3. Writing Essays for Class: The First Steps
In this chapter, I will focus on a few ideas that will inform the students’ formal writing for the semester. I will begin by reviewing concepts that may be confusing for students creating personal nonfiction and qualitative narratives. These will be in a form that you can distribute to students, much like the assignments of the previous chapter. I will also include more difficult exercises that ask students to establish themselves as interesting parts of the narratives they are creating. These are important steps moving toward the larger, longer autoethnographic writing they will be doing for their research assignment. This work should appear in the third and fourth weeks as preparation for the larger essay. For all extended writing assignments, especially longer essays, I encourage using a drafting process that allows students to work with classmates from invention of concept, to initial draft, to final version and rewrite, if necessary.
The “Who Cares?” Factor
In all classroom writing, one of the biggest issues is what I like to call the “Who cares?” factor. It is a rude question that I often pose to myself as a writer and feel is important to pose to my students. Sure, I can write a piece about this or that, but who cares? Inherent in this question are many considerations about audience. In all of their writing, students should have an intended audience. Audience is often dictated to us, whether by a professor, peers, a boss, a colleague, a friend or a family member. Just as students adjust their writing style to suit each occasion when they are directly aware of their audience (I would assume most of us would not write an email to our boss the same way we might to our great aunt), they need to have an audience they have identified for their formal writing in class. This intention is key to the success of their pieces. In addition, creating something they care about is essential to the success of any piece of writing. If they cannot include themselves in the answer to “Who cares?” nobody will benefit. Sure, they may care to the extent that their teacher is making them write something and will be assigning them a grade on that piece of writing. Above and beyond that, though, what do they want to accomplish in their essays? Outside of school, students will often be asked to develop ideas and pieces for intended audiences they have identified as important. They will be filling a hole in research, trying to reach a certain demographic, marketing themselves as artists, or applying for jobs. This same motivation, beyond pleasing the teacher, has to guide all of their writing, so this is a good time to practice. And as their teacher, you want them to care about their writing because it makes your work that much more interesting.
Subtext is one of the most difficult concepts to grasp. I repeatedly ask my students, once we have taken into account the “Who cares?” factor, what the subtext is. For instance, a piece of writing could be about home, but what other themes emerge in the piece? A good piece of writing is always complex, just like a good movie or television show. There are many links, many story lines that come together within the main narrative. Nobody just writes a piece about home. Often, when they write about home, people are also writing about many other things such as loss, moving, change, growing up, familial relationships, rituals, traditions, and the importance of objects and spaces. Subtext is created by being specific about experiences and observations. The more specific a writer can be, the more effective the writing. In wholeheartedly trying to capture the detail and nuance of their own experiences, students are more likely to hit upon ideas that will resonate with a more diverse audience. That is because everyone can identify with a good story that has many themes running through it. The more well-defined themes the writer has, the more potential there is for a wider interested audience. One of my favorite pieces to share with students in the first days of class is “Maternal Connections” by Carolyn Ellis. Ellis is an ethnographer who has written a number of textbooks on the process of autoethnographic and ethnographic writing, as well as many first-person autoethnographic pieces. This particular piece is only four textbook pages long and very similar in size and scope to the types of assignments students will be doing. It is a master class in how much can be accomplished in a very short span of time (measured in both pages and experience). In this piece from her book Composing Ethnography, Ellis describes four nights taking care of her mother, who is ill and hospitalized. In it, she uses all of the elements you want students to understand how to use in a piece of autoethnography or personal writing. She includes brief dialogue to give her mother a voice, detailed descriptions, well-defined themes and subtext. The themes in the piece are somewhat mature and may not have been readily experienced by the students. Taking care of an older relative in an intimate way, the unpleasantness of illness and hospitalization, aging, the body, and confronting life choices involving having a family or remaining childless are all parts of the narrative. Although they are not things most students of traditional college age have experienced, a few will recognize them as familiar and all can imagine a future in which they will be confronted with many of the questions and themes that arise. Ellis’ writing is a great example of how being very specific to one’s own experiences can end up being more universal than a piece that is trying to appeal to everyone. Throughout, she builds up to questions about her own potential for motherhood and desire for it. Asking questions of herself in the text allows the reader to question the choice of motherhood. Ellis is able to accomplish a tremendous amount very quickly. She describes the experience:
Taking care of her feels natural, as though she is my child. The love and concern flowing between us feels like my mom and I are falling in love. The emotionality continues during the four days and nights I stay with her in the hospital. My life is devoted temporarily to her well-being. She knows it and is grateful. I am grateful for the experience. I do not mind that she is dependent on me. I am engrossed by our feeling, by the seemingly mundane but, for the moment, only questions that matter. Are you dizzy? In pain? Comfortable? Do you want to be pulled up in bed? Can’t you eat one more bite? Do you need to pee? Have gas? Want water? Prefer to sleep now? As I help with these events, I do not question their meanings, as I so often do about most things in my life.…Experiencing unconditional love for my mother makes me, for the moment, crave to feel it toward and from a child as well. Do I just want someone who will wash me when I’m 79? What if something is wrong with the baby? What about my career? Travel plans? Yet how can I omit this meaning-giving experience from my life? (242-3).
