“Essential Prose” 36). He coins the term “middle voice” to speak of the space between the author and the earth—or, more broadly in this context, the student-author and his or her subject. In some languages, the grammatical middle voice refers to the third voice that bridges active and passive voice. Both are apt metaphors to discuss the analysis that exposition provides and universal quality of high exposition.

Teaching students about distance proves to be as difficult—and as simple—as teaching them that their experiences are valuable. Just as Natalie Kusz’s succinct description of nonfiction values “what you know now as a result of what happened,” teaching students that who they were when the experience happened is not the same person who is sitting down at the computer writing of the experience is a process that has proven to be easy in the conversation, but tough in the execution. My students nod in comprehension when I explain this, but the execution on the page takes practice that often spans the sixteen weeks of the semester. One student who wrote about the 2004 Hallam, NE tornado, an F-4 tornado that destroyed a wide swath near her grandparents’ house, a tornado that struck the same day her mother told her she had breast cancer, which resulted in a lovely essay about the language of cancer and tornadoes. My student, who was eleven at the time, knows a lot more now at eighteen than she did at the time, which, when that particular light bulb went on, shifted the draft from merely a journal entry about how she felt at the time into a true Essay that made these two unique events relevant to those who were not familiar with the tornado or had no experience with cancer. It is, as Mark Tredinnick writes in “The Essential Prose of Things,” “That writing self is a mosaic of many selves touched by many parts of the other she engages with; and the words she writes are made not so much by her—or even by all those many bits of her—as by the relationship between herself and the other. This is the kind of self the essayist must be” (37). The point here is that it is in this place that content and craft intersect.

In the Foreword to the 2011 volume of Best American Travel Writing, the eleventh volume in the annual series, series editor Jason Wilson fits the essay—and the necessity of the middle voice—within the framework of his own classroom: “I always encourage them to think about their youthful adventures with as much distance as possible, and to fit their personal stories into the context of the place. ‘Why are you telling me this story?’ I ask them. ‘What makes this your trip and no one else’s?’” (x). At best, place and travel writing are two sides of the same coin and in my classroom, I often do not make the distinction, offering students the greatest chance to find what it is they need to write about without labeling their work one way or another. Wilson continues:

“Perhaps the real measure of success is whether or not these students sharpen their critical eye, learning to look for the sorts of fascinating or idiosyncratic or unexpected or profound moments and experiences that make travel (and life) more meaningful. Meaningful travel…is, of course, open to all of us. Writing about travel in a way that resonates with readers? Well, that’s something else altogether (xi).”

My intention in using the essay, knowing that I will be starting from zero-knowledge in this form, is to teach students to find the exceptional in the ordinary. I want to teach them that it does not matter if they can relate to a topic: the more relevant questions are Is this piece of writing successful? If so, what makes it work? If not, what makes it unsuccessful? What can you learn from this piece of writing that you can use in your own writing? As might be expected, this process takes some time. My students are writers—even if they do not claim themselves as such, I claim them as such.

It is this articulation of the space between the literal elements of the essay as well as the elements of craft that is important and I like the term middle voice for it. Later, Tredinnick writes that “The middle-voiced writer is not separable from what she encounters—is not merely an agent of action, or even of observation. Nor is what she observes reducible to a lifeless object. Each affects and is affected by the other. And the voice we hear belongs to them both; the self of the piece of writing is a self composed of its many figures of participation with the place” (36). Given this, the middle voice acknowledges that part of the page needs to be active, part of the page needs to make sense of that action, some of the page needs to observe and contemplate. None of the elements could survive without the other. The page is as much a place as the ground my students stand on.


ARTICULATION V

During WP2, while we are discussing place and language, we read Kim Barnes’s essay “The Ashes of August,” which teaches us the language of Idaho and the language of wildfires. Even on the first page, as we get a spectacular grounding in light and color and taste (which is bookended in the last paragraph by a wonderful evocation of smell), the reader is told that “the riverbanks are bedded in basalt.” My students and I agree that it means something different to know that your bedrock is basalt. On Tim Robinson’s Aran Islands in Ireland, it means something to know that the bedrock limestone, just as when he writes of Connemara, it means something different to know the bedrock is granite. As Mark Tredinnick writes of the Blue Plateau in Australia, the knowledge of sandstone beneath your feet also tells you what you need to know about what it means to stand here, today, in this particular angle of sunshine.

It means something to know that Barnes’s canyon was formed by volcanoes, as she’s making the point with that one word that her home is a volatile place, formed by fire from its earliest days. As the essay itself is about wildfires that come every August, it means something to know that fire still forms the people who live here, and it begins to answer the question what does it mean to live here, today? What are the layers of meaning? What is our context? What is underneath our feet that affects how we live? And how do we articulate what we cannot see?

And the answer is this: this is how we are connected. A volcano twelve million years ago connects those of us who stand on the Great Plains to those who stand in Idaho and it does not matter if we stand on flat or mountain, water or clay. Because the mud that cakes our shoes at Ashfall in Nebraska can be traced directly back to a specific volcano in Idaho, to a specific moment in time, linked by science, linked by the glass shards of volcanic bubbles when they shattered.  Read More 

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#44 Part 3, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers (Part 3) by Karen Babine

#44 Part 3, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers (Part 3) by Karen Babine

Introductory Note: I've gotten a good deal of positive frrdback to the first two parts of Karen Babine's "Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers." This is the third of a possible four or five installments. If you missed the first two, they appear right below this one. I'll post the fourth installment on December 9, one week from today.

Below. is my original introduction to the piece:

This month’s guest is Karen Babine, the founder and editor of the very fine, online magazine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies assayjournal.com

Karen’s contribution, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers, is, as its title suggests, a personal, yet very detailed and meticulously researched piece on/about using the essay to teach “place” to first-year-writers. Although it’s aimed at first-year students and freshman composition teachers, this essay, I believe, will be of great value to just about anyone--both experienced and beginners--who teach and write literary nonfiction.

For those who follow this blog, Karen’s essay is a departure of sorts. For almost four years, I’ve been posting personal/teaching essays on/about matters of genre and craft. I've written some and selected guest writer/teachers have written others. Karen’s piece, an expansive essay--a thoughtful, thought-provoking, personal/critical essay. Not only is it an informed, in-depth, study on/about the teaching of place, but it also re-visits an important conversation about teaching writing, about the relationship between creative writing (in this case, literary nonfiction) and composition, and about the writing process itself--a passionate, transformative, approach to writing that began in the 1970’s. The movement included a host of concerned practitioners, rhetoricians and theorists, and beginning teachers of composition. It thrived for almost three decades before being replaced ,in the late 80’s, by a traditional, heavily prescriptive, outdated, methodology, an approach that’s being taught today in most public schools and in many colleges and universities as well.

