Teaching Autoethnography

6. Writing about Spaces and Events

Overview

This chapter’s focus will be on writing more specifically about space and environment. The students, who until this point have focused mostly on character, will now concentrate on how space and objects work as important elements in their narratives. They will already have completed the deep observation assignment from Chapter 2 and have spent time discussing the value of using the five senses in their writing. To continue with this process, each of the exercises in this chapter asks students to develop different writing techniques that will assist them in understanding the importance of objects and environment as players in their larger narratives. The goal is to treat spaces and events as characters in the narrative and use sensory elements to structure and organize the final narratives.

Also, for the first time, students will be asked to engage a space or event in real time specifically to have a subject to write about. This will be a major change from relying only on memory and will require students to use the skills they have practiced, employing observation in conjunction with memory and applying them to a new subject. In some class situations, having students do real-time observation will not be possible. In these cases, this project can be very successful as a memory piece that focuses on the value of space and event as equally important to character. This work should happen in weeks eight to eleven.

Writing About the Classroom

This exercise is one of the more boring exercises we do over the course of the semester, and that is the point. I ask students to write about our classroom. Some of you may be lucky and have beautiful rooms with windows overlooking lush green quads and bustling student life. Often my classrooms are four concrete walls, devoid of windows or with the shades down to block out city street noise. How can students make a space interesting when there is nothing inherently interesting about it? This is great practice in figuring out how to do a lot with very little, and the exercise is similar to the deep observation assignment with the focus changed from people to space.

Writing About the Classroom Exercise

Take ten minutes to create an in-class narrative about your current classroom space, without talking about the people in the room. Objects, colors, anything observed with the five senses—except people—are all valid.

 

Results

Ask students to share with the class both the experience of writing this as well as excerpts from the writing. This will start a dialogue about the challenges of using space and objects as important players in narratives and what space can tell us about people. It will also encourage students to create narratives based on moments specifically chosen as topics for writing, rather than relying on a memory as a point of reflection. Turning the uninteresting into something interesting is an important skill and can help students develop topics when they do not have any readily apparent ideas. In other words, anything, if treated correctly, can be a good and valid topic for writing.

Using Devices

When writing about space and event, students will be focusing on how to use devices to tell a story. For our purposes, the use of devices refers to using objects or sensory information as an excuse to tell a story. This allows the writers to move around in time or “flash” between time periods to provide information you otherwise wouldn’t have an excuse to include. The readings by Lee Gutkind, Philip Lopate and Carolyn Ellis all provide great examples for this technique.

For example, referring back to the Ellis piece I discuss in Chapter 5, we can see how she uses many devices throughout her narrative to tell stories. She uses her mother’s body as a way to discuss her own. Also, as she looks at her mother’s body she talks about a Caesarean scar, which she uses to mention a brother who has since died. This is an “information drop” and is a common device for writers. Lopate does something similar when he briefly mentions but then fails to reflect upon a suicide attempt. This does a few things: it demonstrates the complex lives of the characters and instantly shows that there are serious experiences that inform even mundane stories. Devices have endless possibilities and will be explored in more detail in the autoethnography chapters.

Describing a Room That Is Not Your Own

Describe a room that is not your own but that is occupied by a character you have created. At no point should you mention anything directly about the character you have created. Instead, try to convey who lives in this room by describing in detail the objects contained in the room and the room itself. Make sure to use your five senses to flesh out this description.

 

Results

This exercise helps students to continue the process of realizing how much we identify people’s personalities by the things that surround them. Some of these things are chosen by the person; others are a product of circumstance. Students will use many cues from popular culture, personal experience and media to clue in their readers to the identity of the inhabitants. Pause and focus on the processes they have used to make these choices. This is another opportunity to assess how judgment and stereotyping play a part in how we view the world.

Space and Event Writing

For this next extended essay, students will be writing about a space or event that they enter strictly to write about it. If this is not possible due to time constraints, students can certainly write about a space or event from memory. In the examples at the end of this book, I will provide both types. Ideally, this can be an extended opportunity for them to practice having an intended topic for an essay, conducting the research, and then writing up the results in a cohesive narrative. It is an important step in building up to their final autoethnographic essays.

