In life we present ourselves to others amidst their constant feedback. Body language, words, eyes that twinkle or harden. Our micro adjustments to emotional currents are constant. We’re bred to send and receive signals. On the page, though, how do you know how you’re coming across?
I’ve been pondering this, as I do when I teach or write. But also because of recent events. In the first, I Skyped with a book group that had read my memoir. They gathered at RiverRead Books, a fine independent bookstore in downtown Binghamton, New York.
I got the sense—maybe a memoirist’s paranoia—that, like most book groups, they read mostly fiction. Which may partly explain one nice lady’s keen frustration with me as a character in the book. And look: Here’s that obtuse character is in the flesh. Or at least on the computer screen. A reckoning was in order. She wanted to know how I could have done it, ignored good sense and my wife and torn down a charming little cabin on our farm? All because I didn’t want to use farmland to build a house? When we didn’t even build the house after all?
Facing this sweet, smiling, frustrated woman, I was speechless. Her issue with me then felt so personal now. My thoughts raced. I created your love for that cabin. I created that dork who tore it down. I wanted you to be frustrated with me then.
As the Bible says, humans are “born for trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.” Literature is about trouble. You can play trouble for comedy or drama, but baby you play it.
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 the macro aspects of 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, 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, students will emulate more than the stated focus. And they do. Nothing teaches the teacher, however, like teaching. Last year, my college juniors and seniors 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. They grasp that it can cut plodding “and then” or unnecessary backstory. Halfway through the semester, already I’ve shown them: braiding; framing ; collage; and Hermit Crabs. Next we’ll look at segmentation.
Emphasizing essay structures has caused me to realize that I can organize my entire class by examining different writing structures.