This essay is a reflective, complex (and a very important, I believe), piece. And so, I’ve chosen to post one segment each Wednesday for four consecutive weeks.

The third segment appears below.

Note: In this and in each subsequent post, I'll include the full list of citations.


ARTICULATION IV

For the third Writing Project, my students and I spend a class period at the University of Nebraska State Museum, more familiarly known as Morrill Hall or the Elephant Museum. In the chamber off the main hall, an exhibit of Ashfall: twelve million years ago, a volcano in Idaho erupted in what is called the Bruneau-Jarbidge Event. It dumped enough ash on the Great Plains to create a mudpit out of a watering hole, resulting in a death trap that preserved two hundred different skeletons of animals. Most of my students—even the ones who have generational roots in Nebraska—do not know this place exists, let alone that it is three hours north of Lincoln.

One of my students follows me into the exhibit.

“This is my favorite exhibit in the whole place,” I say to fill the silence.

My student, who only voices his most important thoughts, nods. He then asks if the volcano in question was the Yellowstone eruption—and I am thrilled that he even knew of the Yellowstone caldera eruption—and I almost hate to tell him that it wasn’t, but I have to admit I do not know which specific volcano created Ashfall.

I leave him to wander the museum on his own and I lose myself in the bones of five species of prehistoric horses, three species of prehistoric camels, one species of rhinoceros—the teleoceras major. (There are several species of prehistoric rhinoceros native to the Great Plains.) One rhinoceros skeleton was found nose-to-nose with its calf. Smaller mammals that were the ancestors of the antelope and deer of the Plains, birds and turtles and tortoises and other reptiles that largely remain the same today as they were then.

What makes the bones of Ashfall unique is that the matrix holds them in the same position as their moment of death. Most fossils collapse into one dimension once the flesh has decomposed, once the skeletons have been stripped by the scavengers who take advantage of the opportunity. There is nothing left to hold the bones together and they collapse. If they collapse into a way that keeps the order of bones intact, we say that the skeleton is articulated, as if the order of the bones allows us to speak of them. What is missing when we cannot articulate the bones?

During the next class period, I tell them that the Western Black Rhino has just been declared extinct in Africa. This is place, I tell them. And I wonder how we articulate a place like that, one that no longer knows the Western Black Rhino.

Praxis: Using the Essay to Read Place-Consciousness

When I ask my first-year students to name Great Plains writers (not just Nebraskan writers), I rarely get anything beyond Willa Cather. But the reality is that the Great Plains—just like the Minnesota I grew up in—is wild with writers, one of whom, Ted Kooser, Pulitzer Prize winning poet and former Poet Laureate, teaches in our English department at UNL. How can we expect them to know—and value the writing of place—if we do not teach them? How can we expect them to value the writing of place that they are doing—if we do no teach them that their voices are as valuable as what is already in print? In her article “Sense of Place,” Sharon Bishop writes of proposing, in 1986, to replace the traditional anthology of literature with Nebraska authors in her sophomore English class (66). She complicates the reading of Nebraska literature by asking the students to actively participate in writing the stories of their place (with an oral history project), and the result is the sort of active learning that is so central to place-conscious education. But the idea is larger than a simple syllabus change: the result is that she is teaching her students that literature that matters is still being created in this place, that the students are also participating in the creation of that literature.

Since our first Writing Project in 150 is designed to explore an aspect of a place that the student is connected to—does not have to be home—we are looking at Gruchow for examples of how one writer does that, as well as forms that we can use for inspiration. Phillip Lopate writes that “Eventually, one begins to share Montaigne’s confidence that ‘all subjects are linked to one another,’ which makes any topic, however small or far from the center, equally fertile” (77). We consider W. Scott Olsen’s “The Love of Maps,” which explores all possible answers to the question that starts his essay: “Why are you here?” We talk about answering that question through history, theology, philosophy, weather, and more. We discuss that Judith Kitchen’s short-short “Culloden” is about more than being at Culloden on her birthday. Readings like these emphasize that there is no one right way to know something, that any moment we consider profound in our own lives can be articulated to our readers, so they can share in the experience.

On the day we discuss “What Is Lost and What Can Never Be Lost,” we have read two Paul Gruchow essays out of Grass Roots (“Visions” and “Bones”) and Elizabeth Dodd’s essay “Underground,” from the anthology A Year In Place. It’s easy to write about loss—but it’s not easy to make people care about your loss. Since we are starting the day with “Visions,” about Gruchow’s childhood experience with the ghost of a cowboy in his bedroom and an adult encounter he and a friend have with a grizzly bear who tears apart their camp, we question beliefs and superstitions, growing up, and what do we lose when we put away “childish” beliefs? The cleverly titled “Bones” is about Gruchow’s lifelong obsession with bones. The content itself of these readings is the place-conscious element of the class, as we consider how other people relate to their places, how they form attachments to places and how they forcibly reject attachments.

But neither Gruchow essay is about its subject: “Visions” is not about the cowboy ghost, nor is it about the bear incident. “Bones” is not about bones. “Visions,” as we tease out of our discussion, is about how we make sense of loss: Gruchow is reacting to the loss of childhood curiosity and awe, what he feels like he has been required to give up to become an adult. The scene with the bear is his antidote to that loss—a re-mythologizing that counteracts the myth of the cowboys and Indians by finding awe and curiosity in nature. Does he create a new mythology here, with bears as mythical creatures—charismatic megafauna, a term from ecocriticism I introduce to them—stories we hear but never see ourselves? This is how he makes us, as readers, care about what he is doing, by making the stories he is telling evidence of some larger purpose. In “Bones,” what happens when all that is left is bones? Are the stories gone? How can they be part of something larger, when nobody knows the stories they represent? I want them to see that the Essay form is a perfect outlet for these kind of ideas that we are learning. We read as writers to discern how Gruchow achieves the effect that his content offers and this is the composition classroom element: how does writing work? Read More 

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#44 Part 2, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers (Part 2) by Karen Babine

Introductory Note: I've gotten a good deal of response to the first part of Karen Babine's contribution, "Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers." This is the second of four installments. If you missed the first one, it appears right below this one. I'll post the third installment on December 2, one week from today; and the final one on December 9.