The difficulties and rewards of writing about her relationship with her mother have also been described and analyzed by Ellis. She considers the ethics of writing about her mother in “With Mother/With Child: A True Story.” This companion piece is a great way to introduce the necessity of considering the people you are writing about and allowing them to view pieces you plan to make public. While this piece is brutally honest, it is also very carefully considered by its author and its subject.
Writing the Self as a Character
In another one of my favorite readings to share in the first weeks of class, Philip Lopate describes obstacles facing the student writer of personal essays in “Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character”:
…I am inclined to think that what stands in the way of most personal essays in not technique but psychology. The emotional preparedness, if you will, to be honest and open to exposure.
The student essayist is torn between two contrasting extremes:
“I am so weird that I could never tell on the page what is really, secretly going on in my mind.”
“I am so boring, nothing ever happens to me out of the ordinary, so who would want to read about me?” (40)
This and a companion piece by Lopate that I will discuss are important because they encourage the student writer to think about herself as a topic of interest. Finding the self interesting and being able to write about the self as a theme are challenging for anyone. How often are we turned off by a piece because someone seems to have too high an opinion of herself? Or how often do we become frustrated because an author seems unable to understand his own circumstances and how they affect his interpretation? How often do we find people’s stories boring or irrelevant when socializing, or think we have nothing interesting to contribute about our own boring lives? Then there are the people who can make every day seem like an adventure, in which tales of buying groceries, riding the train, or getting a haircut all seem like the most interesting things you’ve ever heard. Some people who have survived plane crashes or accomplished extraordinary things still seem rather dull. Creating interest is all about choosing the right details and establishing voice.
Lopate says in his piece that both of the student writer’s contrasting extremes—”I am so weird” and “I am so boring”—reflect a lack of understanding that we are all inherently weird and normal. “In short, they (students) must be nudged to recognize that life remains a mystery—even one’s own so-called boring life. They must also be taught to recognize the charm of the ordinary: that daily life has nourished some of the most enduring essays” (40).
It is interesting, after reading this process piece, to have students read and examine Lopate’s “Portrait of My Body,” in which he describes his own features at length as a way to present himself as a character. Notably, while he is self-deprecating, Lopate is careful never really to say anything negative about himself. Each thing he points out as a flaw is later redeemed, leaving readers ultimately confused and feeling the ego need to engage in such an undertaking, with each aspect of a rather ordinary body being compared to a celebrity or author such as Sandy Koufax or Cesare Pavese. It is this fluctuation between narcissism and self-deprecation that is so fascinating and revealing. Some examples are charming, such as the aura a student describes seeing around his head, while some are off-putting, notably a few pages discussing his penis.
With statements such as “They claim that men who have long, long fingers also have lengthy penises. I can tell you with surety that my fingers are long and sensitive, the most perfect, elegant, handsome part of my anatomy,” (222) a vibrant discussion of how to write about the self is sure to follow. As Lopate says, most students find themselves at one of two extremes, immensely entertaining or terribly boring. In reality, most of us probably fall somewhere in between.
The Ellis and Lopate pieces are also interesting in considering the differences between nonfiction and fiction. If might be uncomfortable enough to read a piece describing intimate parts of anyone’s body, but to know that is supposed to represent the truth is an entirely different story. It is an important reminder that personal writing is a vulnerable task, one that lays us on the table to be seen and judged. Writers are not, however, passive victims in this process. They have to choose what they put out there and recognize they are discussing real people who are vulnerable and need to be treated with respect.
I often ask my students how they would feel if they knew someone had written a nonfiction piece about them for a class, or how the people they write about would feel if were given the pieces to read? Something that might initially seem like a good idea, in fact, may be hurtful to the subject, who can feel vulnerable or even humiliated by another’s characterization. That’s why the most important first step in writing anything in nonfiction and personal writing is to make the self vulnerable, to more fully understand what it feels like to be the focus of truthful scrutiny. Through this process, students can begin to understand how to use the tools they have at hand to guide readers to the conclusions they wish to reach while treating their subjects, including themselves, carefully and ethically.
