Try an “I”: Essayistic Narration for Journalists

I recently taught a short intensive course in creative writing—“Nonfiction Bootcamp.” My students traveled from Carleton University’s School of Journalism (Ottawa, Ontario) to spend five weeks in a Yukon-based experiential learning program, Stories North. The program addresses one of the most pressing issues in the Americas: that of Indigenous sovereignty. Stories North asks: how can we collectively explain, hold ourselves to account, and shift away from the inequities and injustices and ignorance around Indigenous peoples?

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While I taught Bootcamp in a classroom, much of the Stories North curriculum occurred out on land and in the remote community of Old Crow, where we spent ten days. Here, an Old Crow community member checks fish he’s been drying over the woodstove.

The teaching situation: in dialogue with history

Stories North responds to Canada’s national reckoning with its Indigenous boarding schools—a fundamentally genocidal history rooted in aggressive assimilationist policies. It’s important to note that government-initiated, church-run, often neglectful and violent residential schools existed in the US as well. The US, however, has yet to initiate a response of national scope. Canada, on the other hand, created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Beginning in 2009, Canada’s TRC led the country’s national reckoning with its legacy of sustained, state-sponsored attack on Indigenous communities. The TRC gathered testimony from 7,000 survivors and, in the spring of 2015, issued a formal call to action delineating ninety-four recommendations.

Stories North responds to the TRC’s “call to action No. 86”—a call for the transformation of journalism education.

“Our goals,” states the program website, “are to shift narratives, [and] help cultivate the

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This map shows the traditional territories of the fourteen First Nations currently creating sovereign governments in Yukon.

next generation of media storytellers so that they approach their work with more context, empathy, and understanding. Stories North seeks to open pathways of understanding and accountability as we grapple with the meanings of reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.”

My job at Stories North was to bring literary methods and mindsets into a journalism program. The vision: design a creative nonfiction curriculum that would expand journalists’ capacity to report on the complexities of today’s Indigenous issues.

Literature and journalism: cousins? or aliens?

In the realm of nonfiction, the fields of journalism and literature overlap. Sometimes this gets messy. In fact, I took an English graduate seminar in “Literary Reportage” (rather than “Literary Journalism”) not because there is any distinction between the terms, but because my alma mater’s school of journalism objected to an outside department claiming their word, journalism.

But my attitude as a teacher of writing is: let’s use fuzzy genre boundaries to our advantage. Difficult dialogues call for cooperation, collaboration, and cross-pollination. So I saw Nonfiction Bootcamp as an opportunity to blend and borrow.

The essayistic “I”

Most practically, it seems to me that narration is the area in which literary journalism finds its “literary” sea-legs, gaining traction as a mode of creative writing. And so that is what I chose as Bootcamp’s primary focus: I designed a course that explored (1) ways to construct a first-person singular pronoun, and (2) avenues by which to assess its value.

In the spirit of the essay, students learned methods of creating an idiosyncratic and self-questioning narrator. They critically considered when and why a text might want to construct and convey both a personal lens, and/or self-doubt. Overall, they spent a week creating mini-essays that avoided the omniscient and traditionally-journalistic assertion here’s what’s going on, learning to adjust their textual voices and to convey a stance aligned with the tradition of the essay—one that says, I am on a search. Here are its fruits; here are its mysteries. Still, I search.

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On the mountain behind Old Crow: wildfire smoke, blooming fireweed, and prime blueberry picking.

Course Goals | students should leave bootcamp with grounding in these questions

  • What’s possible in shortform cnf / what’s possible to do with forms of the essay?(gain familiarity with a range of published examples; experiment with structure)
  • How do writers construct and convey a narrator/persona/voice—an “I”—on the page? (identify and practice techniques; grow a writerly bag of narration tools)
  • Where and how does my “I” belong? What is gained and what is lost by writing “I” into a text? (critical assessment: Politics? Ethics? Social responsibility? Human respect?)

The Radical Revision assignment

Here is a summary of what students learned during days one and two.

In Aldous Huxley’s language, an essay travels “between three poles.” They are

  • “the personal” (he means lived life and sensory experience),
  • the “concrete particular” (he means something outside the self, something in-the-world)
  • and the “abstract universal” (he means thinking; i.e., reflection).

A distilled wording (borrowed from Julija Šukys post on “the holy trinity of the essay”) looks like this:

  • Experience
  • Research
  • Reflection
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An outing: Old Crow community members skiffed us up the Porcupine River to a fish camp out on the land.

At the end of day two, I asked students to go home and write a piece that travels—as essays do—between these three components. The prompt: write a 500-word mini-essay that includes

  • Part of the poignant memory students probed in class with their in-class Kitchen Table Exercises (which I adopted from Lynda Barry to get students engaging personal experience, memory, and self)
  • A Yukon anecdote/factoid-discovery/image (research from the outside world)
  • Thinking (reflection—one sweet insight)

On day four, we discussed Philip Lopate’s introduction to the anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, gathering his concepts about narration (i.e., “the conversational elements,” “the role of contrariety,” “the problem of egotism,” “cheek and irony,” etc.). With Lopate in mind, we workshopped the previous day’s mini-essays.

In the end, I asked: “if you were to use what you learned from Lopate, how would you rewrite the mini-essays we’ve just workshopped?”

Once I was satisfied that each student could envision a clear set of narration-based revision goals, I made the assignment official: they had to go home and rewrite their mini essays from the ground up. Same personal experience, same research component, and same reflective insight—in an essayistic voice.

Reflections

This Radical Revision assignment marked the class’s most visible collective step forward. I think the reason for this was that the assignment isolated one thing: voice—persona—lens—i.e., the upright pronoun, the idiosyncratic, individual “I”—at a delicate moment.

The students had struggled to combine all three required elements in the first drafts of their mini-essays. A load of theory from Lopate hit the spot: because they had struggled to link the three puzzle pieces that make an essay an essay, they were now invested in methods by which to more successfully connect those puzzle pieces. In other words, their radical revisions forced them to reconfigure the relationship between self, world, and insight. It was in this exercise that the students transitioned from thinking of creative writing as a just-for-fun break from the rules of their reporting, and experienced it as hard work with serious textual payoff.

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Yukon College has a campus building in Old Crow. Here is the college’s mental health whiteboard; a living document of exchange and healing that emphasized to all of us the importance of treading with great care in gathering and telling Old Crow’s community stories.

In the context of difficult dialogues, we all need to wrestle with where we’re coming from, what we’re bringing to the table, and what exceeds us. That is, a good contribution  tunes into its own blind spots. And narration is a good tool by which to construct this degree of sensitivity in text. Furthermore, when crafted with sophistication, narration is also a good way to situate a text’s sensitivity squarely alongside its commitment to rigorous investigation and analysis. In sum, I champion narration studies because I see the methodically probing and self-questioning “I” as one of the more nuanced methods writers can marshal as they step up to tell their communities’ most urgent stories.

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