Below is my original introduction to the piece:

This month’s guest is Karen Babine, the founder and editor of the very fine, online magazine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies assayjournal.com

Karen’s contribution, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers, is, as its title suggests, a personal, yet very detailed and meticulously researched piece on/about using the essay to teach “place” to first-year-writers. Although it’s aimed at first-year students and freshman composition teachers, this essay, I believe, will be of great value to just about anyone--both experienced and beginners--who teach and write literary nonfiction.

For those who follow this blog, Karen’s essay is a departure of sorts. For almost four years, I’ve been posting personal/teaching essays on/about matters of genre and craft. I've written some and selected guest writer/teachers have written others. Karen’s piece, an expansive essay--a thoughtful, thought-provoking, personal/critical essay. Not only is it an informed, in-depth, study on/about the teaching of place, but it also re-visits an important conversation about teaching writing, about the relationship between creative writing (in this case, literary nonfiction) and composition, and about the writing process itself--a passionate, transformative, approach to writing that began in the 1970’s. The movement included a host of concerned practitioners, rhetoricians and theorists, and beginning teachers of composition. It thrived for almost three decades before being replaced ,in the late 80’s, by a traditional, heavily prescriptive, outdated, methodology, an approach that’s being taught today in most public schools and in many colleges and universities as well.

This essay is reflective, complex (and very important, I believe), piece. And so, I’ve chosen to post one segment each Wednesday for four consecutive weeks.

The second segment appears below.

Note: In this and in each subsequent post, I'll include the full list of citations.

MJS

ARTICULATION: ON USING THE ESSAY TO TEACH PLACE-CONSCIOUSNESS TO FIRST-YEAR WRITERS (PART 2) by Karen Babine

ARTICULATION III

When I was a sophomore at Concordia College, in Moorhead, Minnesota, I took a literature class in Minnesota Writers, taught by Dr. Joan Kopperud. Despite having grown up in Minnesota, despite being an English major, despite being the student that pestered my high school English teachers, I had no knowledge of the writing of my state. I had no idea that the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature was a Minnesotan. But the larger moment was first reading Paul Gruchow’s Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild in that class, an essayist who was teaching in our English department at the time, and first questioning you can write about Minnesota? and you can write true things about northern Minnesota? and being told a resounding Yes! Seeing that Gruchow not only could write about northern Minnesota—where I was from—but also publish it and win the Minnesota Book Award for it did more for my own writing than any other moment of my writing development. When I started teaching, that moment, attached to sitting in a classroom on the third floor of Grose Hall, and timidly knocking on Paul Gruchow’s office door to have him sign my book, still remains a strong sensory memory.

Translating that moment to my students means finding readings that easily move on the continuum of reading and writing, from Literature to models, from the moment of reading something brand new on a page to writing something brand new, to give students the permission they need—that I needed as a writer—to write about their local places. The readings for the first two weeks of my English 150 semester combine Paul Gruchow’s 1995 Minnesota Book Award-winning collection Grass Roots: The Universe of Home with contemporary examples of the essay. Instead of Montaigne himself, I assign Patrick Madden’s essay “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things” to introduce the idea that the world is full of writing topics and often the best topics are small in size, that there is more to an essay than my students’ own narrow definitions.

Madden writes, “I learned that essays were not stories, did not focus on great adventures or recoveries, were not extraordinary in their subject matter at all. Essayists are keen observers of the overlooked, the ignored, the seemingly unimportant. They can make the mundane resplendent with their meditative insights” (4). When I was a college sophomore, taking a nonfiction class and learning about essays, the important moment was being given permission to write about my grandmother’s famous Swedish rice pudding was an incredible moment, complicating that particular memory with fears over losing my family’s history.

And Alexander Smith, in his 1865 “On the Writing of Essays,” gives that most-important permission about what one can write about:

“The essay-writer has no lack of subject-matter. He has the day that is passing over his head; and, if unsatisfied with that, he has the world’s six thousand years to depasture his gay or serious humour upon. I idle away my time here, and I am finding new subjects every hour. Everything I see or hear is an essay in bud. The world is everywhere whispering essays, and one need only be the world’s amanuensis.”

All I have to do, as an essayist, and in the larger sense, as a college student, is pay attention. We can write about anything.

TOWARDS A PEDAGOGY OF THE ESSAY

Teaching students how to articulate what matters comes in the written form itself, not simply in the pedagogical framework. On the first day of class, I ask my students to define an essay. The five-paragraph-essay, they tell me. Topic sentences. Research. Citations. What we’ll do in here is a different type of essay, I tell them. While English 150 is a composition class, not a creative writing class (though I consider composition to be equally as creative as nonfiction, fiction, or poetry), the essay provides a bridge between various parts of the writing brain necessary to provide an exciting inquiry into a topic, inquiry that is the foundation of Rhetoric as Inquiry. The essay engages both the right and left brains; the essay does not neglect the writer’s craft, and it remembers that language is important, that language is the greatest weapon students possess. When we read Mark Tredinnick’s The Blue Plateau, we discuss the sentence-level brilliance of Tredinnick believing that one must cleave to this landscape. What does to cleave mean? I ask. Even at this late point in the semester, my students are loathe to look up words they don’t know (something they are eager, yes, eager to do after we start The Blue Plateau and consider this particular moment). To cleave means both to bind and to sever, which is exactly the verb that Tredinnick wants here, because he means that to belong to this place, one must do both. The complication and layers that the language provides is something that cannot happen any other way.

Yet the Essay also requires the left-brained activity to establish the relevance to readers, to analyze and articulate why the writer’s ideas should matter to someone other than the writer. My students feel connected to their home, to places that have personal meaning, but the challenge in their own writing is how to make that relevant to other people, so that other people can understand what makes that place important.

This necessity provides an excellent bridge between the personal writing that students may or may not have experience with, the diary-type writings, and teaching them to think outside themselves, as is difficult for this entitled generation of Millenials. If we teachers assign canned essays, that will naturally be what our students turn in. But our students have plenty of perspective, plenty of lived experience in the world that makes what they have to say extremely valuable. The first true requirement of a first-year writing classroom—from both the teacher’s perspective as well as the student’s perspective—is to trust the writing. Push where necessary, but trust the writing. But Bishop points out “That we don’t see students as authors says more about us as teachers, I believe, than it says about students as thinkers” (268). If we as teachers expect more from students, if we give them the freedom to choose the form that their essay most naturally takes, we will not only see an improvement in writing ability, but engagement with the texts as well.

