In most occupations, if you have an accident at work, you end up in the hospital. When a creative nonfiction teacher has a little job-site snafu, forget the ambulance. There’s plenty of trauma, but not the kind they can handle at the ER.
I’d logged just a year of campus experience when I taught a boy and girl from Florida who’d been friends before college. He was a lazy loudmouth, she a quiet, serious type who’d been ROTC in high school. They were an odd couple as friends, but at least they had each other.
One day in workshop, Mr. Faux Gangsta read us an essay about the night he’d been babysitting the youngest child of a neighbor. Once the little girl was asleep, he smoked some pot he found in a kitchen drawer, then ended up having sex with the mom when she got home. All of this was described in great detail–I had probably written “show, don’t tell” on one of his previous papers. By the end of the story, his friend was staring at him with her mouth open.
“Yes, it was your mom,” he said, smiling broadly and waggling his finger. She bolted from the room.
“Oh Christ,” I muttered as I rushed after her, shouting over my shoulder that everyone, even the non-smokers, should take a cigarette break until further notice.
When the class is personal storytelling, going to school is rarely boring.
I was a child of 41 when I started teaching, pregnant with my daughter Jane. I had no idea that my MFA in creative writing qualified me to do anything income-producing at all, but when my husband’s college found itself desperate for someone to teach a scheduled writing class, I suddenly learned I had the credentials.
Though I was extremely nervous and sure I had nothing to say, I drew up a syllabus, ordered some books, and drove to Harrisburg two nights a week as my belly pushed ever closer to the steering wheel. I began by assigning the students journalistic pieces, and that went okay. But when we started to work on memoir material, the class caught fire. As it turned out, I had a student who’d grown up living with her family in a bizarre rural religious cult. She was now a stripper. Another had racked up credit card debt in the tens of thousands of dollars before turning twenty. Another had lived through the horrors of high school as a gay teenage harpsichordist.
I had found my calling.
Believe it or not, back when I was a student, there was no such thing as creative nonfiction. You could study poetry or fiction, maybe playwriting, but it wasn’t until 1994, more than 10 years after I finished graduate school, that the first classes in the genre were offered. That was when people started realizing that 16th century author Michel de Montaigne and NPR commentator David Sedaris were doing about the same thing.
By then I had stumbled onto the form myself. My first personal essay, though I didn’t know that term, was called “How To Get Pregnant in the Modern World,” and described recent experiments I had been doing along those lines. No made-up plot or characters, no gimmicks of language, a voice very close to my own–what the hell? Was this allowed?
Finding my form as a writer was an incredible relief to me and the excitement carried me through dozens more essays and one book-length memoir. I ventured past humorous storytelling into darker territory: the role of drugs in my relationship with my sister, the sorrow of losing my father in my mid-twenties, my battles with weight, body image and eating disorders, the dream-turned-nightmare of the pregnancy that ended in stillbirth. At first, some subjects seemed untouchable, as I imagined the exposure I would endure, and the shame, and the complexity of getting these difficult, multifaceted stories down right. Eventually I learned to recognize that “don’t do it” reaction for what it is, camouflage and barbed wire around the entrance to the place you are looking for, whether you know it or not.
When my husband took a job teaching at MICA, I joined him there. Though at first it was all beer pong and raves and sex in the city, the essays of the art students eventually took a heartbreaking turn. A girl wrote about growing up hungry. Another had been pushed down the stairs by her father. Another had run away from home and was living off the grid in a national park on the Tuesday morning some hobo with a transistor radio told her planes had hit the World Trade Center. She called her mother for the first time in a year.
Absolute silence followed the reading of some of these pieces in class. Sometimes students were crying, or staring fixedly at their desks. I too felt panicky, especially after that disaster with the Floridians. I was not a trained counselor or even a good role model–did I have the skill to steer a group of young people through the waves of anxiety, emotion and judgment swelling around me?
By the time I got to the University of Baltimore, where I teach now, I had figured out my shtick. My students can write about almost anything, and I encourage them to be as brave as they can stand, to forge through the camouflage and barbed wire. But the class doesn’t offer therapy, at least not for the soul. Only for the story.
So, for example, it is fine to lay the smack down about your ex-boyfriend the psychotic control freak and the horrible things he did to you–or the cherished love you found making out with your roommate. But all you’re going to get from me and your fellow students is advice on how to make it a better story. “I don’t understand what happened that night at the Dairy Queen,” you’ll hear. Or, “Dude, you never explained why you even dated her!” The only way readers will be interested in the assholes these people became is if you take the time to show them as you first fell in love with them, wry smile, wild hair, bass guitar, scarred wrists, golden retriever and all. We have to fall in love too. And the only way we can really engage with the story of your betrayal is if you figure out your part in making it happen–how you played into it, or wanted it, or were too weak to get out when you should have. That’s a story people want to read. And if you can find a few moments of black humor, so much the better.
While I insist that we are doing craft work, not therapy, the students eventually figure out what I learned from my own writing–they are pretty much the same thing. When you write about your problems, you are in charge of them–they are your little puppets, instead of you being theirs. And if you can figure out your role in bringing them on–“self-implication,” as we call it in the workshop–you have taken a huge step toward freedom. This is what I hope for all the broken-hearted kids who have had to take my “love medicine,” for the boy who kept bragging about black-out drinking, the girl with the marriage she’d kept secret from her parents, for the boy who survived the world’s most protracted and ridiculous armed car-jacking.
Still, every once in a while, the needle goes off the charts and I feel like half the class is going home with post-traumatic stress disorder. Fortunately, once you’re in the memoir business, PTSD is just another thing to write about.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.
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