In preparing to teach CW 110–an advanced nonfiction writing class I teach at UC Berkeley–I glanced over an old syllabus and decided I needed to change it in large part because since I last taught the class three years ago, I’ve begun to use a lot more digital media. And as much as I love Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, I didn’t want to use that book again (I’ve used it every time I’ve taught the class since I created it in 1998!). I’d recently purchased Dinty W. Moore’s Flash Nonfiction but wasn’t sure I wanted to require it as a text for the course. I began poking around on Brevity, thinking that students would enjoy many of the wonderful, very short essays published there. I not only found the essays I wanted to begin the semester with and bookmarked them in the class group on Diigo, but I also found the first assignment: Essay Contest Mystery and Memory.
As much as they eventually enjoy it, students at Berkeley often resist the narrative assignment. Most of them haven’t written narrative since the early years of high school, unless you count the restrictive, formulaic (by design) personal statements they write when they apply to college and grad school. But they’ve read plenty of them and can talk about their favorites and what they’ve learned from reading them, how certain images have stayed with them, how the voices of some writers still resonate with them. We talk about why narratives are so often assigned for them to read but seldom elicited from them as pieces of writing, a topic I spoke about in a recent panel for the American Cultures program at Berkeley– Justice Stories, Resistance Stories and Just Good Stories: Narrative and storytelling as critical pedagogy where I argued for a place at the University for our students’ stories.
Accustomed to reading the stories of important people with important stories, students don’t readily see the significance of their own. Until they begin writing them and reading their classmates’ drafts. At the end of the second draft session, I asked each student to choose a very short passage–no more than two sentences or so–from their draft partner’s essay to read aloud, without comment, to not even say why they had chosen the passage. Just read the title, the author’s name, the passage. As students read aloud, they gasped. The language was stunning, the experiences poignant, moving, humorous. When they heard even these brief excerpts of their own writing in someone else’s voice, their story came alive for them in a new way. More than one student commented that she wanted to read everyone’s narrative.
So they are blogging their narratives along with a brief reflective essay on the experience of writing the narrative. Students who submitted their essays to the Brevity contest will post them later, once a winner has been announced. Though I’m turning mine in late (the deadline was the 14th), I have finally posted it: 1979 almost ’80.
When we were talking about the assignment on the first day or so of class–before they had begun to write–one student expressed his concern that writing his story, sharing it with others, might reduce its significance to him as a special, valued moment in his life. I asked him to reserve judgment on that until after he had written it. As we moved through the draft stages and talked about the process of writing narrative, students spoke frequently about how they understood their stories in a different light as they wrote and revised them, how in writing the narrative, they understood things they hadn’t even thought about before putting the experience into words. They learned something about themselves from the experience.
Several years ago a young man who had taken the advanced writing class–a student who had struggled with his narrative, come to many office hours to look at drafts, avoided the writing–dropped in to my office hours to talk. A medical student at UCSF, he wanted to tell me the story of applying to medical school. He had interviewed at every school he wanted to attend, and that year he was the only Berkeley student to be accepted by all. He knew many of the other Berkeley students had better grades, more impressive internships and research positions. But he knew that during the interviews they were uncomfortable, wanted to impress, didn’t know what to emphasize as they responded to questions. What was different about him? His theory: he had learned to tell his story.