This, I have found, is one of the most difficult things about teaching essays: good essays do incorporate outside context and context comes from many different places (including different parts of the writer’s mind), but requiring research of students that fulfills the department’s Aims and Scopes often causes students to forget everything they already know about writing, simply because they have been taught to fear research, taught to fear citations. Robert Root writes of the “anonymous researcher persona expected of academic writers. Think then what a disengagement the demand for an anonymous, impersonal, universally interchangeable persona invites in our students. It’s tough enough learning to write like ourselves without pretending to be someone else, someone we don’t know, someone better educated and thirty years older” (253). By asking students to conduct research—something they consider a chore and completely divorced from creativity and curiosity—I’ve inadvertently put them back into feeling like their own ideas do not matter. They simply cannot understand—yet—that a research paper and an essay are not mutually exclusive. At this point, they still believe that research is solely confined to the type of writing they have been taught to hate.

If, as W. Scott Olsen advocates in his introductory nonfiction classes at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, an Essay is “the witnessed development of an idea,” that means that even a beginning student, one who has never written an essay like this before, can write an excellent essay, because the only thing to hold an essay back is the lack of movement of the writer’s mind on the page. Natalie Kusz, at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, says that “the fact that the thing happened is not the subject of the piece; what you know now as a result of what happened is the subject of the piece.” An essay cannot simply be a narrative, a story, an anecdote, because everyone has stories and nobody cares about yours—so you, as the writer, have to make them care. We use the terms narrative, exposition, and high exposition to identify these elements that create meaning for the reader. Finding the larger idea in the subject matter is the writer’s job.

My students often say that they hate writing. But they don’t, not really. They hate being told what to write and a formula for writing that allows for absolutely no connection to the materials or their own lives and ideas, forms that eliminate any type of creativity they bring to the process. This type of writing emphasizes that the student’s own creativity is subordinate to the research that teachers often require. In the last several years, I have heard more than once that my students were taught in high school that for every thought or idea they had, they needed to find a source to back it up. In this scenario, there are no original ideas—and they certainly do not originate from the students. As a result, the shift from high school to college writing often involves an un-teaching of certain values, particularly in research. This is why the Essay is so valuable in teaching introductory students, especially in courses that focus on place-consciousness.  Read More 

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#44 Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers by Karen Babine

This month’s guest is Karen Babine, the founder and editor of the very fine, online magazine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies assayjournal.com

Karen’s contribution, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers, is, as its title suggests, a personal, yet very detailed and meticulously researched piece on/about using the essay to teach “place” to first-year-writers. Although it’s aimed at first-year students and freshman composition teachers, this essay, I believe, will be of great value to just about anyone--both experienced and beginners--who teach and write literary nonfiction.

For those who follow this blog, Karen’s essay is a departure of sorts. For almost four years, I’ve been posting personal/teaching essays on/about matters of genre and craft. I've written some and selected guest writer/teachers have written others. Karen’s piece, an expansive essay--a thoughtful, thought-provoking, personal/critical essay. Not only is it an informed, in-depth, study on/about the teaching of place, but it also re-visits an important conversation about teaching writing, about the relationship between creative writing (in this case, literary nonfiction) and composition, and about the writing process itself--a passionate, transformative, approach to writing that began in the 1970’s. The movement included a host of concerned practitioners, rhetoricians and theorists, and beginning teachers of composition. It thrived for almost three decades before being replaced ,in the late 80’s, by a traditional, heavily prescriptive, outdated, methodology, an approach that’s being taught today in most public schools and in many colleges and universities as well.

This essay is reflective, complex (and very important, I believe), piece. And so, I’ve chosen to post one segment each Wednesday for four consecutive weeks.

The first segment appears below.

Note: In this and in each subsequent post, I'll include the full list of citations.

MJS

# 44
ARTICULATION: ON USING THE ESSAY TO TEACH PLACE-CONSCIOUSNESS TO FIRST-YEAR WRITERS ByKaren Babine

Part 1

ARTICULATION I

On 23 August 2011, the day that a 5.9 earthquake rattled the East Coast, toppled spires and cracked walls at the National Cathedral, I walk into my first class of the fall semester to a bright-eyed group of English 150 (Rhetoric as Inquiry) students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Quake-free, for now. It is 2011, after all, nearly two hundred years to the day after the New Madrid Earthquakes made the Mississippi run backwards, shaking a land not used to being shaken.

I say: our class will focus on place and location this semester.
“What is place?” they ask me.
I say: location is a spot on a map; place is context, everything you bring to that location.
I say: you’re living in a flyover state—what does that mean?
I say: you’re living on the outer rings of the most active seismic zone outside of California—how does that change your view of Nebraska, given the earthquake on the East Coast today?

Some weeks later, we read Tom Coakley’s essay “How to Speak of the Secret Desert Wars,” published first in Fourth Genre and listed as a Notable in the 2011 Best American Essays. Coakley had recently moved from Nebraska to Washington, DC, to work at the Pentagon, and as I was preparing to teach this essay I asked him about the earthquake and Hurricane Irene. It hadn’t bothered him much, he said, but while the West Coast was mocking the East Coast’s reaction to the earthquake, the last time the earth had moved like that at the Pentagon, a plane had crashed into the outer rings of the building.
This is place.

ARTICULATION II: DEFINITIONS AND MOTIVATIONS

It is true that discussions of how the essay can best be used in composition classes is not a new one, but among various critics, the consensus seems to be based in what I consider to be a erroneous definition and use of the term essay and the conversation seems to be the realm of compositionists, not creative writers, who have an equal stake in the discussion. This collapsing of various subgenres of nonfiction is exceptionally problematic for me as a creative writer in a composition classroom, considering that the essay is a form, not a genre, and represents more than the definition of “to try.”

THE FRAMEWORK OF PLACE-CONSCIOUSNESS IN THIS PLACE:

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the English Department’s Aims and Scopes lay the framework for the three composition classes it offers: 101 (Rhetoric as Reading), 150 (Rhetoric as Inquiry), and 151 (Rhetoric as Argument). Because the Aims and Scopes are broad enough to allow for any pedagogy an instructor chooses, the framework provided by place-conscious pedagogy is an excellent starting point for first-year writers. Additionally, the written requirements are also broad enough to allow exceptionally different interpretations of what can constitute those Writing Projects. The freedom allowed the graduate teaching assistants and lecturers most often assigned these classes results in a very rich body of departmental offerings.

