Circling Around the Truth?

Now that we’re in week three and I’ve found myself a little more comfortable with being involved in actual writing outside of teaching, I find myself in a small dill-pickle of sorts.  While I found myself teaching the inductive essay today and asking my students just to “try” the new format and begin with a representative example that most readily could start with a personal experience of theirs, a student quickly asked, “So I just tell you what’s happened to me and why it’s sad and what I learned?”  I was a bit shocked by this, but then realized I may have invited what I will call genre stereotyping; the genre of non-fiction in my opinion has been a bit stereotyped to be one that yes, included memoir as a staple, but often one that is known for exposing the personal.  For exposing a good, detailed story by various standards.  But for the sake of exposing the personal, I cannot get this student’s comment out of my mind.  How do I answer this student–how do I make certain these assumptions are not being executed in my own writing?

Does the genre of non-fiction need to be defended by its inhabitants or am I, like my writing in transition and draft, becoming defensive of my right to be personal?  Could it be instead that this assumption the student shared comes from…reading or not reading?  I’m not exactly sure what I want to call into question right, I’m just not prepared.  Although this pattern of exploration having to be related to a “sad” moment or story I’ve often found is also present in the genre of poetry.  And I find myself struggling with the concept of writing personally that connects–that spirals outward to an audience rather than stays simply for the writer.  But this struggle to invite the reader into the world of my piece is always on my mind–a conscious effort and a learned tactic, so why is it that I still find personal writing, simply starting a non-fiction poem with, “It seems I’ve collected dead fathers as others collect quarters” a moment that I plan to spiral outward but now am second-guessing not the material we are circulating and conversing about in class,the how-to of this spiral, but am second-guessing what I can do for this student.  How has this happened?

Please comment, respond, share…

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6 Responses to Circling Around the Truth?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Well… In my opinion, (which is ahem…personal) all anecdotes can’t help but explore the personal. It is difficult to write our innermost experiences, knowing they will be viewed by strangers, and it is difficult to share our experiences in a way that illustrates universal human emotion. For me, emotion is difficult to communicate in words. Images seem much more apt representations, hence the use of simile, metaphor, alliteration, tone, context, form, and a whole box of other tools in our kits. The concept of sharing personal experience in a way that moves others hinges on the establishment of connection/association (as you say). Is there a way to explain why the experience is important to an intended audience? I think there is always the danger that our personal experiences will not quite ripple into the larger pond. I also think that is unrealistic to think that as teachers we will immediately (in the moment) be prepared for any situation with our students. In a way the student is correct (story arc: what happened, why sad, what was learned). This, of course is an oversimplification, but how can we take apart these assumptions and put them back together in a more meaningful way? How can we broaden perspective? (This broadening of perspective question is also important to ask when we write.) I want to ask the student so many questions: What do you want to read, and why? What stories interest you, linger long after you’ve read them, modify the way you think about something? What have you read that turned you on, inspired you?
    I am always asking myself: How can I inspire others? (I second guess this all the time.)

    • Anonymous says:

      The “Anonymous” post above is actually from me. Sorry about that. I obviously didn’t have enough coffee before I began my professional day. If anyone knows how to remedy this error, I am ready to learn! See you all in class.

      • Anonymous says:

        Diane, I think you might have to be signed into a WordPress account in order for your name to show?

  2. Yes! I do believe that it’s the way we can put these assumptions back together in a meaningful way that can truly get at (or try to at least) the heart of what is non-fiction and what many vehicles and faces it can have. I want students and I even want to learn a bit myself about the way that non-fiction is such a freedom of content and form in writing that it no longer needs or does well operating within a stereotype and by this word I mean that it is well-known for specific qualities but that between fall and winter now I’ve noticed that my students think of sharing a negative thing. I had two essays on the topic of it being selfish to write only about one’s self. But that’s the best part! They both were non-ficiton essays with examples! I suppose then I can get rid of this word stereotype and instead just turn the idea of being able to yes, be personal but reach outward with writing, should actually be simply a genre.

  3. brownc67 says:

    Jessica, is your concern about your student’s question a concern about the assumption that the inductive essay is a personal essay? Or are you concerned about telling them not to bring too much of the personal into their essays? I had a great prof at UW who said that our personal beliefs, assumptions, perspectives, past experiences are always in our writing whether we acknowledge them explicitly or not. Our students have to fulfill certain genre requirements, but if I they can do that as well as incorporate personal narrative that allows them to be more invested in their critical inquiry, I think that’s great, and should even be encouraged. Maybe we can think of our work in creative non-fiction in a similar way? Would it be helpful for all of us to think about fulfilling genre requirements as a rhetorical strategy to reach an audience of non fiction writers, but to use that as a way of writing the story we want to? I wonder if we can think about that in terms of writing into a discourse and thereby being able to change and shape that discourse.

    • Yes, thank you for the response. I think the student comment shocked me because I haven’t met a negative response or a sassy one when it comes to asking for the personal. I suppose it was the mocking a bit of what the genre “does” defined by the student as one that seemed unimportant to produce that made me pause and want to restructure the entire class to better prepare them as writers in the world rather than focus that one day on forwarding and extending moves. It is the moments that students challenge the way that I want to open their minds to a resume of writing styles that makes me want to care so very much that I lose sense of what I’m doing otherwise.
      Jessica C.

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