It’s Not All About You: Teaching High School Essayists

May 2, 2018 § 8 Comments

fb ppicBy Signe Hordvik

At some point many writing students, especially those studying creative nonfiction, are reminded that their stories are not only about them. When I relay this fact to my high school students, they think I am tripping. Maybe next I will lick the walls and tell them that the “snozberries taste like snozberries” ─ the teacher has lost it.

Who could blame them for thinking this is “crazy talk”? Personal narrative essays in many K-12 classrooms are often flat, because of the misguided belief that it is a story only about the writer. Correcting this misconception is a bucket of ice water for the ego. I watch faces redden, like mine once had, as epiphanies begin to explode in the chairs around the room. Years of assigned composition centered around “about me stories,” “what I did on summer vacation stories,” “my favorite fill-in-the-blank stories,” etcetera were probably only interesting to their mothers, on non-busy days.

If my students were of age, I would maybe break the news over a glass of wine or something with a bit more kick, but Skittles, Starbursts, and Sour Patch Kids have helped with some of the eye-rolling and teeth gnashing. I try to convince my students that the sooner we get to acceptance, the better the writing will get. I sound like drug counselor. I should have bought more candy. Is it too late to call in a sub?

The wilting egos are quickly replaced by confusion and a touch of indignation. If I am going to stomp on fond memories of “gold-stars-past,” I owe these students an answer that provides direction, without being so formulaic that their stories disintegrate into traffic reports. This is hard because personal narratives ARE a collection of the writer’s intimate experiences, but they also must lead to some sort of larger human/universal lesson, connection or understanding, and oh yeah, the stories need to be original too. When I explain it this way, I feel like I have just asked them to yodel in Chinese. Sometimes everyone wants to stab the messenger.

I have heard several explanations of personal narratives after attending many creative nonfiction classes and conferences. Some explanations were tidier than others. Two of my favorites are from Vivian Gornick and Cheryl Strayed:

“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” ~ Vivian Gornick in The Situation and The Story.

“When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.” ~ Cheryl Strayed.

Each explanation encourages new writers to be scary-honest, by relinquishing control of who they think they should be on the page toward who they are when no one is looking. Perfect people are boring narrators. Likable narrators have zits, are envious of their better-looking friends, curse in traffic after church, and say the things we are sometimes too afraid to share even in prayer ─ they are us in parallel universe.

Encouragement only goes so far, especially if you are over 30 trying to explain that “being open ─ vulnerable” does not equal “beat me” to a classroom full of teenagers. Like visits to the dentist, when workshopping and sharing, someone must go first. I am grateful for the brave few that have “literary cojones” to write the ugly, uncomfortable, true things, and then share them without apology. Shockingly, no one dies after sharing; in fact, most make it past lunch, and a few make new friends. The fantastic odds of survival and the adolescent biological need to be part of the group lure more classmates to follow.

Some still cling to safer writing patterns like the five-paragraph essay; the emotional risk is too great. I want to toss them out of the nest, but anxiety trumps instinct for most high school students. Alice, my mentor teacher, (frequently) reminds me that “you can’t make anyone do something they don’t want to.” I want to plug my ears and enforce “mandatory authenticity” but being a writing dictator in a workshop-style classroom is silly; it would only lead back to the formulaic prose most began with and maybe a few eggs on my car.

Alice tries to reassure me with, “there’s always next year.” This also burns. I’d prefer now or, at the latest, tomorrow. The hope in her message says change is still possible. I guess I can accept that.
Signe Hordvik is a high school English teacher. She has a Master’s of Education and studies Creative Nonfiction at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. When not grading or writing papers, she is busy being a mom to two awesome kids. You can find some of her work at

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