Wendy Bishop, in “Suddenly Sexy: Creative Nonfiction Rear-Ends Composition,” works towards a theory and pedagogy that combines nonfiction and composition, because they share similar goals. Other writers have discussed similar meldings; as I have mentioned, this is not a new discussion. But her questioning looms larger than form: what is important here is that she places the responsibility of creativity, curiosity, and inquiry in the hands of teachers—where it should initially be—and wonders not simply at the forms of the written work, but also at the classrooms that best foster the type of learning teachers want. She wonders,

"How do we teach the pleasures of essay writing and the civic possibilities of prose literatures? How do we create courses that allow writers to define interesting topics of reflection, and how do we create classroom cultures within which the essay needs to be written? We treat the student essayist as we treat ourselves, as essayists and authors of creative nonfiction (271)."

For me, the answer is to combine a pedagogy that requires an active engagement with the students’ own grounded experience with a written form that requires active engagement with the students’ own lived experience. It is through this pedagogical framework, though, that the essay—as a form—functions best, because it provides the opportunity for personal motivation of the student, taking what they know, valuing it, and asking them to take it a step further, back to the place they come from. Robert Root sees this type of motivation as an essential element of nonfiction (and by extension, the writing classroom): “Nonfiction is not simply an option of style or format or attitude; it’s a perspective on the world, and its texts are composed by writers animated by the nonfiction motive” (6) and this distinction is important in a composition classroom, between form and style, purpose and result. He continues,

"Without the nonfiction motive, writers get no internal checks and balances on their own honesty, no incentive to investigate, explore, observe, compare witnesses, and analyze all the evidence, no commitment to comprehend or to extend that comprehension to readers. […] How we approach what we write makes a great difference in what results…a student’s motive in writing is to clear a hurdle or fulfill a requirement or complete an assignment or master a skill rather than to acquire and express knowledge or to share insight and information. The results are often detached, disengaged, insincere. If, among working writers, writing really matters, why wouldn’t “motive” be essential to apprentice writing or novice writing? (7)."

For me, place-conscious pedagogy is a natural choice to facilitate both, and so this particular English 150 course is designed around a theme of Home and Away, a lens through which we develop a way of looking at what surrounds us, physically, intellectually, and emotionally. We explore the ideas of quest, how movement and stasis can lead us to a greater understanding of where we are and who we are—and we use the Essay form to do so.  Read More 

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# 43 My Other Voice By Sonya Huber

This month’s guest is Sonya Huber.

When I asked Sonya to submit a blog entry, she sent me “ My Other Voice.” In my note back to her, I said something to the effect of
“What a magnificent personal essay. So, so, human. It’s transparent, reflective, interrogative, analytical, lyrical, speculative--everything that a good personal essay embodies. I could go on.”

In her piece Sonya allows us access to her thoughts (and feelings) on how and why writing helps her to cope, sometimes even to transcend, chronic pain. My guess is that the majority of people who’ll read “My Other Voice,” won’t be facing exactly the same obstacles (chronic pain) as the writer does. And yet, I think most of us will be able to identify with Sonya’s inner struggles, certainly as they relate to our own writing, but even more so as they bear on larger human problems, the kinds of which we all face. And when it comes to the personal essay, isn’t this what we’re all trying to teach to ourselves and to our students?

* PS: in her essay, Sonja’s mentions "Shadow Syllabus," a piece she posted on her own blog; a piece, by the way, that went “viral.” If you're a writing teacher, or, if you've ever taken a writing class, you'll see why.

I’ve included “Shadow Syllabus” below--at the end of “My Other Voice.”

MJS

# 43 My Other Voice By Sonya Huber

One of the things I have always loved about writing is the sheer absorption and physical confrontation with myself. I step into the cockpit, fueled by a beautiful morning bubble of caffeine. The glowing screen dares me and taunts me: Make something out of nothing. Make a sentence that sucks slightly less than what you see in front of you. Make it true, whatever true might me.

Writing has been a solace for most pain in my life, partly because of the focus it requires. The focus of writing leads me to a kind of trance, with the happy side effect of an almost-complete separation from this mortal coil. I forget my body and my surroundings. As I’ve lately confronted more physical chronic pain, the focus of writing often delivers an hour of two in which the aches in my bones are erased.

I’ve enjoyed this physical numbness, and there have been days when writing has been my only relief.

Then there are other days where I am simply not myself. Past that point I inhabit a strange altered consciousness brought on by the pain. Over the past few years I began to worry that the fogginess and ache of autoimmune disease would destroy my writing. This would be a triple loss: shutting out something I do for my job, something I do for joy, and something I do for escape.

As I have done for years, I sit down every weekday morning and aim for my hour-plus at the computer screen. Some days there’s nothing there, but I go to the page even when nothing feels promising, just for the relief of playing with words.

Some days in the last year, all I could make was a blog post. My writing voice on those days felt like it had far less energy, less scope. It seemed obvious: I was not a writer but a woman who in fact could barely string sentences together. Writing with the submerged pain-voice feels like using a pin-hole camera instead of a wide-angle lens.

Last year in such an altered pain state, I gave up on serious writing and wrote a blog post called the *Shadow Syllabus,” kind of a fugue-state reflection on what I think about as an essayist and human while I write syllabi for my classes. I put the piece up on my blog and walked away from the computer, feeling defeated. This was all I could muster for the day, but I was practicing being kind to myself by doing a little and then stopping.

To my shock, the post went viral, linked and shared by various educators around the world, cited and reblogged and so on. Then the next year when syllabi time rolled around again, it started up again.

This has been wonderful but strange, because the Pain Woman who wrote that post doesn’t feel like the woman I know who has been writing with my hands for twenty years, the woman who tries so hard to build essays with complex and multi-layered sentences. Pain Woman has a different voice. She has a kind of messianic confidence that I do not have in my normal writing or even in my normal living, and this is the most shocking thing. The “me” I know or have inhabited most of my life is so ready to apologize for my point of view. I come at my writing sidelong, Midwestern, nerd-female, post-bullying, still gun-shy of ever saying something directly.

Pain Woman gives no shits. Pain Woman has stuff to tell you and she has one minute to do so before she’s too tired. Pain Woman knows things. Read More 

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9/10/15, # 42 On the Lyric Impulse: Blizzards, Bricks, and the Glaciology of Purpura by Kathryn Winograd

9/10/15, # 42, On the Lyric Impulse: Blizzards, Bricks, and the Glaciology of Purpura by Kathryn Winograd

Note: This month’s guest writer is poet, essayist, and award winning writing teacher, Kathryn Winograd

A few years ago, Kathy and I had a mutually informative conversation about some of the what’s and how’s of the lyric essay. A few weeks ago, I saw her piece on the lyric essay on Ander Monson’s fine blog Essay Daily. It triggered some thoughts. So I asked Kathy for permission to reprint it.

