Unpacking the Personal Essay: Teaching Structure and Avoiding Clichés in Creative Nonfiction Workshops

PALS Note: PALS is pleased to have a guest post from Rachel Hanson. From a slightly different angle than readers are used to, Hanson discusses teaching American literature–an essay by Native American writer Natanya Ann Pulley, in particular–in the creative writing classroom as a model for future writers.

When I first began teaching introductory and intermediate nonfiction workshops, I learned to coax myself into not being overwhelmed by the numerous melodramatic personal essays my students submitted. CNF teachers know which essays I’m talking about – the ones where a beloved grandma passes away, lots of tear drops do the physically impossible, overwrought narratives of first loves, heartbreak, special afternoons spent playing catch with dad, and the list goes on. But here’s the thing: I’m working with new writers and they are working in the genre of nonfiction. So it makes sense that when it comes to writing a personal essay, for the most part, there are going to be a lot of cliché workshop submissions. In part this is due to the fact that many students haven’t had a lot of experiences, though there is always the exception to this rule, and also, to state the obvious, because they are brand new writers.

Of course writing about family and love has a place in creative nonfiction. So instead of asking students not to write on these subjects because it’s difficult for them to do without falling into the cliché trap, we have a discussion (actually many discussions) on clichés and how we can make them new, portray them differently. After all, there is something very universal in losing one’s grandparents, first heartbreak, or that amazing first love where all the world didn’t seem to matter because you loved and were loved.

What I’ve discovered by being open about clichés and topics that have been done again and again, is that if I ask my students what most occupies their mind when they think of these experiences, the reasons are varied. I ask my students to interrogate those reasons – make lists, ponder them, live with them for an extended period (in the case of a semester this may only be a week or two) before they start writing.

One student who wanted to write about the passing of her grandmother discovered it wasn’t the loss that only preoccupied her attention when she thought of the deceased, but the way time unfolded around the loss. More specifically, my student became preoccupied with how time shapes pain and this became the focus of her essay. She engaged in creative intellectual inquiry about mourning, and was able to both address her personal experiences with pain and step back from it to weave a narrative around broader concerns regarding different ways loss is experienced.

Of course getting students to think about old subjects in new ways is one thing, getting those thoughts to the page as creative expression is an entirely different beast. Obviously reading is one of the best ways to get students in touch with issues of craft (a word I totally hate by the way), but it’s important that their reading have guidance. To invoke students’ engagement with readings materials, I present the various complexities of a text or issues of craft as maps to be dissected, followed, and (eventually) diverged from. For example, I ask my students to read three distinctly different pieces, and to map out the framework of these texts: structure, tense, point of view, and so forth. I then ask them to identify and discuss the differences and similarities of these works, highlighting the specific complications in each. Finally, I ask them to pick a structure from one of the three pieces to model one of their own works after. This allows students to conceive of creative possibilities for their writing within a learned structure, and thus they come to realize that a seemingly formulaic approach actually offers numerous possibilities for innovation.

One personal essay I almost always assign in my workshops is “The Way of Wounds” by Natanya Ann Pulley, which was published by the Florida Review in 2010. I love this essay, and I love teaching it. It’s great because it’s experimental yet accessible, written in fragments organized by lists, and each list has its own narrative vignette. Fragmented structures are difficult to pull off well, and most young writers in my nonfiction classes have yet to experiment with the form. In “The Way of Wounds” Pulley has constructed a neatly woven fragmented narrative that students can make sense of and use as a blueprint for their own work. Specifically, Pulley organizes her essay by what I refer to my students as the “big overarching thematic sections,” which are “Cracks,” “Callings,” “Triggers,” and “Closures.” Under each section, Pulley creates various lists that pertain to her self, her body, the bodies of others, bodies of land, relationships or interactions with lovers, strangers, and family. My students and I come to refer to these lists as “thematic sub-sections.”

Once my students grasp the overarching theme and structure of “The Way of Wounds,” they don’t have to worry about figuring out their own structure, yet. That is, in the first half of the semester, structure is something they learn by emulating, once they begin to understand structure, they can start creating their own in the latter half of the term. Until then, I have students create narratives emulating structures of published works so they can focus on writing the personal while avoiding some of those cliché tropes I mentioned earlier. And this is another reason I love teaching “The Way of Wounds” – it’s a work focused on family (among other subjects) but does not, as my students often feel pressured to do, rely on chronological and fleshed-out expositions of the “characters.” And yet, we still know who the “characters” are, their heritage, and also the narrator’s connection to them and the land that connects some of them together. For instance, in the sub-section “Cracks” the first vignette “The Rock Canoe” shows Pulley pondering being birthed of the land:

My grandmother’s hogan is at the base of a mesa, but it’s hard to tell where the
mesa base begins or ends. I’ve started simple walks around the bottom of the mesa,
sounding out the rock formations and the pockets of sand and scattered brush through an
inner ear that speaks and hears the vibrations of the desert, only to find myself inclining
slowly and soon ascending the mesa, past the sandy areas, finding footholds among the
rock face. Within the rock formations twenty feet north of the hogan are two stretches of
slightly protruding rock. Two lips with a small gap between. My mom says this was her
canoe when she was a child. She doesn’t say much more but sometimes I picture my
mom as a young girl. She is not the chatty, two-world, Urban Navajo woman she is now,
but a small thing, close to the ground. She sits in her canoe and glides herself along rough patches and the wind moves through her hair and I imagine it moves also through her head taking her bird’s nest thoughts with her.

When I saw the canoe for the first time, I saw female genitalia. I saw my mom birthed from the Arizona sands. I always see how my mom’s city thoughts drain from her as we drive to the reservation. She seems to arrive at her homeland with a clear head.

From this excerpt, my students can learn how much history fifteen lines can tell (and tell well), but also they learn that their nonfiction does not need to be burdened with chronological unfolding of family history. More importantly they are learning the art of picking and choosing what’s essential to a narrative and what’s not.

So when one student writes about how her mother grew up in the South and taught her children to be strong and good, I can say, “Look at how Pulley speaks of her mother being birthed from Arizona sands? See the layers she’s creating about both narrator and mother? How can you show the reader your mother as an individual and not just a clichéd role?” When I push back on my students like this it tends to give them pause, sometimes it irritates them, and sometimes they continue to think in clichés, and that’s fine too, not everyone is meant to be a writer. But for the students who, after their pause, start trying to figure out who their mother is in, for example, fifteen lines, they realize they have to cut a lot of fat, so to speak, out of their narrative. They are forced to come to some sort of understanding of their characters outside of clichéd contexts.

Contributor Bio:
Rachel Michelle Hanson’s teaching and scholarly interests include innovative nonfiction, contemporary memoir, and representations of violence in contemporary American literature. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in The Iowa ReviewCreative Nonfiction, American Literary Review, and The Minnesota Review, among others. She graduates with a PhD in Nonfiction from the University of Missouri in May, 2016.

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