In the fall of 2017, I started teaching a new class. Women Writing Lives would examine a diverse selection of 20th– and 21st-century texts of women’s literary nonfiction, including radio diaries, published journals, finely wrought memoirs, essays, and – most ambitiously (from a pedagogical standpoint) – unpublished archival materials. Questions I posed in my syllabus included:
- How do women write their lives and why?
- What can we discern or discovers literariness of nonfiction and life-writing of all kinds?
- What is the difference between public and private writing? Should we read these differently, and if so, then why and how?
The writing-intensive class comprised twenty students. We kicked off the semester by listening to a teenaged girl’s radio diary from the 1990s. Amanda told her coming out story and professed her love for her girlfriend in a thick Brooklyn accent. As we listened, the class marvelled at Amanda’s frankness, courage, and vulnerability in the telling of her life. We talked about editing, about narrative arcs, and whether or not this radio diary might consitute an essay or something else.
In the weeks that followed, Alice Walker’s essay, “Looking for Zora,” showed us how writers are detectives. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own demonstrated how women’s social history has determined women’s literary history and our writerly legacies. Reading Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness beside Sylvia Plath’s Journals showed us the power of editing, retrospection, and how diaries differ from memoirs. Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder took their breath away as did Louise DeSalvo’s essay, “Portrait of the Puttana as a Middle-Aged Woolf Scholar.” Students shared their own examples of life-writing, wrote short analyses of the books we read, and experimented by producing bold new texts of their own in the form of diary entries or letters. Finally, having looked at women’s life-writing from all angles, we were ready to go into the archives.
The summer before the class, I spent a few days exploring the Missouri State Historical Society’s collections. For a while, I considered having the class read a homesteader’s diary and letter collection. I then sat with letters written by a female anarchist imprisoned in St. Louis, which were fascinating but somehow not right for the task at hand. In the end, I settled on the extensive collection of a Vietnam War correspondent, Ann Bryan Mariano McKay (1932-2009). McKay’s papers contained love letters to and from Frank Mariano who became her husband, adoption and immigration papers for the two orphaned Vietnamese girls who became her daughters, newspaper clippings, the daughters’ writings as they grew, snippets of memoir about the war, and (devastatingly) the records of the deaths of one of the daughters to cancer and of Frank to cardiac arrest. I found the collection utterly engrossing and deeply moving. I suspected my students would too. By way of background, I distributed a memoir-essay called “Vietnam Is Where I Found My Family” that McKay had contributed to the anthology, War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam. This prepared the class for the three days we would spend in the archive.
The trick to pedagogy in the archives is not to overwhelm with too much material and not to set students loose on the collections without guidance. For successful teaching in the archives, instructors must provide structure, limits, and clear instructions. With all this in mind, I pulled together three photocopied packages for my students: one told the story of Ann’s life in the form of her letters and clippings; a second that told the story of Frank through letters and legal documents; and a third that told the story of Ann’s daughters, also through letters and official papers. I broke the class into three groups. Each received only a portion of the archive, that is, either Ann’s, Frank’s, or the daughters’ materials. Students then completed an assignment based on their particular portion of the archive. In addition to the photocopied packages (one per student), I invited the class to examine the original materials.
Over the three days in the archives, students completed the following assignment.
1) Describe your materials:
- What is in the collection?
- Who is the author of the collection?
- Describer the physical characteristics of your materials. What is the paper like? Color, texture? Is it a typescript or manuscript? Is it original or a photocopy?
- What year was it produced? Or over what time period?
- How old was the author of these materials?
Once you have observed the materials and answered these and any other questions that come to mind, write a paragraph describing them.
2) What can you deduce from your materials? What do you know for sure?
- Where are they from?
- What do they tell you about their author? About her or his class, profession, life experience?
- What story do these materials tell?
Once you have answered these questions and sat with your materials long enough to understand something about them, write a paragraph that starts: “These materials tell the story of…”
3) What questions have these materials raised for you? What more would you like to know?