Reading Kathy’s piece brought back some old history. In 1999, I founded Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. a journal of literary/creative nonfiction. At the time, the genre was just beginning to gain some legitimacy as a literary form. In those early years, the majority of essays and memoirs we saw were personal narratives. And back then, the handful of lyric pieces we read were crafted by writers who saw themselves primarily as poets. My impression then was that the best of those essays were passionate and moving works, marked by their writers’ facility with, and appreciation for, language and imagery. For the most part, their essays were more like hybrids than than the kinds of traditional (and non-traditional) narratives we were getting.

Today, the genre has evolved and expanded in ways I couldn’t have even dreamed of back then. So much so, that lyric work is now a highly-regarded sub genre on the larger spectrum of literary/creative nonfiction. Kathy’s piece then,---a lyric essay itself—is of particular value not only to writers but to veteran and inexperienced teachers both. In her piece, Kathy explores and ruminates about, among other things, the ways in which the lyric impulse becomes just the right vehicle for expressing the kinds of complex thoughts and feelings--sensations, that is, we’re unable to articulate in strictly narrative terms. In that way, "On the Lyric Impulse"shares a similar sensibility with the celebrated Emily Dickinson poem, “Tell All the Truth, But Tell It Slant.”

MJS

9/10/15 # 42 ON THE LYRIC IMPULSE: BLIZZARDS, BRICKS, AND THE
GLACIOLOGY Of PURPURA
Kathryn Winograd

Warned of, craved, the blizzard finally barrels across the ice dark street. The known world whittles down to black elm, chiseled hoar frost, and my breath against the slim windowpane steams periodic circles of clarity against a gathering snow, a white space.

“I am not a poet,” my student informs me, not by text message or email, but by phone, landline phone. My enthusiasm over the metaphoric possibilities of this student’s obsession with bricks in her narrative on building a new house with her second husband has aroused a knee-jerk reaction⎯and it’s not a good one.

Already this blizzard means something: the white exterior world beyond the cold glass I press my palm hard against. The interior world my breath inhabits, warm with its fireplace flame even as the insistent voice of the anchorwoman ticks off degrees and inches as if the world beyond the window that I cannot yet feel, and the world beyond the self I do not yet know, could be made measurable.

When I wrote Michael Steinberg about an AWP panel I was proposing on what I saw as a gap between the student who enters creative nonfiction from the prose side of the spectrum versus the poetry side, he wrote back, “Strictly speaking, I’m not a lyric essayist. But one of the things I’ve been talking and writing about for years is the connection between memoir and lyric poetry. The essay (and/or memoir) is the story of one’s thinking, the revelation of consciousness. Except for those essayists who reflexively use poetic elements and language in their work, these are missing from most of the MFA work I’m seeing⎯even the very good ones.” The lyric impulse versus the storytelling impulse. The “revelation of consciousness.”

“Back stories,” my student tells me: the neighbors’ bricks she obsesses over, the migrating birds that roost in paragraphs throughout the chronology of her house-building, and those faintest hammer taps of her new husband who “remodeled” the house my student must for now live in, the house he built for his first wife, repaired in places with baling twine.

A leftover house.
“Extra stuff,” my student says.
The real subject matter of her narrative on building a house?
Building a house.

The philologist Max Mueller said that “man, as he develops his conceptions of immaterial things, must perforce express them in terms of material things because his language lags behind his needs.” Figurative language then becomes the vehicle for greater precision of expression; exactitude grows through metaphor, not necessarily through narrative.

“Bricks,” I tell my student.

I assign to the class Lia Purpura’s Glaciology, her “deposition” on glacier and thaw, on X-ray and artifact, on the fallible body and the mind-in-waiting.

“A little shard, small bit taken out of my body and sent off for further study,” Purpura carves so lightly amidst her glacier surge and ice sheets, her “striated stone from Mauritania.” A 650 million year old backdrop to this uncertain moment, to this white space, external and internal: “Bones stacked and bent in the attitude of prayer, the edges honed and precarious.”

“Too much poetry,” my nonfiction students tell me, Purpura’s own hieroglyphics⎯ that “cache of loose details” she resolutely attends to while she awaits the medical world’s verdict⎯ abandoned, they claim, to Orpheus, strummer of the poet’s lyre, though I tell them that even the king of the dead has wept.

“Metaphor,” as the New Critics said, is “not a rhetorical device . . .but a means of perceiving and expressing moral truths radically different from that of prose or scientific statement.” Read More 

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8/5/15, #41, Switching Genres Midstream by Mimi Schwartz

8/8/15, Blog # 41 SWITCHING GENRES MIDSTREAM By Mimi Schwartz

Note: This month's guest writer is Mimi Schwartz.

Mimi Schwartz is a teacher, writer, and scholar who’s been working in this genre for most of her professional life. To my mind, she's one of our most prolific, well respected writer/teachers. Over the years, Mimi's work has played an important role in the genre's ongoing evolution. Just a quick look at her bio note below is testimony to the depth and breadth of her writing.

SWITCHING GENRES MIDSTREAM is Mimi's second contribution to this blog. You can find her first piece, # 22, HALFWAY THROUGH THE STORY, in the Archives, under 8/27/13.

# 41 SWITCHING GENRES MIDSTREAM

When I taught a summer workshop on memoir in Vermont, one of my students was writing about her family, especially her uncle, a big shot in the Mafia. She read an excerpt full of detail, drama and “Breaking Bad” secrets, and we all said: “Forget memoir. Call it fiction!” The decision, safety-wise, was a no-brainer.

Switching genres because of practicality is usually less clear-cut—and it should be. We must weigh: What do we get and what do we give up? Say a sister threatens to sue. Is she bluffing? Say, an agent wants to sign us on if we turn our essay collection into a continuous narrative. Or an acquisitions editor calls to say she’d like to publish our memoir-- but as fiction. Hopefully, agents and editors have the story’s integrity and power at heart. But what if their advice is to satisfy a marketing department or the balance sheet? We must figure out: How much do I want to sell this work? Is the switch worth tons of extra effort? Am I resisting out of fear of killing my little darlings. Or….will I really kill them?

