- Connecting Reading and Writing in the Literature Classroom
During my first year as a PhD candidate, I signed up to take a graduate-level workshop in creative nonfiction that was designed for people attempting to write book-length manuscripts. I had written a collection of essays about a bakery where I had worked in college, essays centered on everyday life in the small town where it was located, and I had signed up for the class hoping to get some ideas on how to create a more cohesive collection. It was whimsical writing, occasionally serious, but primarily meant to provide the reader with a sense of place. Any hope I had of gaining insight into the trajectory of my essays vanished, however, when my professor began the first workshop of my material with, "I don't get it. Where's the sexual tension?"
This immediately reinforced for the class what our reading list had already managed to convey—good nonfiction explored sad or scandalous topics. The three books we were assigned for the semester were Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, and Lauren Slater's Prozac Diary. Though the professor never stated explicitly her subject matter expectations, students' writing topics began to look very much like sex, cancer, and depression. One student wrote about an affair she'd had with an Indian man while living in Jaipur, another about sleeping with her stepfather, a third about growing up gay in Los Angeles's Chinatown, a fourth about dealing with her daughter's suicide. This assumption pervaded not only the students' writing, but also the feedback they began to give each other in workshops, for when I tried to explain that there was not much sexual tension in the bakery since most of its patrons were over the age of seventy-five, I was told by a fellow student that my narrator was repressed.
None of this is to say that The Kiss, Prozac Diary, and Autobiography of a Face are not wonderful examples of well-written creative nonfiction and should not be included on a syllabus, nor that when students in nonfiction workshops have had sad or scandalous life experiences they should not be encouraged to write about them. It is merely to suggest that to include only pieces about sex, cancer, and depression sends a strong message about what a teacher believes makes for interesting writing and can alienate students [End Page 105] who have either not had such dramatic life experiences, or who have had them but may not be inclined to share them. These same issues emerge in fiction writing workshops as well; however, in creative nonfiction workshops, a twenty-year-old student who did not experience what the teacher or class wants to see cannot go back and throw a little sexual tension into her writing without fictionalizing her work, or changing her topic to the year she spent in Morocco when she never left Ohio.
Taking all of these things into consideration, then, it is obvious that setting the tone for productive creative nonfiction workshops depends, at least in the initial stages, almost entirely on the approach of the teacher. If the teacher provides students with a plethora of delightfully rendered ordinary experiences—Frank McCourt's exchanges with his grade-school teacher in Angela's Ashes, Anne Lamott's chapter on school lunches in Bird by Bird, Susan Allen Toth's dates in her essay "Going to the Movies," or Philip Lopate's essay "Portrait of My Body"—students begin to understand that though they may have grown up thinking, as Georgia Heard (1995: 11) explains in Writing Toward Home, "that ideas for writing come from the fascinating and adventurous lives of writers . . . poems, and all writing, are hiding in the most ordinary and familiar places." One of the best essays I have ever received from a student in a nonfiction writing class came from a young woman whose mother had died of cancer and who had recently come to terms with her own homosexuality. But her essay, which had me alternately laughing and crying as I read it, was about the contents of her father...