“Your story matters,” I tell students in my Advanced Expository Writing class, “and only you can write it.” We are beginning the quarter with personal essays.
“What are the details of your life?” I ask. I stand with a marker, ready to write it all down.
We make lists. Smells from elementary school. Things they have lost. Gifts they have given. Items they carry in their bags. What being stuck on the 91 Freeway is really like. “It’s all about the concrete, specific details,” I say. Soon I will be asking for more, but for now, I want students to observe the authentic texture of their lives, the details they might ordinarily neglect because they haven’t read them in other essays.
The class is energized. When a colleague observes me teach, he tells me how talkative the students are. Details are fun.
When I shift our focus to writing as an investigative act, my students are skeptical. In other classes, they must write thesis sentences and provide analysis. Here, they just want to write their stories. I remind them that the discussions we’ve had over assigned essays have been vigorous because the writers have grappled with the wider world. All those vivid details moved us toward someplace intentional.
I describe the difference between a situation and a story, and then I assign Michael Steinberg’s essay, “Finding the Inner Story in Memoirs and Personal Essays.” The next class period, we talk about what it means to think on the page. My students aren’t sure they want to think on the page. Actually, they’re pretty certain they don’t want to. They want to be mysterious. They want their readers to make the connections. They want to narrate an important personal event and for that to be enough. I tell the class that for their first essay, I will be looking for two elements: concrete details and a deeper subject.
“Really?” they say.
“Really,” I say.
When students submit their first essay, they tell me that writing is hard. Most aren’t English majors and it has been years since they have written about themselves. I can tell that they are proud of the work they have done. As I collect portfolios, I’m excited to read them.
Soon, I’m bogged down in essays.
A few students have transcribed their entire lives. Their biographies are full and, in some cases, harrowing, and they have used this assignment to get it all down. There are few concrete details and no discernable deeper subjects.
Most students have selected a single event. They write about going to Disneyland, attending prom, graduating from high school, or getting engaged. Their essays are faithful to the occasions in question, and details are present, but there is a sameness to the particulars: the sky is always blue, the dresses are always pretty, the moment is always magical. The essays usually conclude when the day ends, though some students have addressed the deeper subject in a final paragraph, as if to say, here you go.
I get up from grading and stretch. Where are my interesting students and all those unique details we’ve catalogued? Where is the urgency in these essays? Why couldn’t just one student hate prom?
I’m frustrated, but I also recognize that I have been both types of writers: the one who skims over too much content and the one who is interested in situations, but not in what they mean. Immersed in the act of writing, I hope that the unique events of my life will make up for my narrative sins. When I have found my way out, it has always been through reading.
It’s time to introduce my students to the lyric essay “Soundtrack” by Lisa Groen Braner.
It’s a counter-intuitive decision. Lisa does what I have been warning my students not to do. In one short essay, she covers 38 years of life. She writes about a breakup, a career change, a marriage, a miscarriage, the birth of two children, and her father’s death. In addition, she doesn’t discernably think on the page.
My class and I review “Soundtrack” like detectives. How did she make it all work? I ask the students what details they remember.
“That the Beatles are one of the four Bs.”
“That she crushed on a guy with Jimi Hendrix hands.”
“When the doctor said no heartbeat and she listened to songs in the car. That was really sad.”
Students talk about the last vignette. Lisa is holding the hand of her dying father and trying to sing Blue Bayou. I read the final lines: “The song wavers flat. He is too tired and polite to protest. I stop and sit next to him. It’s hard to sing when you’re crying, I tell him. Without moving he nods his head yes and understands.”
She doesn’t write that she is sad. She uses details to invite us into her experience, allowing us to share in her sorrow. I know my students want to accomplish what Lisa has. They want their pieces to stir their readers’ emotions and are worried that too much analysis will break the mood they want to create. I appreciate their artistic intentions, even as I long for substance.
“What did you think of Lisa’s title?” I ask.
“It was simple, but it made sense,” a student says. I nod vigorously. I have been drumming the importance of titles. “She’s, like, telling us right up front what to expect. Everything important that happens to her is connected to a song.”
We’re getting somewhere, I think. “Does that ring true?” I ask. “Are there any songs that connect you to important moments in your life?”
The class erupts into side-conversations. All across the room, students are naming musicians and albums. These are concrete, specific details, I will say later. For now, I listen to their urgent tones. Music isn’t just a situation; it’s a story.
“So far, we like her details and her title. Is that fair?” I ask. They generally nod. “What else?”
“It was short,” a woman says. “It didn’t take long to read.”
“It was so easy to read,” the same student says.
“Why?” I ask.
“The structure,” she says. “The writer doesn’t go on and on about the point she wants to make. She just lets it be.”
The student is right; Lisa doesn’t expound on the deeper subject. The essay is written in 11 present tense vignettes, each preceded by a year. There is no conjecture, retrospection, or self-interrogation. Except for the title, the author leaves the analysis to her readers. “Soundtrack” appears to be Exhibit A for writers who don’t want to think on the page.
“So are we really doing the work,” I ask the class, “or has she already done it?”
Nobody answers. “Someone noted earlier that Lisa’s piece is about how everything important to her is connected to a song. She doesn’t actually write that anywhere, but it’s surely not an accident that we all had the same reading.” I then argue that by using structure to turn situations into a story, Lisa has been “thinking on the page,” just not in the way we’ve come to expect.
I tell the class that shape, particularly an unconventional one, is one way for a writer to be intellectually present. In her controlled essay, Lisa distills emotionally complex moments to their most essential components. She’s making creative decisions. She’s selecting which details to include and which to leave out. Her vignettes build on each other, and together reveal the essay’s inner truth. While her structure is chronological, it’s not happenstance.
On my office door, I have a quote from Michael Steinberg taken from a 2010 interview with the AWP Writer’s Chronicle. He said, “For me, the ‘creative’ in creative nonfiction is more about how the writer shapes the work. The known story is the nonfiction part. I know my story. But what I don’t know is how to write it and what it means.”
For the next assignment, I require students to use a creative structure. To prepare, we read essays that subvert conventions, and we observe how in each one, structure helps reveal the deeper subject. In some of the essays, space is spent on introspection and self-interrogation. In others, they’re absent. In all of the essays, there is urgency. We feel that the narrative matters.
When students submit their essays, they again tell me that writing is hard. Again, they are proud of their work and again, I am excited to read it. This time, the essays are, on the whole, sensational. One student traces the history of her hair. Another uses different colors to analyze years of being bullied. A student from Europe describes all the cities she has gotten lost in. Her piece is about seeking home.
Reading “Soundtrack” has crystalized earlier lessons and introduced students to a new way of writing. By imposing a creative structure onto their narratives, they have been forced to edit their experiences down to their most important components. They have no space for bland details or situations that aren’t essential to the narrative. As a result, their prose is sharper, their word choices more original. Most importantly, by focusing on shape, students have revealed their essays’ inner stories.
Sari Fordham is a creative writing professor at La Sierra University. Her essays have appeared in Green Mountain Review, Passages North, Brevity, and Best of the Net Anthology, among others.