- Write a paragraph musing on the unanswered questions you have. You may list your questions but you can also speculate as to what you think the answers to these questions might be. Use your imagination.
Once they had completed and submitted the assignment, students wrote a reflection of their time in the archive:
Write a paragraph describing what you did in the archives. Be sure to include any thoughts about:
- What you learned in this process of working with archival materials.
- What you might want to do if you had more time to go deeper in this research.
- What surprised you most over the past three classes.
Upon reconvening in our classroom after our archive days, we shared our newfound knowledge. Impressions from the students included:
- “These materials have been very interesting to sift through and work with, but it has been very hard for me to come up with a cohesive timeline of [Ann’s] stories and experiences. Like mentioned in class, working with archives is somewhat like detective work trying to piece everything together.”
- “Ann and her daughter [Mai]…used letter-writing almost exclusively as a means to talk about their problems, which meant that pretty much the entire story was there in front of me. In all honesty, that was really cool for me.…This was especially interesting to me as the letters were written in the 1980s, especially 1989. How strange yet enticing that their language and ideas can resonate with me, almost twenty years later.”
- “Reading only from Frank’s perspective gives me a strong urge to read Ann’s letters and to see her reaction to his affection. There is a particular letter where Frank apologizes for fighting with Ann while they are visiting each other, and he never mentions why, but I wonder what exactly they were fighting about.”
- “There were so many folders filled with years and years of stories, so I can’t even begin to imagine how long it took to gather and sort [them]. To be honest, the thought of looking through the archives of strangers sounded a bit boring to begin with, but after spending time flipping through the archives, I was so sad to leave. I think it would be very interesting to see someone start the process of grouping these materials together to create a story of someone’s entire life.”
Each group had learned a single fragment of the story of this collection and of this family. Each group, in turn, led the rest of the class through their portion. By comparing notes and complementing their peers’ discoveries, together the students created something resembling a whole.
Once we’d completed the entire exercise, we compiled a list of what our time with Ann Bryan Mariano McKay’s papers had allowed us to see and experience either more clearly than before or perhaps even for the first time. Here’s that list.
Our time in the archives allowed us to think about…
- how and why we record our lives and what we leave behind.
- how even the smallest, most ordinary life may contain great beauty, tragedy, and wisdom.
- how archival research is fun, fascinating, and challenging.
- how a single life (Ann’s) contains the stories of many other lives (Frank’s, the daughters’) within it.
- how not everything can be found on the Internet.
- how people who lived long ago (20 years or more!), and whom we imagine as old-fashioned or dusty, are more recognizable to us than we think.
- how our own private writing practices and creative processes might actually matter and have artistic or historical value.
- how we too, with our small little lives, also have the right to tell and record our stories.
It was a deep pleasure to watch my students learn before my very eyes, witness them discover the thrill of archival research, and observe them fall in love with a family they had never met and to whom they had no connections other than the ones they were building in their imaginations. Truth be told, even I was surprised at how deeply and profoundly attached they became to our archival subjects. As the class filed out of the reading room on our last day of work there, I was alarmed to see tears streaming down the cheeks of one of my more taciturn students. When I asked her what was wrong, she sighed and gestured to the materials on the table. “It’s just so sad,” she said. “Beautiful, but sad.”
Note: Thanks to the University of Missouri’s Campus Writing Program for granting me a Writing Intensive Project Award so that I could take the time I needed to develop this course. Thanks also to John Konzal and the other archivists at the State Historical Society of Missouri for welcoming my class and letting us take over the reading room for three days. For more on Ann Bryan Mariano McKay, you can read her obituary here. http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-ann-bryan-mariano9-2009mar09-story.html
Senior Editor Julija Šukys is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at the University of Missouri. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto (2001) and is the author of three books (Silence is Death, Epistolophilia, and Siberian Exile), one book-length translation (And I burned with shame), and of more than two dozen essays. Šukys draws on archives, interviews, bibliographical research, and observation to write about minor lives in war-torn or marginal places, about women’s life-writing, and about the legacy of violence across generations and national borders.