Because university culture encourages students to behave in a boringly dignified way, teachers prioritize formal, restrictive etiquette. In the creative non-fiction classroom, this limits the subject matter. Politeness reigns; victim narratives result. If your a writer who explore suffering, you can’t seem unruly.
This causes a huge problem.
If the student chooses to write memoir, how do they create a self who contains contradictions? How can they reveal the kind and cruel, aware and ignorant, confident and insecure aspects of their soul?
(I know soul is a scary word. In certain respects, some academics resemble bad psychologists. Anything unknowable, not visible in the real world scares them. You can see my students surprise when I acknowledge the facts ghosts have visited me. The occult surfaces in my life. I’ll save that for another post.)
Everyone wants everyone to liked. God knows, that’s why I do most of what I do.
I do it for love. I write and teach for that reason. That’s one of the many reasons I started this blog.
I’m always charmingly startled by students who say, “I am who I am. I don’t care what everyone else thinks of me.”
I always say, Maybe you don’t. But I do. I need everyone to perceive me as lovable. And why should my students be any different? Why shouldn’t we want to appear as anything less than lovable to this weird, amazing world?
I’d like to recap a scenario that occurred in my classroom:
We planned to workshop a woman’s story about beauty. She was beautiful. She inspired people to admire her presence. Her essay took a rare angle; she discussed the discrimination she faced as a beautiful woman.
You couldn’t deny she knew her subject. She really was beautiful. The essay triumphed when she dealt with this subject head-on. She made a list of every part of her body. From her nose to her spleen, she explained why she was the ideal woman.
Her essay eventually succumbed to dull modesty. Cliches then begin to multiply: beauty is in the eye of the beholder; if you’re beautiful on the inside than you’re beautiful on the inside; etc.
Self-aggrandizement is what made her essay special. Justifiable egotism is often an undervalued, unexplored subject.
A female student told me in my office, “I didn’t like the beginning of that girl’s essay. It made her seem like she was so much better than us.”
“I don’t know about you,” I said, “But in some ways, she is better than me.”
It’s easier to be loved for your domestic strife, your disastrous family vacation, your dying grandmother. Those subjects make readers feel like you earned their love.
What happens if you’re beautiful and you don’t need anyone else's l0ve. What happens if your subject tells your reader you already have plenty of it. What happens if you tell your readers you may not need them.
I know this attractive woman student did not, on some level, expect to make herself into a spectacle. After all, her essay abandoned her more risky idea of self-pity: I suffer because I am fundamentally amazing). It degenerated into second third-rate platitudes.
Before I discussed her essay in class, I told the class to write down in one sentence what one quality makes them better than everyone else.
A student raises his hand, “Can I write down that my tongue can touch the top of my nose?”
“I can do that, too. So it doesn’t count,” I said, “You’ve got to be for real. Some quality that currently make everyone else jealous.”
Everyone looked nervous. “You’ve got to write something down now. No stalling,” I said.
Impatience is my greatest strength as a teacher. Second my fundamental lack of tact.
“What would you say about yourself?” a student asked me.
“I'm the best critic of your work you will ever have,” I said.
I get a laugh.
“I’m not joking,” I said.
Then I instructed them to take that quality and write a scene in which that quality hurt yourself or someone else.
“It’s weird,” a student said, “I feel like I’m playing Truth of Dare.”
“That’s what memoir writing is,” I said.
They begrudgingly did the exercise.
This exercise produced their best writing. Memoir can be an act of bragging, exhibiting your most envious qualities. Minus, at more times than not, the morality of the story.
Don't apologize for writing about that.
I’ll never forget the time I apologized to someone who claimed that I was too effeminate. “Don’t be a woman,” my mother to me, “Don’t live your life as an apology.”
She had a point.
One student wrote that he was brilliant at convincing people to believe what ever he said: "Next to me, everyone is a dummy." To his friends, he once tricked his friends that his brother had attempted suicide. Of course, they spread the rumor. People approached his brother and said that they felt bad for him. One kid recommended a psychologist—his own father. The student had tried to retract his statements about his brother, but no one believed him—they just assumed he was embarrassed that he, indeed, told the truth. At the end of his writing, the student declared, “And I did not feel any regret. My brother could be a real asshole sometimes.”
I loved his finale. I commended it. Sometimes it’s important in memoir that we don’t feel bad for the sins we committed. Regret is such a dull luxury.
Another student prided herself on her detective skills. She could find out anything, even the most oblique gossip. One day she and her friend were snooping around the attic and discovered some of her mother’s love letters. She showed them to her dad. She didn’t look close enough at her discovery. They were written to someone else; they were written at the start of her parent's marriage. Her discovery didn’t change anything. But still. “Sometimes I search desperately for other people’s secrets so I don’t have to think about my own,” she said, “And I won’t reveal what they are in this essay.”
She also wrote in her essay: "My dad actually thanked me for finding them. He said he had new material to use next time he and my mother got into a dumb fights. Being married twenty years even made arguing pretty dull and predictable."
Maybe the exercise didn’t solve everything, but it made the students realize that everyone, in some respects, contains vanity. Its presence and its consequences, positive or negative, may produce a thoughtful essay. The beautiful woman was simply exploring something she felt she possessed. And don't we all constantly congratulate ourselves.
The exercise helped normalize the beautiful woman’s admission of her own attractiveness. It didn't seem odd. Everyone was forced to look inward and discover what they felt they possessed in worthy abundance. Our own self-worship may be our most difficult secret to reveal.