Teaching Autoethnography

5. Memory/Character Essays

Overview

One of the hardest things to master, and a hurdle to overcome for many students, is learning how to show and not tell. This may seem like a tired subject, but it is an important one. Most students—who at this point have written many documents in their academic lives to prove they have read something, done research or are worthy of attending a college, receiving a scholarship or getting a job—have a hard time mastering techniques that allow experiences to “speak for themselves.” It’s clear why this is so hard for them to understand: In college writing classes, we are not asking them to prove they are doing or reading something. We assume they have done their readings and preparation. We are asking them to take the next step and to create meaning, a new skill for many college student writers and one that takes time to master.

When much of your writing life has been devoted to summing things up and proving things, it can be hard to avoid the habit. I prohibit students from “summing up” their essays for class. How tiresome the world would be if everyone constantly had to sum up their purpose in life. So my students are never allowed to tell their readers what something means. They must create strong enough connections and reflections so that by the end of the writing, readers understand the significance of their narrative. A lot of developing this skill is learning to choose details, identify the “So what?” factor of the writing, and, most importantly, trust the reader.

Through using devices and cues and most importantly creating scenes, writers are able to convey ideas and messages to us without thrusting their purpose in our faces in the form of summaries and underlined theses. Students can do the same thing by coming to understand that once they know and explore the purpose of their writing, others will be able to follow their meaning. As I mentioned in the “Who cares?” section, if students don’t know why they are writing something, most often their audience will not know either. Intention in writing is key. Students must work on understanding why they are choosing a topic, other than that they need to complete an assignment to earn a grade. That way, they can work as they write to tease out important ideas and themes through the details they choose to include and the voice they use to convey it to their intended audience.

Students must also understand that memory is fallible. As a rule, people remember only a very small amount of what they experience. If this were not true, we would not be able to function on a daily basis. I often ask students in class if they have a memory of something that others dispute—maybe something that happened in childhood or an experience with a friend on which they disagree about what actually occurred. Most students will raise their hands and acknowledge that this has happened to them, and I invite a few students to share these stories with the class.

It is important to establish that just because memories differ does not mean they are invalid. There is a fine line between remembering something to the best of our ability and willfully misremembering something. In class, we work on remembering to the best of our ability and intending to be truthful. Talking to others who were involved in memories, if possible, can be helpful in fleshing out details. Readings in which authors use examples of childhood memories can be helpful in understanding the finer points of these distinctions, especially with memoir.

Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook” is very effective for helping students analyze the concept of truth and what that means for the reader. Our class is not studying philosophy, but I try to devote a fairly large amount of time right off the bat to discussing how and what truth means to us as writers. Didion both lies to her readers and convinces us of her truthfulness. How does she achieve this?

In this essay, Didion cleverly analyzes her reasons for keeping a journal, holding on to notes and images from her life. She shares some of the stories she has created from these moments and how they differ from the recollections of her family and friends. This reading usually makes students reflect on what the term truth mean for them in their everyday life and what power it contains. Didion reflects, “Not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters” (333). In discussing her process of journaling and creating stories, she aims for a specific kind of truth, “How it felt to me: that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook” (333). Didion explains that the truth in her writing is how a situation felt to her at the time; in this way she is being accurate to her experience. This highlights an important aspect of all nonfiction writing—an obligation for the writer to maintain an ethical regard for the reader and represent the experience in a way that is true, not always to facts and chronology, but to experience. It is a thought Carolyn Ellis uses to define autoethnography in a piece I will analyze in Chapter 7.

I also use this discussion as a time to ask people if they have ever journaled, blogged, or maintained Twitter or Facebook feed. We discuss the importance of capturing important moments in our lives for personal reasons while also tailoring them to elicit a response from an audience.

As a warm-up exercise to practice showing and not telling, I ask students to draw on a specific memory and try to re-create it vividly for the reader. I keep this first assignment short and vague, to allow them to approach it informally and organically. They are encouraged to use their five senses as well as to incorporate any remembered dialogue in the writing. This work should be conducted in weeks five to seven.

The Memory Assignment

Briefly describe a memory that is important to you. Try to avoid explaining why the memory is important and focus on showing the importance of the memory. Use your five senses, and include dialogue, if possible.

 

Results

Sometimes these initial memory pieces will be very difficult for the students to share. Reading them aloud can be the first time a student cries in the classroom, since when asked to remember something, many students will reflexively turn to difficult or painful experiences, such as the death of a family member or a humiliating incident. On the other extreme, this writing can be very generic and predictable and involve topics such as being accepted to college or any event of achievement that might appear in a college application essay.

