Happy Accidents: Family and Place Writing in Creative Nonfiction

I’m usually compelled to blog about a sequence I’ve carefully constructed—one I’ve thought about in depth, struggled with, and streamlined. But today I’ll look at a sequence that wasn’t planned at all. This is because I’ve located an underexplored area in my own pedagogy: the happy accident.

Not that my teaching is particularly accidental: on a scale from haphazard to organized, I’d say I’m pretty organized. But on occasion I encounter someone superorganized. And I marvel, because the superorganized are impressive and humbling.

On the other hand, teaching a course that is fairly organized—a couple notches down from extraordinary and a bit shy of superorganized—has its perks: sometimes I discover a gem… a happy accident. Where I hadn’t envisioned a clear transition between lessons, now I discover they are not only connected, but that one is actually integral to another. As if I had planned it (which, technically, I did).

The Big Picture

This happened recently in my introductory course on the creative nonfiction essay. With a cluster of weekly topics planned for the first half of the semester, I wasn’t particularlyworried about how those topics would build: I envisioned an inventory of basic tools. This would give students the necessary foundation for an outside research progression and an ekphrastic writing project during weeks 7-15 of the course. I paid more attention to the strategic arrangement of the second half of the semester.

But sparks are flying between two topics early on: Writing the Family and Place as Character. It looks like studying family gives students (particularly students who are learning to read like writers) a foundation for place. Why didn’t I think of this myself?


Beginning creative writing students often struggle with setting. They tend toward no-place on one hand, or toward elaborate—and stagnant—descriptive passages on the other. The initial attitude is often some variation of how/why make place come alive? It just sits there. And while much of the place-based writing tradition in American literature does involve imagery and description, it is a fallacy that “good place writing” = “long descriptions of place.”

Students of the novel learn, for example, that Balzac’s lush descriptions of a drawing room simultaneously function as a sophisticated socioeconomic study of nineteenth-century France while also situating his characters in precise positions within that stratified society. Setting in contemporary creative nonfiction essays work the same way; the key is to get students invested in understanding the work that a description of setting or a passage about place is doing in the essay as a whole.

I notice that even if students overall don’t tend to harbor curiosity about place writing, they are concerned about the ethics of nonfiction family writing. In general, they don’t want their own writing to sell anyone out or burn bridges—many are living on their own for the first time and miss their families more than they expected to. Learning to read like writers in this context means, among other things, learning to find the sweet spot where compassion, respect, and honesty all coexist on the page.


Texts and Classtime

I’ve paired the Tell It Slant chapter, “Writing the Family,” with three essays: David Sedaris, “Forgive Me”; Rebecca McClanahan, “Interstellar”; and Dinty Moore, “The Son of Mr. Green Jeans: A Meditation on Fathers.”

David Sedaris’ essay centers on his sister, Lisa. After gathering reader responses in a few minutes of personal reaction-based discussion, I introduce the term “characterization” with a very open-ended definition. Characterization is any passage or element of the text that reveals one or more of the following: personality, mood, inclinations, preferences, history, desires, motivation, conflicts, gestures, the body, the mind, the spirit. We take a few more minutes for open-ended discussion in which students interact with this definition and the text. Then, I have students work individually. They create a two-column table and select the three passages they consider to be “most revelatory about Lisa” for the left column.

All essays named in this post appear in this anthology.


Once this column is filled out, I introduce the heading for the right-hand column: “what exactly the passage reveals about Lisa.” Students work individually to get initial ideas down, then we open up the activity for collaborative analysis.

What’s valuable about this series of steps is that it sets students up to pass through several stages of precision. A passage they had initially agreed was “funny” in the first

Writer David Sedaris; photo from davidsedarisbooks.com

round of class discussion becomes, for one student working individually, a passage that reveals Lisa’s guarded sense of lurking danger. When that student shares this insight in the second round of discussion, others chime in. They agree line reveals Lisa’s wariness, but it’s still funny. Why? Well, it also reveals the narrator’s perspective on Lisa (it reveals that Sedaris finds Lisa both charming and overly reactive, giving us a window not only into Lisa but to the sister-brother dynamic). We repeat this with other passages students have chosen, and find a repeating pattern: powerful characterization often tells us more than one thing about a character.

In the End

I’m sharing a deceptively simple insight: students negotiating their own autonomy/independence and family ties tend to be invested in understanding characterization—its methods, its risks, and its power—particularly in the context of writing the family. Thinking about characterization as an assemblage of meaningful

Writer Diane Glancy; photo from the Poetry Foundation

revelations prepares beginning students to approach setting and place as an assemblage of meaningful revelations as well. For example, the discussion question, “what does detail XYZ reveal about the character?” is valuable beyond family writing because it demands that students make the same mental moves they need to make in order to parse a text’s construction of place. For example, Diane Glancy’s essay, “Sun Dance” involves “the low, rolling hills of South Dakota under the sky that lidded them.” The same close reading approach we took to Sedaris’ essay will reveal a degree complexity and importance in Glancy’s treatment of place very similar to what students found in Sedaris’ treatment of his sister.