We all love a good character, someone who is complex yet relatable, full of all of the human foibles we are aware of, who may act differently from what we could ever anticipate.
This is by far the hardest assignment of the semester and also your first major assignment. Unless you have been honing your persona in writing for many years, you will have a hard time with this piece.
For this assignment, you will need to write a self-portrait. There are many ways you can do this. You can identify a structural element that allows you to move through personality traits, use interesting qualities or amusing actions to form a story or create narrative story lines that let us see you at your best and worst. So much of writing this piece is about making choices. Lopate chose to write about himself using his body as a device to make different kinds of observations about his character and personality. Other writers, like Geeta Kothari, chose food to talk about themselves as characters.
Choose a device that you can use to explain yourself as a character. A device is something we will practice with in many of the writing assignments—a tool that allows you to tell a story in a logical way when you might not otherwise have been able to tell it organically in the structure of your narrative.
However you approach this piece, make sure to focus on yourself in an interesting way. In other words, for better or worse, make yourself a character we want to hear and care about.
This work will be shared with classmates during class discussion.
This is usually a breakthrough moment in class. Everyone, including the teacher, is made completely vulnerable at the same time as they present portraits of themselves for the group to hear and discuss. Before the sharing process, I ask students to take note of what stands out to them in other students’ narratives. The students and the teacher then share, without pause for comment, and the class has a follow-up discussion about what was noteworthy.
This exercise, including the sharing process, is important because students will begin to understand the parts of themselves that resonate with their peer audience and how they might use these elements to their advantage as they create their voice in other, longer essays. Usually this is the first time students have tried, perhaps outside of social media, to make themselves cohesive characters. Some will share their doubts and struggles, while others will celebrate their quirks and accomplishments. Developing an individual voice and a sense of self will be important for all of their other writing during the semester. By establishing themselves as figures of authority who are self-aware and have valuable perspectives, they will communicate more effectively with their intended audiences.
When the class works on defining character, I like to include pieces that examine different elements of experience and memories that authors use to do so. These authors use everything from cultural experience to food and schooling to define important moments in their lives and character development.
I use Geeta Kothari’s “If you are what you eat, then what am I?” because it has an easily relatable topic with an unusual structure. Kothari uses a broken-up style, recounting a series of related instances involving food. Having grown up with a first-generation Indian mother who worked hard to make simple “American” food such a tuna salad, and having a meat-eating life partner, she finds herself constantly at odds with the food cultures around her. She recounts her own childhood experiences in traveling to India and her lack of interest in Indian cooking until she became an adult and tried to re-create memories of childhood. Kothari requires the reader to make her own connections by juxtaposing these related but different moments in time. This is both a stylistic choice and a stumble in the piece. I suggest students bridge the difficult territory of filling in the connections for their readers, rather than making the readers figure it out for themselves. Students will, however, readily relate to the significance of food in culture, memory, family structure and relationships.
In her piece “Talking in the New Land,” Edite Cunha draws on a lot of ideas that can be very inspiring for students. Having immigrated to the United States as a young child, she uses three main examples to show the challenges she faced. She begins this essay by talking about how her first teacher changed her name to “Americanize” it and demonstrates how names can identify us. Most students will be able to trace a connection to their own names, whether those names are inherited from relatives, have religious meaning, were inspired by love for a celebrity, or causeds problems because of spelling, pronunciation, or assumptions made by those who heard them. Cunha explores how as she a child she had to take care of very adult things on behalf of her parents, who were not as proficient in English as she. At ten she was trying to get money for the family and negotiating with a woman who wanted heirlooms she had left behind in the house Cunha’s family purchased from her. Her struggles with language and cultural identity as a child are obviously relevant for many young writers.
Although Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” is a prose poem, it is a strong stylistic example of how character is and is not defined. In a series of directives, the main character is told how to do a variety of tasks and how not to do others. There are hardly any moments of pause, and the onslaught of advice is overwhelming. The voice of the girl is barely heard, yet at the end we get a clear picture of who the girl is supposed to be and who is there to guide her.
In a similar vein, Margaret Atwood uses lists and scenes in “The Female Body” to demonstrate the way the female body has been used for everything from advertising to patriotism. She reflects on the importance of the Barbie doll, the modifications women make to their bodies and the function of the male brain. This piece is quite aggressive and can spark a lot of good discussion about gender roles, how bodies define us, and how culture determines value.
These initial longer writing assignments will help students find a voice and consider the importance of intention and perspective in their writing. If they are able to master the exercises in Chapters 2 and 3, they will be well prepared for the larger essay assignments in the remainder of the class.