Practical concerns are outside/in pressures, not intrinsic to creating the best work that we can. What I’d like to focus on are the inside-out reasons for switching genres: the realization that the genre we’ve chosen is not serving the story we need to tell. Why? Because the story has changed—and the one we started is now the wrong story.

The catalyst can be a seismic shift of facts, as happened to Helen Fremont in writing After the Long Silence. It began as a novel, based on her parents’ trek across Europe on the eve of World War 11, a story of love, bravery, and adventure, she thought—until she found out the truth about her grandparents. Growing up Catholic in the Midwest, Fremont had been told that they died in an aerial bombing. But in researching the novel, Fremont learned that her grandparents had been murdered in the concentration camps—as Jews.

Making the switch from fiction to memoir was a huge decision. It meant disclosing her parents’ biggest secret and most haunting fears of the Holocasut. Yet, Fremont says, she had to do it:


"In effect, my grandparents and aunts and uncles had been wiped off the face of the earth by fascist regimes. There are no gravestones, or markers, and the generation of eyewitnesses is rapidly dwindling. Holocaust revisionists and deniers increasingly dismiss the fact of the extermination of Jews as fiction or fantasy and I felt it important to add my voice to the record. Fiction no longer served my needs: I realized that I had to write the story, finally, as memoir."



Often we switch genres because “Why am I writing this?” is elusive. We try another genre to enlarge or change our perspective, find a more authentic voice, and hopefully trick ourselves towards the truth.

Novelist Sue Miller describes how this worked for her when writing The Story of My Father, her memoir about dealing with her father’s Alzheimer’s disease. Miller, known for her fiction, wrote what she thought was a promising nonfiction draft and sent it to her agent who found “some of it fascinating, some very moving, and of the rest, she said, ‘It strikes me that it is perhaps of most interest to the writer.”

Miller, taken aback, reread the draft months later and knew she’d have to start again. But first she had an idea for a novel about a death of a parent and it became The Distinguished Guest. She then revisited the memoir and decided the problem could be voice because, as she says, “I was accustomed to using the first person only fictionally—hiding behind an imagined speaker who might be close to who I was, but who wasn’t.” So Miller wrote personal essays “to practice using a non-fictive first person voice in some shorter works that would be less difficult emotionally….” Then she wrote another novel, this one called While I Was Gone.  Read More 

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6/29/15, #40, The Doctor is In: Some Thoughts about Matters of Craft

6/29/15, #40, The Doctor is In: Some Thoughts about Matters of Craft

Michael Steinberg

Those who follow this blog know that, in addition to my own posts, I have, for the last few years, invited selected guests--notable writers and teachers, and accomplished former students as well--to send me mini-essays on/about whatever specific matters of craft they wanted to write about. Their contributions have not only extended the blog’s scope and range, they’ve also added a variety of voices, thoughts, and opinions--in other words, some diversity--to the mix.

Last week, as it turned out, I happened to be interviewed three times for three different reasons. It was an atypical seven days, to be sure. During that time, I answered a variety of questions on/about genre, teaching, and the craft of writing. By necessity, some (not all) of my answers were spontaneous, almost off-the-cuff, responses to things I hadn’t thought about before, and issues I want to rethink and/or explore more fully but haven’t yet gotten around to pursuing.

That’s when I came up with the idea to expand the blog--to include some questions that readers might like to ask.

But first, I want to set some boundaries. It’s not possible, of course, for me to respond to every question that’s asked. So when the questions--on/about genre and craft issues--come in, I’ll select a few that a reasonable number people seem to be asking. I’ll treat this as an informal Q and A—a kind of “The Doctor is In”column.

To start off, for this post, I’ll choose some questions and answers from the three interviews I mentioned above. Here are two from the first interview

MJS

#40 THE DOCTOR IS IN, 1

INTERNAL NARRATIVES AND THREE DIMENSIONAL NARRATORS

The following is from “Talking Creative Nonfiction,” an interview I did a few weeks ago for the Solstice Literary Magazine blog. For the full (short) interview the link is Solstice Literary Magazine blog

SOLSTICE : In “One Story, Two Narrators,” a craft essay you wrote for this journal, you talk about how many personal essays/memoirs fall short, because they fail to create an internal narrative to accompany the surface-level events. Why do you think that so many aspiring nonfiction writers struggle with this?

MY ANSWER : “As you say, ‘many writers give us only the surface level events.' That is; the story of what happened. But too often, I’ve found, they don’t comment/speculate/reflect on what those events might mean. And I think that’s partly because they don’t allow themselves permission to write as a fully present “I.” By this I mean, the thinking, feeling, three dimensional “I--” the person, in other words, who goes out into the world every day--and who, in response to specific situations, encounters, and events--reflects, speculates, imagines, analyzes, questions, projects…. I could go on.

To illustrate further, here’s an excerpt from “One Story, Two Narrators”

“I think we can agree that human beings are by nature and predisposition instinctively reactive creatures. In most any situation or encounter we probably couldn’t get through thirty seconds without experiencing and/or utilizing most or all of the reactions listed above.

And so, we need to keep reminding ourselves (as well as our students) that in writing personal narratives, it’s important to render our thoughts and reflections with the same clarity and transparency that we’re able to affect when we’re narrating the details and specifics of our own personal stories.

Because no matter how authentic and convincing the situations, people, and events of those stories are, no matter what subject they’re about, in order to connect more meaningfully with readers, narrators need to allow the reader more frequent glimpses into their thought processes, especially those ways in which they deal with their confusions, fears, doubts, exhilarations, and successes--the qualities, in short, that link us as fellow human beings.” Read More 

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#39 On Endings in Memoir, Particularly in Memoirs about "the Tough Stuff" by Jessica Handler

Note: This month’s guest is Jessica Handler. I’m pleased and delighted to have her work appear on this blog. I first met Jessica in 2005, when she was in my Writers in Paradise memoir workshop in St. Petersberg, Florida. Jessica, along with Tracy Crow, and Margaret MacGuiness, had just gotten their MFA from Queens College. And they were so well informed about literary memoir that it was like having three co-teachers in the room. When the workshop ended, it was clear to me that any or perhaps all three would go on to write first-rate literary books.

Jessica’s sensitive and perceptive memoir, Invisible Sisters, was published four years later, in 2009. The narrative is about how, following the death of her two sisters, the writer came to terms with her grief. It's a powerful literary memoir. Jessica hasn't stopped there. She has continued, with great energy and deep commitment, to write, teach, and lecture. Fittingly, her craft essay, “On Endings in Memoir, Particularly in Memoirs About ‘the Tough Stuff'"--is adapted from her recent book, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss (St. Martins/Griffin, 2013.)

