Failure, a Re-Vision

October 22, 2019 § 21 Comments

By Jenny Currier

When I submitted my master’s thesis in 2011, for creative nonfiction, my advisor returned it with only one line of feedback:

“Be more reflective.”

She didn’t explain what she meant, didn’t offer advice, didn’t bother telling me what, if anything, was working in my 130 pages. The only thing she indicated was that I needed to start over and change everything, including my voice. Her disdain for my writing felt like disdain for me as a person.

My tennis coach once told me, “You have to allow yourself to fail. It’s the only way to improve.” This, ironically, was the subject of my thesis and a lesson I’d grappled with on and off the tennis courts for years—losing relationships, losing my job—but failure here seemed worse; writing, unlike tennis, was my skill, my sanctuary from my other failures, and now, suddenly, this too was inferior.

So I stopped writing. My classmates graduated, and I enjoyed the New England summer. The only writing I did was in my journal, which I kept by hand, refusing to open my laptop for months.

Then one day, for no real reason, I began writing an essay that became the foundation for a collection of personal essays that were, in essence, a revision of my original work. One year after sending my advisor the first draft of my thesis, I mailed her my second.

I went into our meeting with dread, a bundle of Kleenex in my pocket.

“This is an improvement,” she said.

“Really?” I said, with such astonishment she was taken aback.

“Yes. It’s much different from the first.” She told me I showed insight, made connections, and sometimes the writing was funny, where it didn’t fall flat. After a few minutes of discussion, she tilted her head. “You seem to have lost all confidence in yourself as a writer. Why is that?”

I opened my mouth to speak, but couldn’t. Even now, I have moments in which I feel as if I’m sitting in her office, my sense of worth as a writer completely diminished, trying to pretend her opinion of my work didn’t matter. Through my thesis I learned to abandon what comes naturally, to guess what my literary audience is looking for, and to mold my voice to fit that model. It’s the opposite of good practice.

Then, four years ago, I participated in a writing workshop in Greece, led by a travel writer and poet. One woman in our group submitted a poem that was so terrible I thought a third grader had written it. Trite, rhyming, shallow—even I knew this was a disaster. How will our workshop leader handle this? I wondered. Would he say what all of us were thinking?

Instead, without a trace of disingenuousness, he found magic within her work. He pointed to its depth, gave it value, and offered helpful—not overwhelming—suggestions. My friend and I looked at each other, stunned. “The man has a gift,” he whispered.

Two weeks later, on our last night in Greece, this woman presented her poem at the final reading. It was the most memorable piece of the night because I never expected such a transformation. The original poem was unrecognizable—no more kitschy rhymes or trite observations—but details, beautifully worded and specific, that captured our island setting; a turn of phrase that evoked emotion, even laughter; a lingering sense that these words were pulled from her soul and laid bare on the page.

I honestly thought she plagiarized it. Maybe our teacher wrote it for her? I couldn’t believe the same person whose first draft we read wrote such a remarkable poem.

And that, I believe, is the most meaningful lesson I’ve learned in writing.

Both this woman and I transformed our work. My advisor wasn’t wrong to push me to recreate it; the final product was much better than the first. But the way in which she delivered the message, and the way in which the workshop leader in Greece delivered his message, were as different as our first and last drafts.

As a workshop leader myself, I want to empower my writers. This doesn’t mean I stick with flowery praise and avoid criticism, but I demonstrate belief in their talent, their story, and their strength. Even though they “failed,” it is failure seen through a different lens.

The best formula I’ve found for directing conversation is

what’s working

what are my questions or what brought me out of the piece

what suggestions do I have

in that order.

Sometimes I ask, “What does this piece want to be?” Writers can get stuck in ill-suited formats without realizing it, such as the woman in Greece who needed to liberate herself from an AABB rhyme scheme; such as my master’s thesis that needed to abandon the diary format and become a collection of essays; such as the woman in my writing group who needed to compose her story as a memoir instead of a novel.

Sometimes we just need to hear, “You are a good writer. This piece was necessary for your process—now let’s talk about the next step.” If we can frame it as a revision, which is, after all, a re-vision—a new way of seeing the piece—we no longer have to see our work, or ourselves, as failures.

