I recently took two of those BuzzFeed online quizzes, and it turns out I’m supposed to be a humanitarian and a mutt. Not a teacher, nor writer; not a dachshund, nor terrier. I relate these silly results because they actually resonated with how I think of my purpose as a teacher and writer. Teaching as a humanitarian is fitting for a mutt.
I believe that teaching is a subversive humanitarian act that shares, or passes on, the tools of critical thinking to students; therefore, I teach guerrilla English. (As an aside, guerrilla English is a term I didn’t make up, but I’m not sure where I found it. Possibly it comes from a Facebook post by Lidia Yuknavitch, the author of the fantastic memoir Chronology of Water.) Right now, as an adjunct, I’m teaching a lot of English composition courses. The students enter the writing process through personal narrative.
I use nonviolent guerrilla means to reach busy, distracted learners. In no area do students struggle more, I think, than with reading comprehension. In this essay, I’d like to emphasize the importance of reading alongside writing. I mean reading here as both the act of reading text and the act of reading self. The ability to reflect means one has an ability to place the self in the framework of the larger world, which is vital to prevent an overpowering tendency toward me, me, me in the writing of personal narrative.
Here are a few texts that I’ve found particularly helpful with regard to creating what Lance Olsen calls a “possibility space.”
Lance Olsen’s “33 Tweets On the Nature of Possibility” was given as a talk at the Banff Center in 2010. It’s not personal narrative, but it helps students see their own judgments and assumptions about reading and writing. An example:
16. Proposition 1.0: Writing & pedagogy should be possibility spaces where everything can and should be attempted, felt, thought.
17. Proposition 2.0: Writing practices should demand greater labor from readers, not less—not effortlessness, never comfort.
18. Because vexing texts make us work, make us think and feel in unusual ways, attempt to wake us in the midst of our dreaming.
Students are surprised by this text in different ways. I suggest to my students that they write a reading response in any manner they wish. “Any manner?” they ask. “Any manner,” I insist.
Several students each semester write this variation, and I quote: “Wow. That Lance Olsen writer guy is one far-out dude.” And that’s cool, to submit a one-sentence reading response paper. But even more cool are the responses I receive that culminate in something like this: “Before reading Lance Olsen, I never felt I had permission not to understand and to use my not understanding as a portal to reading and writing.”
Another text I assign is J. D. Schraffenberger’s Dropping Babies, published by Brevity online (spring 2012). This text is, indeed, about dropping babies. Schraffenberger writes: “I want to say it was only a few inches. I want to say I wasn’t myself, but babies, especially on your own, have a way of showing you exactly who you are, or at least what you’re capable of in the middle of the night.”
In reading response papers, half the students write that the author should be turned in to child protective services. This is often a righteous response involving limited thinking about right and wrong. The other half express having had similar experiences with a crying baby. This nuanced response seems closer to critical thinking in that there is lots of gray. All the students assume the author is a woman. The author is a man.
The segmented form of Dropping Babies helps students think about the assumption that personal narrative must have a beginning, middle, and climactic end. I suggest that personal narrative can be used to build critical thinking skills and perception, of self and others. I suggest that personal narrative might better be thought of as a collage of time-space smells and bodily bruises formed by nuanced memories and biased assumptions. The idea that personal narrative might not have to reach solid conclusions comes as a relief to many students and writers.
If Schraffenberger shocks a student reader into awareness, Lia Purpura’s Memo Re: Beach Glass, published by Agni online (2008), reminds a student reader of “the bright uselessness of joyful endeavors.” I teach English composition at two different two-year colleges, and my students rightly want specific answers to specific things. They want me to give them a prompt, and they are not that interested in my insistence that they reject the five-paragraph essay. Purpura’s essay reminds students to focus on observation, on the close seeing of things.
The “uselessness of joyful endeavors,” as Purpura suggests through her deep seeing of beach glass, reminds readers that “the looking goes intently on.” It’s a narrative of seeing and of patience. Purpura writes:
Not too many people are patient enough to throw back the young pieces [of beach glass]. I do, personally, because without fully developed features, without the properties sand and tides produce (the opacities of age, the diversiform shapes), beach glass is detritus, junk, trash. Sharp, splintery breakage. Time makes it otherwise. How much time? When is a piece cured?
Immediately students recognize that writing is about patience. The childhood joys of collecting meant that as kids, they were connecting to tactile observation—whether glass from a beach or rocks from a mountain. As adults, they want to do that again, though now through their own writing, of course.
The foundation of my online English composition courses, at least English 101 for undergraduates, is personal narrative, and for a long time, I thought I could no longer teach personal narrative. How do you correct a comma splice in a sentence written by an Iraq war veteran who is writing about holding his buddy in his arms? An improvised explosive device, an IED, has just blown up. His “buddy bleeds out” while held by this student, who has submitted a personal narrative about one of the toughest events in his life. There is a comma splice in the sentence. The comma splice must be addressed. Must it? The essay’s tonal honesty, the desert air, and the iron smell of blood shock me. I am dismayed that I think it is an ethical requirement that I correct a comma splice in the middle of a buddy’s death. So for a while I thought, no more personal narrative.
I decided that teaching personal narrative requires the instructor to reflect, to frame, to illuminate, to witness, and that with these intentions, I could approach students through our shared online anonymity, which many students tell me helps them to write.
Students in my online courses regularly ask me, through course forums or email, if they might try writing about subjects that are hard for them. What matters to them is having permission in advance to experiment in narrative with their lived experience. Personal narrative approached as an experiment becomes less about the truthiness of memory and more about the process of reflection.
While writing my current book project, I realized that I was imposing narrative structure in the same manner as my students. I expected to write what I was calling a traditional memoir, in which my mother and I used forest labor as a balm for grief and journeyed to a redemptive end. Nevertheless, my instinct said that losing my brother to suicide and losing my mother to cancer would not lend itself to that arc of climbing a mountain.
I finally gave up, to encompass form in the way I encompass grief. I open my arms. I don’t expect an end. Grief does not reach closure; it’s offensive to suggest we ever reach closure when we lose those we love. The heart-door to our greatest loves must be left open. Grief is not mapped. As a writer, I need to give myself the permission I give my students: the encouragement to explore, to jostle, and most important, not to understand. For this writing project, I am now using a collaged approach to personal narrative that includes letters to the dead, descriptions about planting tree seedlings, and prose about Andy the Bear who opened our fridge door, took out Mom’s huckleberry cake, and ran off with it. I had tried to impose a linear progression on the sweaty forest labor my mum and I did together, yet my memory of my experience is in no way linear, particularly when it comes to investigating and crafting grief.
To conclude, part of my project as a teacher and a writer, a humanitarian mutt, is to frame the self in the context of something other than the self. One way to see the self in relation to others, and to the larger world, is through using the element of surprise in reading and writing personal narrative.