February 22, 2021 § 14 Comments
By Nicole Graev Lipson
After my son was born, I emailed my college writing teacher to share the news, eager to bring her along with me into this new life stage. Once, she’d been the notoriously intimidating professor whose name got passed around among Cornell’s English majors. But after three semesters in her classroom, over nearly two decades of emails that ebbed and flowed, through my own writing and teaching career, she’d become to me, simply, Lydia: mentor, voice of conscience, distant lighthouse. It’d been almost a year since our last contact, and this milestone had left me searching for my coordinates.
When I first met Lydia Fakundiny, my world had turned, without warning, to confusion. My parents’ marriage imploded, and they wouldn’t say why. I gained twenty pounds, watching my body swell into rolling hills. And then I lost forty, watching it shrink into skeletal valleys. I took secret gulps of cinnamon liqueur before leaving my room, certain I was unfit for the world without them. I didn’t know what was happening—just that the person I once was had disappeared.
In this state, I found myself in Lydia’s course The Art of the Essay, gathered at a table with eleven classmates. There was the notorious professor on the first day, seated before a stack of books. Her dark hair fell at an angle to her chin; her forehead was creased by years of thought. She didn’t smile—not quite. “I have no syllabus,” she said. “We’ll need to invent this path together.”
I’d always known the “essay” as something five paragraphs long that I wrote to prove to teachers what they wanted proven. Lydia showed us what an essay could be: the journey of the mind pushing, on paper, through uncertainty. She read to us from the masters—Baldwin, Woolf, Didion, Walker—and their words passing through her took on profound urgency. I listened closer than I’d known one could listen, hitching my way on these words to a place where things made sense.
Meaning, I learned, had an architecture. A sentence, depending how it was built, could crack the heart open like a cathedral door, or leave it numb as a concrete cell. Tentative, I wrote my first essay. Lydia returned my ten pages with two pages of typed comments, and I discovered the exhilaration of being taken seriously. I wrote another essay, and then another. A sliver of path opened. I saw I was in the middle of a living paragraph—one that I could write my way out of.
When fear stopped me from registering for her higher-level course, Lydia called demanding to know why I wasn’t on her roster. When my grandparents went missing at my graduation, she slipped off in her regalia to track down the campus police. When I told her I’d landed an interview at a New York City magazine, she gestured toward my gingham dress: “I hope,” she said, “that you won’t be wearing that.” I heard this not as judgment, but devotion.
Years later, I sat at seminar tables with my own English students, discussing essays I’d discussed with Lydia, assigning them her assignments. “Read it like it matters!” I urged them before they shared work aloud, just as she once urged me. Teach them like they matter, I told myself, advice she’d never actually uttered because she didn’t need to.
Late at night, I saw that my email to Lydia had bounced back. Maybe her address had changed? I Googled her. What appeared was impossible to absorb: her name, so familiar and indelible, hovering in bold letters above an obituary. Survived by her brothers. In lieu of flowers. My heart stumbled over the phrases.
I had missed her by one month. While I’d been sleeping, sorting mail, wandering the grocery aisles, she had been ill, and then dying, and then gone. There were no calls in the middle of the night, no relatives mobilizing in my kitchen, no guests to welcome to a shiva. There was just me on my couch, shame over my oblivion, grief over all I’d taken and never given back.
I thought of tracking down her brothers, or writing a testimonial on the funeral home’s comment wall. But neither of these felt right. Instead, my infant son blinking beside me, I wrote her one last email, thanking her for helping me understand, through the art of writing, the art of living. I pressed “send” and watched it disappear, a burst of pixels swirling away like dust.
My son’s fist was a curled seashell. His tiny chest rose and fell. I promised him a lifetime of mattering, in honor and memory of her.
Nicole Graev Lipson’s essays have appeared in River Teeth, Creative Nonfiction, The Hudson Review, Hippocampus, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and selected as a “Notable Essay” in The Best American Essays. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she is working on a collection of essays about motherhood. She can be reached at www.nicolegraevlipson.com.
November 10, 2020 § 9 Comments
“I’m going to ask you a hard question,” I warn my students when we’re talking about writing. “And sort of a mean one.”
The students look worried. What am I about to do?
I tap at the opening paragraph of the essay we’re discussing. “You say that Charlotte Bronte’s descriptions of Bertha Rochester are really upsetting. That’s true. But so what?”
No one answers me. Where is the mean question?
“So what,” I repeat. “Sure, it’s an upsetting description, but why should we care?
That’s the mean question: So what?
“So what” might sound mean, but it’s also magic. It’s simple and tough and cuts through a lot of crap. When I use this question with my students, particularly as they’re wrestling with academic essays, so what? helps them to move from description—that scene is upsetting—to analysis: what is upsetting, why is it upsetting, what is the significance of that observation?
The answer to “so what” doesn’t have to be earth-shattering, I tell them. It’s not as if you need to come up with the definitive analysis of Jane Eyre. But maybe the reason to pay attention to those upsetting descriptions is that they show that the novel is both progressive and very much of its moment. Or maybe we notice those descriptions because it helps us see that Bronte can only imagine independence for certain kinds of women.
When you come up with your answers to “so what,” I say to my students, you’re helping to create a road map for the rest of your essay. The “so what” helps you know where you’re going.
I use “so what” no matter what I’m writing. Answering that question always helps, no matter if I’m at the very beginning of a project or stuck somewhere in the middle. When I’m writing non-fiction, the “so what” helps me to chart a path towards an argument; in fiction, “so what” helps me to gauge the impact of my writerly flourishes. And “so what” is invaluable when I’m working in memoir, where my impulse is to include every detail, because, you know, “that’s what happened.” That “so what” question becomes a tool that cuts through to the bone, forcing me to include only those details that deepen the narrative.
Sometimes “so what” becomes my free-writing prompt, in those moments when I’m trapped in a thicket of sentences and cannot figure out which way to go. I open a new document or flip to a new page in my writing notebook, and respond to What’s the so what? for ten or fifteen or thirty minutes.
“So what” helps trick my monkey mind into thinking it’s answering a simple question rather than doing something more difficult like establishing a thesis statement or determining a character’s motivation, or my own motivation in writing. Questions about thesis or motivation are hard; they are questions that remind me I am writing and then of course, I immediately want to do the laundry or the dishes or scrub the shower grout.
But “so what?” Hey, I can answer that. That’s an easy question, no biggie. And then voila, there I am, examining my writerly choices, pruning away the excess, killing my darlings with blithe abandon.
Sure, you could spend time with more complex writerly exercises, like writing out a backstory for all your fictional characters, or mind-mapping the various key moments in your memoir. But when it comes down to it, “so what” will get you where you want to go.
A student stopped into my office last fall (in those halcyon pre-pandemic days, when we could just “stop by” to chat). “I just got into law school,” she said, “and I wanted to say thank you.” I was confused. I hadn’t written her a letter of recommendation and she’d only been a student of mine once. “My personal statement,” she went on. “As I was working on it, I kept hearing you say ‘so what?’ And the people who my recommendations said the statement was really good.”
And what’s the ‘so what’ of that story?
It’s that “so what?” works, no matter what you’re writing.
Deborah Williams teaches in the Literature and Creative Writing Program at NYU Abu Dhabi and is currently asking herself “so what” about a YA novel and a nonfiction book about teaching. Her essays have appeared in such places as The Paris Review Daily, Motherwell, and The Rumpus; you can read selected other work here.
October 22, 2019 § 21 Comments
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 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.
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.
December 28, 2018 § 28 Comments
By 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.
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.
May 2, 2018 § 8 Comments
By 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 www.letsspise.com.