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Jenny Currier is a full-time Grecophile and a freelance writer. She regularly contributes to Rhode Island publications, such as Motif Magazine, Providence Monthly, and East Side Monthly, and her stories have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Sunlight Press, and Vagabond Magazine. Her current aim is to finish a book about Greece through Rebirth Your Book. Follow her on Instagram @travelingfoodwriter and Twitter @jennycurrier.

 

Students Don’t Write for Pleasure

December 28, 2018 § 28 Comments

capel photoBy Laura Capel

I walk through the door with my new dress, purple with black stripes. I am determined to conquer this teaching thing. I will validate my students’ writing and give them a confidence I never had. I think, “I’ll show those teachers who always focused on essays and grammar that English class doesn’t have to be all about academic writing, just wait.”

Three weeks in, reality hits. Creativity has little place in a high school English classroom. I find myself bogged down by fancy terminology, looming deadlines, my student’s lack of grammatical knowledge, and the constant need to convince everyone, that writing matters. Within the curriculum I teach, there are five essays students have to learn, six books to read, one speech to give, and various vocabulary and grammar skills to master. In the midst of all this required reading and writing, it is no wonder most of my students walk through the door on the first day and openly admit they hate English class. It’s not shocking to hear “Ugh, English. I hate English” or “I used to love reading and writing in Elementary school, now it just sucks.” Why wouldn’t they hate English class? With all of these required skills they must learn, students have no time to write or think creatively. They rarely get the opportunity to explore their own narrative voice when they are so busy developing their academic one.

They write to inform. They write to persuade. They write to show they were listening. Students don’t write for pleasure. We’ve gone away from poetry and storytelling to focus on persuasive writing and research units. While academic writing surely has a place in the world, and students should learn to follow the rules of academic writing, I find myself wondering- where has the creativity gone? When will students get to be real writers and not regurgitators of essay structures? When will students craft a piece of writing because they want to, in a voice or format they want to write in?

In the last year, I have set out on a mission to change the drab task of academic writing into writing my students feel passionate about and topics they identify with. As the mantra goes – all great writing starts with great reading. Now, it’s not to say that texts like Romeo and Juliet aren’t important or that The Odyssey doesn’t have value, it’s that my students need guidance to show them that these words matter, and their voice matters too.

In the midst of graduate school, teaching summer school, and tutoring I followed my intuition and changed what I was doing in the classroom. I knew my students needed it and more importantly I, as a teacher, needed for them to find a love (or at least an acceptance) of words and writing.

It started with The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and discovering the short, descriptive goldmines known as vignettes. While I knew that most of my freshmen wouldn’t be producing creative nonfiction masterpieces their first time out of the gate, I knew that short vignettes were something they could handle. I’ve moved away from the required academic narrative to allowing students to tell me snippets of their lives, stories they think are necessary to share. I’ve emphasized their narrative voice and the impact of every story, including their own.

I’ve asked students to write about themselves and to write about literature in ways I hadn’t done before. I’ve learned more about my students’ personal lives, their hopes, dreams, and fears than I ever could have from an academic piece of writing. I’ve learned that at 14 years old my students are far more aware of their realities than I originally thought they ever could be. One student notes that white people always doublecheck their car locks as he walks by them, another questions why generations of his family have lived in poverty and if he will too, another describes the shame she feels every time she looks in the mirror, another reflects back on why her mother left her and what she could have done to keep her here, another wonders why people always say “you’re pretty, for a black girl” and not just “you’re pretty.” They are incredibly astute to the worlds they live in outside of school, they bring up discussions and perspectives I would have never thought they might be ready for.

Creativity has brought life back into my classroom. It has given students the power to look deeply at the worlds they live in and to question everything.

While I am not certain I have swayed my students to believe English is the coolest subject they will ever take in high school (even though it definitely is), I do know by taking a step back from prescriptive academic writing, and switching to a more creative approach, I have developed stronger relationships with my students, I have increased their confidence as writers, and I have opened to the door to having real discussions about events happening around us. By infusing more creative writing genres and topics into the curriculum, I have found students to be more open to reading the works of traditionally “academic” writers like William Shakespeare and Homer because they have witnessed how every voice has value, and that every piece of writing has something to offer.
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Laura Capel is a Council Bluffs native and a third-year High School English teacher in Bellevue, Nebraska. She is currently a graduate student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha seeking a Masters in English. When she is not distracted by her two cats, she enjoys writing creative nonfiction and academic research.

 

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.
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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 www.letsspise.com.

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