The Space or Event Essay

Unlike the memory essay, the space or event essay will require you to write about something you will be experiencing for the first time as you write. This does not mean you cannot employ elements of memory as you investigate and discuss your topic. What it means is that you will be writing in “real time,” experiencing something with the intention of writing about it.

Until this point, many of our pieces have relied strictly on memories. Going into a new environment or experience with the intention of writing about it will change the way you experience and record the event. I am asking you to enter the moment or space with a writer’s eye, using powers of observation to both participate in and find the significance of a space or event you enter purely for reasons of creating this essay.

If you are choosing a space, choose one you have easy access to and will be able to visit readily. If you are choosing an event, make sure it is happening within the confines of the essay dates. Keep in mind that an event need not be something large. It can be something small, a gathering, a visit, or it can be a concert or a lecture. Any of these ideas and other choices will be relevant if written about in a thoughtful and prepared way.

In this essay, whether based on a new experience on not, the space or event should be a main character. Space or event can be important for structuring a narrative, and objects and surroundings can communicate a lot about the experience to the reader. Focus should be on the power of these elements to act as characters in the narrative alongside descriptions of the self and other people. Space and event are not necessarily separate. Your piece may focus on both; do not feel the need to separate these concepts artificially.

 

Results

For many students, this will be a departure from how they are used to approaching an essay topic. The focus on using space or event as an element equal in importance with character will be a new way for them to view the potential of personal writing. Also, having an intended topic and conducting research specifically for the purpose of writing will be new and will introduce them to a new approach to personal writing that will be necessary for extended autoethnographic research. I will elaborate on this exercise’s connection to the autoethnography in Chapter 10.

Readings

Building up to this second essay, I try to choose pieces that show how events and spaces can be used to structure narratives. Use of objects and devices also is key to understanding how things other than character motivate narratives.

Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “More Room” is an excerpt from her memoir Silent Dancing. The essay is a good example of using home as a device. The rooms in the house represent the expansion of the main character’s family and her ultimate decision to claim a space of her own. Students will often choose to write about their homes. The concept of home is imbued with meaning. Home can be nostalgic, painful, loving, a place of solitude, used as a structure to reflect on the nature of relationships or the difficulty of change.

Rebecca Skloot’s essay “The Truth About Cops and Dogs” is much more journalistic in tone. Skloot is better known for her book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In this, a much earlier piece, Skloot engages in a bit of reportage and recounts a harrowing story involving a pack of dogs that attack and almost kill her dog in New York City. Skloot is able to offer a balanced account of the dogs’ homeless owner. An important lesson for students is that to get readers on your side and to have them dislike a person or the person’s actions, you have to help them see something compelling or good in that person. The best movie villains have a backstory about where and when things went wrong. By understanding a person’s complex humanity, we become more invested in the character as real and three-dimensional and then increasingly disappointed or incensed at that character’s wrongful actions. This piece is particularly effective in my classes because I teach in New York City. I would encourage you to search out regional pieces when looking for class readings.

“Consider the Lobster” is arguably one of David Foster Wallace’s most pedantic pieces. With its heavy use of footnotes and sometimes dry scientific rhetoric, it is a beast of a read for almost anyone. I have students read it as they prepare to write place/event pieces. Wallace is invited to cover the Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet magazine. He uses the event as an excuse to take a look at animal rights in a very prescient way and consider how we choose which animals deserve what kind of treatment.

Choosing excerpts from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, I show both the success and downfalls of stream-of-consciousness writing. In one passage, Kerouac fetishizes the native innocence of girls while celebrating his own form of white masculinity. He uses the road as metaphor and the characters as touchstones for his own ego expansion.

Conclusion

After completing the assignments in this chapter, students will have had practice in many of the basic techniques they will be asked to use in the autoethnography assignment, the final project of the semester. Beyond what has already been explored, in the final assignment students will add research skills including conducting formal and informal interviews, identifying and engaging a subculture, and becoming a part of a larger informed narrative undertaken for the sole purpose of writing about the subculture.

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