Teaching memoir 3.0
Structuring a memoir-writing class by focusing on essay structures.
I blogged last year about teaching memoir by emphasizing the essentials of persona, scene, and structure. Except now I list and teach scene first because students get voice faster—essentially persona, the writer now, talking to us about the past—but many need help understanding how and why to dramatize, to make scenes. So SPS: scene, persona, structure. From the start, this gives us a shared vocabulary. To understand scene, for instance, you must understand summary—and often students who have written vivid summary think they’ve written scene.
That’s the thing about teaching writing: you must teach so much at once. You hope that by providing good models for students, they will emulate more than the stated focus. And they do. Nothing teaches the teacher, however, like teaching. Last year, my college-level junior and senior students in “Writing Life Stories: The Power of Narrative” said they wished that I’d emphasized structures earlier.
So, this time, I have. Structure, the shaped mode of presentation, excites students. They see how it can help them crack open their material, cut plodding “and then” or unnecessary backstory. Halfway through the semester, already I have shown students: braiding (Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” always astonishes everyone), framing (a favorite new essay is Kelly Sundberg’s “The Sharp Point in the Middle”); collage (“Documents” by Charles D'Ambrosio); and Hermit Crabs, among them Pir Rothenberg’s funny “Woman Told,” made from women’s OkCupid dating profiles, which also shows the closeness of nonfiction and poetry. Next we’re looking at segmentation, probably reading Jonathan Lethem’s “The Beards,” Lee Martin’s “All Those Fathers That Night,” and Dinty W. Moore’s “Son of Mr. Green Jeans,” the latter a Hermit Crab as well, taking as it does an alphabetical list for its structure.
My shift in approach has caused me to realize that I can structure my next class by following writing structures. After the first month’s focus on the Big Three of scene, persona, and structure, we can take a structure a week, before turning, say, to a theme such as “The Pains and Joys of Others.” For that, we can read the greatest American essay, James Baldwin’s immortal “Notes of a Native Son,” which revisits the framed structure; and Brian Doyle’s powerful flash essay “Leap,” about 9/11; and Ryan Van Meter’s “If You Knew Then What I Know Now,” also a great example of second-person address. We could finish the semester with “You in Real Time,” which might include Moore’s witty “Mick on the Make,” Jill Christman’s deft “Family Portrait,” which as a bonus is in third person, and Elizabeth Kavitsky’s “Winter Just Melted.” I could have them read Brenda Miller’s flash essay “Swerve” as well. (I must figure out where or if to consider separately flash essays, which intrigue students almost as much as structure does.)
You can drive yourself crazy trying to match stated weekly themes with example essays. But what seals the deal for me is how the stated theme plus examples can support my weekly writing prompt. Under “The Pains and Joys of Others,” I could give them a standby, a prompt to write about an odd person they’ve known; under “You in Real Time” I could ask them to write about “Me, Now,” as in Kavitsky’s post-college self-portrait, or have them write an apology to someone, whether sincere or, as in “Swerve,” facetious and dripping with scorn. (99 percent of undergraduates take the latter option, which is fun—but makes the heartfelt exception doubly affecting.)
To appreciate my breakthrough, it might help to know that my “Writing Life Stories” class meets in person once a week and that the syllabus lists a different theme for each week. For instance, Week 11 is themed “Dramatic tension, foreshadowing cont.,” and Week 12 is listed as “Language, Tone, Style, Humor.” At the time I slapped such headings on the syllabus I suppose I thought that so saying meant so doing. But, in practice, those categories are at once too weighty and too vague for me. Or maybe it’s just that they don’t work as organizing principles, to me too recipe-ish—“stir in some foreshadowing and add a pinch of humor”—when I tend to underscore the overall container for a story, its structure, and then turn to elements of its content.
As in writing, there’s what you think you might do and what you find yourself doing. Maybe it boils down simply to this: I can’t wait to share certain essays with students. By categorizing them according to structure, probably starting with the chronological, I space my favorites throughout the semester.
This plan will, in some sense, fail. But it will help the course, and me as a teacher, evolve.
Richard Gilbert (richardgilbert.me) is the author of Shepherd: A Memoir, a story of dreams, loss, fatherhood, and farming. His essays have appeared in Brevity, Chautauqua, Fourth Genre, Orion, River Teeth, and Utne Reader. He teaches writing at Otterbein University.
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