This is an important exercise because it often demonstrates that while a memory seems significant to an individual writer, it will not necessarily seem important to the audience. Students may have accomplished something very impressive, but there must be a point of entry for an audience to understand the value of this achievement as a topic for reading. Also, when writing about difficult situations that are intensely personal, we have to find ways to allow an audience to relate to the narrative.

I use the results of the shorter assignment as a way to introduce more details for students to consider as they write longer memory pieces. In extending their writings, students will need to take the time to explore the subtext of the memory, the details, persons involved, dialogue and settings to demonstrate the meaning for the reader. The longer memory essay will be a chance to practice these skills. Using the examples students generate in the shorter assignments is an effective way to point out strengths and weaknesses before moving forward in the writing. I invite students to use the ideas from this short assignment in the longer essay or to feel free to choose a completely new topic for the extended essay. I emphasize focus on the creation of characters for their first extended essay. The focus will be on incorporating the skills they have worked on in their deep observation, perspective and self-as-character assignments.

Examples of these essays can be found in Chapter 12.

The Importance of Creating Scenes and Using Dialogue

One way to strengthen the showing-and-not-telling aspect of writing is to create scenes. In creating a scene, it is important not just to describe what is seen with the five senses, as students practiced in their observation exercises, but also to let the people in the scene speak for themselves. This is not always possible, but using dialogue is an important skill to master, and the extended memory assignment will be a great place to try it out. This will be the first time students consider how they can create a perspective that readers will trust by incorporating other voices.

Using dialogue in nonfiction writing for the first time can be tricky and unnerving. Re-creating conversations, allowing people’s speech to come through, using direct quotes or overheard language can help students see that it is important not only to present their take on the event but to let readers experience the direct voice of the players. This will allow a piece to seem more balanced in perspective. Readers are often turned off if writers are not able to present a measured view or confident voice. Students need to convince the reader that they are truthful, believable, worthy of trust. By allowing more voices to speak, they are insinuating the veracity of the situation through no insistence of their own. A very small amount of well-chosen dialogue can go a long way.

As with anything involving memory, it is important to urge students to be as accurate as possible when using speech. Including speech in projects researched in real time is easier than writing about dialogue in the past. Encourage students to do their best to re-create moments of speech accurately and to keep voices consistent.

Researching Your Own Experience

The memory essay is also a good place to introduce the idea that many memoir writers research their own pasts. Since memory is fallible, interviewing others who were present at important events or speaking to multiple people directly involved in the memories can be an important part of the writing. It will come as a surprise to many students that writing about their own lives can require research.

That research won’t necessarily be essential for this essay, but it is important to inform the students that for extended and complicated pieces they intend to publish, drawing on multiple sources for accuracy can be informative and essential to ensure the veracity of details including timelines, locations, and players.

The Memory/Character Essay Assignment

A memory is not necessarily something that happened a long time ago. Rather, a memory is something that is past, something that is reflected upon. It can be something that happened last week or a moment from your childhood, but for our purposes, it is something that has happened before this assignment was given.

For this assignment, choose a memory that has multiple levels of meaning for you. It is important not just to create a narrative about one particular thing but to think about the complexities of the memory and why you find it worthy of exploring in an essay. Subtext and intention are crucial.

You should re-create details as accurately as possible, even talking to friends or family members who might help you remember aspects of a memory. All good writers of memoir research their own histories. This is because memory is fallible and other people might be able to shed important light on our experiences.

Focus especially on re-creating characters, yourself included, who were involved in the memory. Use dialogue to let these characters speak, and choose details to convey the nature of relationships.

 

Results

As with the shorter memory assignment, students will often use the memory/character essay to explore something that has become a part of their rehearsed life narrative. It may be one of the hardest pieces for them to revise, since it may be based on a story they have repeated many times. Getting students to reconsider a somewhat fixed narrative to demonstrate its potential for expansion can be challenging. As with the shorter piece, the range of experiences is likely to go from the very sad and tragic to the mundane. It will be important for the students to share these pieces with one another through the drafting process so they have models to consider for expansion of their ideas. This also will allow them to see that memory does not have to be something very large to be important and can be very small if treated properly.

Examples of these essays can be found in Chapter 12.

Conclusion

With the assignments in this chapter, you might have some setbacks in the quality of the students’ writing in initial drafts. When asked to put together all of the elements for the first time in larger, extended pieces, students may feel overwhelmed. The extended memory essay is the first time they are attempting to employ everything they have learned simultaneously. It is natural, therefore, that this will be difficult for them. By working from invention to draft to final version and possibly revision in peer groups and one on one, students will gain confidence and start to master the voice they will need for the next series of assignments.

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