For my second year, I’m teaching “Writing Life Stories: The Power of Narrative” to a class of college juniors and seniors. There are 19 students this year, only one a writing major, though several other declared artists—of music, theatre, ceramics, film—among the future nurses, veterinarians, and teachers. In short, this is creative writing for non-majors. For the seniors, it’s their final semester. Their last chance to take a “fun” elective. Perchance to reflect, to second guess, to move forward. Seeing college careers end with my class is always so poignant. When the glory of late spring comes at last, there they’ll go, flying into their futures like so many valiant storm-tossed sparrows.
I loved last year’s class, but feel I’m doing a better job this time. I’ve codified everything learned last time—and from many other journalism, memoir, and cnf classes I’ve taught or taken over the years—into a focus on three essential elements of personal narrative nonfiction. In practice, I know, you have to teach much more than that at once. I harp on sentence diversity and rhythms from the start, for instance. Writers must learn to do so much at once, which is what makes writing challenging. Some talents do burn bright and quick, but I think of writing as a comparatively late-blooming art. Though I may change my tune by the end, for now I love the focus provided by telling the kids from the first day that our three big tools for reading and writing memoir are persona, scene, and structure.
Lee Martin, through his craft essays and memoirs, has taught me more than anyone about the use of persona. Point of view, voice, and tone all arise from or are inseparable from persona. I’ve become increasingly sensitive to the richness for readers in the fact that at least two distinctive and different voices from the same writer can tell the story in memoir: you “then,” mired in the action, and you “now,” the wiser person telling the tale. Surely this reflective narrator is embedded in our DNA.
Every winter I find myself turning briefly to the Romantics, and I partake of Wordsworth and Keats, there on the treadmill in the basement, staring at an old mass market anthology, yellowed and torn. But it’s been sustained, my poetry reading, this cold and snowy winter.
It began with seeing a couple of surfers in mid-January. I was down in Florida, staying at my sister’s condo on Melbourne Beach, a few miles down Highway A1A from where we grew up in Satellite Beach. My wife and sister had left, and there I was alone with the dog. My schedule was to read Anna Karenina, and then work on planning my Spring classes, and then take the dog for an hour’s walk. Sometimes I got out rather late. Like the day at 4 o’clock when, in a silent empty subdivision, I witnessed two boys roaring toward the beach on skateboards, their surfboards under their arms, and I tagged along and watched them surf.
The episode triggered a confused longing in me for my own beach-town boyhood—but also a surging hope: gladness that kids were still growing up partaking of oceanic gifts. And also I felt a comfort in this new human wave that’s rapidly overtaking me; it will seem fitting and proper when I dissolve into that bottomless, fathomless sea of DNA from which they’ve arisen. At least I hope so.
The emotions I felt from seeing those surfer dudes, the embodiment of my own beach boyhood, were such a welter of loss and love that I wanted to capture the experience of witnessing them at play in the waves. But for three days I didn’t know how. What form might such a piece take? I kept thinking, How can I let that moment pass? Not make something?