I believe that Jessica’s thoughts, opinions, and perceptions will provide additional guidance on/about the various strategies and approaches that memoirists utilize in order to create literary work out of their deepest sufferings and losses. It’s a subject that informs Meredith Hall’s piece (blog # 38). And because this is a matter I’ve also written about (see blog # 34 and 35), I decided that this was a good time to run Jessica's piece.

MJS

On Endings in Memoir, Particularly in Memoirs about “the Tough Stuff.”
By Jessica Handler

A few years ago, I was talking to friend at a party about the ending he had just written for his film. His protagonist, a little boy, meets his masked hero at last, but he’s sorely disappointed. The hero isn’t the idol he had convinced himself he would find, and after working for almost the entire plot to have his troublesome nerdiness redeemed by proximity to his hero, the little boy is at a loss.

“So that’s not really the end,” the screenwriter said.

“Yes,” I said to the screenwriter. It was a statement, not a question.

“Yes,” he agreed.

And together we said, “yes, and…”.

We were getting at a truth that’s common to all good writing; that the ending isn’t the moment when the author runs out of writing steam. A satisfying ending begins with that moment of “yes, and” in the plot. In my friend’s screenplay, the ending isn’t that the boy finds his hero, but that the boy begins to change on his own as a result of his efforts to meet his hero. For a memoirist, the ending has something to do with how she or has changed and moved forward in life?

The ‘yes and’ for my memoir, Invisible Sisters, is that, yes my sisters died and I learned to find my voice without them. For a writer, the idea of ‘yes, and’ marks the place on in the story where the renewal for the protagonist – the author- starts to become clear.

Another way to phrase this could be “yes, but,” although I prefer “and.”
“And” has a more positive, forward-moving feeling; not a contradiction, but a continuation. The very existence of a memoir proves that the author survived to tell the tale. A well-made ending is a new beginning; in a memoir about loss, it’s that place on the page when author, and later, reader, is satisfied that the protagonist telling the story can make it from here. A good ending fulfills an implicit promise made in the beginning, whether it’s to tell how the survival occurred, or how the author has grown as a result of the loss.

But no writer or reader wants a sparkling, disingenuous ending that wipes the slate clean of that life-changing sorrow. A generic story with the emotional authority of a smiley-face sticker would not only be false, but a grave injustice to the true story.  Read More 

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Blog # 38, Trust the Camera: The Importance of Scene Making in Crafting Literary Memoirs

Note: This month's guest is Meredith Hall, who, to my mind is one of our finest literary memoirists. Her emotionally powerful, beautifully rendered memoir, Without a Map, is one of the few literary books to be both a critical success as well as a New York Times best seller. Meredith's craft essay below was originally part of a recent AWP panel entitled, Confronting Our Fears: Turning Adversity into Art.

MJS

Trust the Camera: The Importance of Scene Making in Crafting Literary Memoirs
-Meredith Hall

When I give readings of my memoir, an audience member invariably comments, “This must have been such a catharsis for you! Writing this must have been so therapeutic for you! It must have felt so good to get this all out!” My response is always something like this: We cannot write memoir as catharsis, or for its therapeutic effects. Before we are writers, we are human beings living a life. Before we write, we must have worked our way to the deepest parts of our experience. All artists are guides. We are entrusted with walking one step ahead of our readers into the depths. It cannot be our first scouting. We must live inside the inquiry of past events honestly and courageously before we ever offer ourselves as guides. We do not need to be wise. But we do need to have understandings and insights sufficient to ask the most difficult questions. Without that process, which can take years before we are ready for the role of guide, we face two problems: we are writing for ourselves and not our readers; and we are not yet ready to make story of our pasts. It is this idea I would like to explore today: We all come to understanding through story. If we cannot yet control that vital line of communication, we are not yet ready to write our book.

The most dangerous territory for us when we write about intimate events is in exposition—when we say what happened and why and what we think and believe and understand. The problem is that expository writing—this summarizing and explaining and examining—tends to be our go-to place when we write. It is writing that arises from our memory, from our thinking and our feeling about memory. It is intuitive and automatic. And it is satisfying to the writer because we get to set up our story, complete with its history and place and context. We get to explain exactly what happened, and best of all, we get to say how that all felt, and what we now understand about it.

But I am going to suggest that choosing instead the strategy of using “the camera” causes us to rely on the scenes we carry in memory. If we imagine ourselves filmmakers, we find our tool box filled with the specific and demanding tools of the craft of rendering story. But we also earn great freedom from our struggle to make meaning.

We are all adept at watching a film: It opens with a scene—perhaps a young man and woman are leaning against a kitchen counter. We watch them and listen to their small conversation carefully, working at building an understanding of who they are and why we should care. And then the camera lens closes, and reopens—but now we are in a car. We don’t flinch at this. We are absolutely ready for this shift in scene, character, emotional mood. We recognize the driver—the husband we have met. The passenger is an elderly woman. This is his mother, we realize, and they are covering some old emotional territory between them. Then the camera lens closes, and reopens—and we are at a large family gathering. We are ready for this next scene. We are gathering clues. The wife is here, and the husband. There is a lot of laughter. But the camera lens watches the face of the wife, and so we do, too. Why is her expression so tight? What threatens or diminishes her here? There is another burst of laughter, they sit to their meal, and the camera lens closes.

And so the filmmaker constructs, scene by scene by careful scene, her story. And the amazing and beautiful fact is that we “get it” when a good film closes! The “camera” allows us to understand what happened, what motivated the characters, and how we might feel about the story. What an exhilarating art form! The writer can rely on the filmmaker’s camera. But luckily, we are also able to step in periodically and provide our own understandings, to reflect. To offer ourselves as guides, leading our readers to understandings and questions earned through time.

What happens when we don’t trust the camera? Imagine this: We pay our money and sit down in a theater and the film starts. But instead of that man and woman leaning against their kitchen counter, we see the filmmaker, sitting in a chair against a white field, looking directly at us. Instead of a series of scenes to convey the story, he tells us all about the story—he introduces the characters and he describes them and their physical environments and their backgrounds, the history of each character and their interactions. He summarizes—because without the tools of the camera, the ability to make scenes, he has no other option than to summarize. And then he tells us what it all means, because he has no other tool to convey meaning. There our storyteller sits, facing us, earnestly telling us ---everything.

Which film would you rather watch? And the larger question, which film leads you to a deeper and more personal understanding of this story? Read More 

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