In my Fiction classes, students prepare portfolios that count as their exams. They revise their work, write a “Reflective Cover Letter” that introduces the portfolio and explains their revision process, and they present their portfolio to the class.
These days are among my favorite teaching days.
I love hearing the students speak about their writing process, the deep (mostly) understanding they have of what works and what doesn’t work on the page, the ways in which their busy lives get in the way of their writing, their love of the craft, and their understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses. While I won’t go on at length about it here (ahem), these portfolio presentations and the reflective cover letters reveal radically more than any standardized test could possibly reveal about these kids and what they’ve learned.
I sit and listen, often in awe. So far this year, I have listened to one Fiction class–a group of eight young women, all sophomores in high school, young women who have delighted me and frustrated me — as all students can (teachers, you can back me up on this!). I have wondered how to help them go beyond their scenes-called-stories, how to push them to read literary fiction that they normally might not choose, how to understand what makes a story a story, how to use all the separate elements that constitute a good piece of fiction — all while retaining their love of writing.
This, people, is my dilemma. It isn’t entirely new, because I struggle, too, with the same basic notion in my English classes — how NOT to turn English class into an I-hate-reading class. I’m afraid that too often, kids come to us with a love of reading, and sadly, English class can ruin that love. I don’t want my writing classes to do the same, but as one student wrote in her cover letter — and read out loud to the class: “…it makes me really sad that something I used to love to do has turned into homework…” OUCH. That broke my heart.
But isn’t it inevitable? I told her I understood, and I didn’t want her writing to feel like “homework” either (although maybe it’s the way she considers homework; we didn’t have that conversation). I asked the girls for suggestions — because they know and I know that they need deadlines. And the teacher in me can’t let go of the idea that they need some structure too. They understand that the prompts I give them are highlighting a certain aspect of writing — i.e. using setting to reveal emotion, or effectively writing flashbacks or dialogue. And, I always say, if the prompts don’t speak to you, ignore them and write what you want — though I do insist that they try to highlight the skill I’m after.
This same girl wrote in her cover letter: “The most important thing I’ve learned in fiction over the past semester if that you can’t write fiction like it is real life…fiction has to exaggerate events. I think before I realized this, I was scared of […] inflating things too much, but since then, I’ve had a sort of epiphany and understand that there isn’t a story if you don’t. […] In my opinion, my most successful piece so far is XXX [leaving out title for anonymity’s sake — PS]. I think that solely through dialogue, it has tension […]. I think readers are more inclined to like it because it lets them feel smart by being in on the scheme and figuring out the plot.”
Here are some more gems from these young writers:
“One of the most difficult things with writing fiction for me is believing in the story I am telling…” WOW — how do you get this kind of insight at such a young age? She goes on: “I try to write with feelings that I have had and I think those feelings are at the core of fiction. Maybe we have never been forced to live in the coat closet of our aunt’s home or sailed down the Mississippi, but we have all felt neglected or known distrust. Capturing those feelings, though, and weaving a story around them is hard. I guess with practice and becoming more aware of who I am as a person and learn my feelings I’ll be able to apply them more in my writing…” OK, done. This girl doesn’t need me.
Another: “I think one of the most difficult things about writing fiction for me has been trying to complete a full plot arc within a story. I often have trouble creating the sort of plot that can be confined to a short piece that still carries the appropriate amount of tension.”[SIDE NOTE: I think this particular girl is a born novelist!]. She continues: “One of the most helpful things I’ve learned is how important tension and realistic dialogue are to the integrity of a story.”
And one more: “The most influential story that we read this year was probably “The Things They Carried” I had no personal connection to the story, yet I did. I felt like I was there through all of it. I felt the heartache and strife, and I want to make my readers feel that connection in my work.”
So how to continue pushing these creative thinkers beyond what they’re comfortable with? I should admit that I also test them on the concepts covered in our text Writing Fiction:A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. Again, the teacher in me wants to hold them accountable for what I assign as reading (same reason I give reading quizzes, too, on the short stories I assign). And, I think there are students who, while they understand the concepts, can’t yet apply them in their own writing, and I want to give them credit for that. And, finally, I also think students who have taken a Fiction I class should be able to definite and discuss with some ease things like plot, setting, scene and summary. I think they should know how to write effective dialogue–what it can and can’t (or shouldn’t) do, what constitutes point of view.
And yet I’m also reminded of the Q & A my Fiction II students and I participated in with Ramona Ausubel (ramonausubel.com) at the VCU Cabell First Novelist Festival http://novelist.library.vcu.edu). We were discussing her award-winning novel No One Is Here Except All of Us and the first person omniscient narrator, asking her if she worried about her particular choice of point of view, how she could explain that her first person narrator knew things that were happening far away from her — and she told us that she didn’t think about those things at all; she just wrote.
So I wonder. Am I asking too much of my students? Should I simply ask them to “just write?” Because I’m too afraid that if I do, I won’t be teaching them anything, won’t be shortening their learning curve any. I’m afraid that they will write what they’ve always written and they won’t stretch beyond their current capabilities. I’m afraid that if I don’t, they won’t experience “epiphanies” about fiction vs. reality; they won’t ever pick up “The Things They Carried;” they won’t learn to see that tension is important to the integrity of a story. But I don’t want them to feel as though writing is homework either.