One by one the students approached the podium in front of the room and read from their personal essays. Each student had written and revised one ten-page piece over the course of the semester, with the exception of one filmmaker who produced a video essay.
I sat near the wall behind the teacher’s desk and watched the students walk up to the podium. Some approached with assurance, faced their audience, and read with confidence. Others glanced at me nervously before they began to read and took a deep breath before they dove into their piece. A few started quietly with barely audible voices, but I noticed that as they continued to read their voices got louder.
I listened with what I can only describe as pride. Having seen two previous drafts of each of these essays, I could hear, even in the short sections they read, where the students had dug deeper into their stories. I could tell where they had tried to find meaning or direction in the experiences they chose to describe, experiences which at first might have felt random. I noticed where they had added scenes into sections that were once summarized and included sensory details to help the reader feel more present in their narratives. I watched the faces of the students who had initially been worried about sharing information about painful events in their lives, and I noticed that the students weren’t quite as uncomfortable as they had been earlier in the semester.
And I thought, not for the first time, that it was amazing what these young people had already seen, experienced, and lived through, at the tender age of 20-22.
I stick on the word tender here, because that’s what each of these voices was to me, from the ones that seemed most outgoing and confident to those that were the most shy. Every one of them revealed a scar of some kind, a wound few of their classmates would ever have known about had it not been addressed in the writing. Some of these students had shared classes for several years and yet said during this class, when they workshopped each others’ essays, “Wow, I never knew…”
We worked hard in the seminar to remember that a nonfiction text is not us. It is a work of craft that we, as writers, develop and shape. Yes, the piece is inspired by our own life experiences, but even the narrator, or the “I” on the page, is never a complete presentation of who we are. The narrator is a literary persona, one that is carefully crafted to tell a story in a certain way.
Still, the stories we tell in creative nonfiction are personal. There is no way around it. And I hope what some of the students discovered this semester is that if you dig into what’s hard, if you take that leap and tell your story, it can be much more than liberating. It can be empowering. Some creative nonfiction pieces, especially those that qualify as personal reportage or personal cultural criticism, are designed, first and foremost, to inspire people to think. That alone is a worthy goal and an important aspect of the genre. Others, especially personal essays, have the interesting “side effect” of helping writers discover that they’re not the only people who felt a certain way. Maybe they’re not the only ones who experienced something like this, who saw themselves like that, who hurt that way, who conquered something they never thought they could overcome, or who has had to admit they haven’t conquered it at all. Yes, these stories can transcend “navel-gazing” to interest and even “entertain” readers–they have to in order to be successful as texts. But telling a personal story can do more. It can encourage readers to think twice before making judgments. It might inspire them to take action, in small or large ways, to foster change. And it can help another person who is struggling to think, “Maybe I’m not alone. Maybe I’m going to be okay.” And that’s what I saw on some of the faces of the students at their desks as they listened to their classmates yesterday.
I’ve learned something in my first couple of years as a college lecturer. Teaching can be a struggle. There’s no way around that, either. There are days when students don’t show up in class, days when assignments are handed in late (or not at all). There are students who send text messages or check Facebook while you’re trying to teach and students who glance at the clock periodically as if to let you know they would rather be anywhere else than in that classroom at that time on that day. There are days when the lessons you planned don’t go well, days when you trip over your own words, days when you feel frustrated that you did or said something that obviously fell flat.
There are days when you say, “That’s it, I’m done.”
But then there are days like yesterday, when you watch a student who sent you an email the night before walk up to the podium. The email said that he didn’t think he could read his piece out loud. At the time, you offered some pointers, but you but told him he didn’t have to read if it would really be too difficult. You watch him approach the podium without looking at you and read from his piece anyway, in front of all of his classmates. Then, after he returns to his seat, you see (through the corner of your eye) him tear up and slump back into his chair with pride and relief. Then you see the student next to him pat his leg in support.
On those days you say to yourself, “Okay, maybe I’m not done yet.”