The experience reminds me, as a teacher, of the importance of audience: I can probably never know my students well enough. This places a very particular kind of pressure on my pedagogy—it comes in large part from my academic training, but it also depends on continually ethnographic observation of the student population I’m immersed in. With every window I get into their lifeways (happily accidental or otherwise), it becomes possible to understand their learning more clearly, and—I hope—to teach them a little better.



Fulbright Workshop: Black Lives Matter, Part One

In Part One of a discussion about my time teaching about Black Lives Matter in Norway, I will provide a look at how I approach teaching race in Norway. Some of the questions that come up are quite similar to comments I have had about race in the U.S. and in other ways, a European context provides an entire new set of points for discussion. In Part Two, I will discuss the presentation I give on Black Lives Matter in more detail. 

I would also like to say thanks to my fellow Roving Scholars, Ruth Fairbanks and Rachel Cohen, for discussing these ideas with me and providing a few of the sources on immigration linked to below. While this post is certainly my perspective and not theirs, discussions with them have been invaluable to, well, everything I’ve done as a Roving Scholar. 

Fake news is one of the most popular workshops that I give in Norway, and also in the running for most popular is the lesson on Black Lives Matter. Teachers pick it for their students because it is current and because they think it might be a topic that shows up on the exams at the end of the year. I also have a feeling they pick it because it is useful to have an American talk about issues of race, which the teachers themselves might not always be sure how to approach from an American perspective. My Black Lives Matter workshop is at least the third workshop in so many years offered by a Roving Scholar on the topic, and it is still one of my most popular, so I think this shows there is a bit of a thirst for information of this kind.

I emphasize that Norwegian teachers seem to want to hear about race from an American perspective in particular because I have learned that Norwegians, and Europeans in general, have a very different way of talking about race than we do in the U.S. This was first brought to my attention by my friend who is French. She is a historian who worked with me in The Bahamas, and she studies and teaches about race in the Caribbean. She told me that when she went home to France and explained what she taught in the Caribbean, her friends and family were surprised that she was even talking about race. They found it rude or offensive to be discussing a person’s race. (The answer about why this is, which I have heard from more than one person, is echoed in this 2014 piece in the New Yorker—that countries in Western Europe don’t want to count people by race because of the legacy of Nazism.)

I’m glad my friend told me this about race in Europe, because as an American and an Americanist, I really had no idea about this difference. This piece of knowledge altered my approach to discussing Black Lives Matter in Norway. Instead of starting by introducing the topic of Black Lives Matter generally, I begin with the slide below:

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The question on the slide, “Why is race important to U.S. history?” is a very big question, of course, but I answer it simply: You can’t talk about U.S. history without taking about race. Period. The map in the background helps to illustrate this. It is a historic map from 1860, which shows the percentages of slaves across the southern U.S. You can see how widespread slavery was and how concentrated it was in some areas.  I think this map helps students understand why race is a category of study in the U.S. They still don’t tend to use the word race I have noticed—preferring the term skin color—but I hope that this helps them understand my approach to the topic.

I have also discussed how and why we count people by race/ethnicity in the U.S. with a group of teachers-in-training. They are taking a course about the U.S., so I thought they might be interested in learning a little bit about how we talk about race in the U.S. I showed them a sample of the question at the end of a job application that asks about race and ethnicity. (This is one different than many I have seen, which tend to give you the option of picking both Hispanic or Latino and another category.) The students were very interested in this, and I did my best to explain why job applications ask for this type of information. I didn’t, however, know all the ins and outs of how this information is used or not by hiring committees, and if I do a similar exercise again, I would use this article from Chronicle Vitae to explain this further.

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These topics can seem so bureaucratic, but they are important markers of not only institutional policies but also of important topics and trends in a country. While Norway does not ask about race in job applications, I was interested to see a box on a recent job application I filled out in Norway that asked: “Do you meet the requirements for special treatment for applicants of foreign origin?” This box did not mention race, but it did specifically ask about being an immigrant or coming from “an immigrant background.” It did surprise me to see this question at all, but it was not too surprising after a second’s thought. While race may not be a hot topic in Norway per se, immigration, and immigration of people from particular ethnic and religious backgrounds, certainly is.

Norway’s history of immigration is mostly a history of emigration—a fact that has been reintroduced into the conversation recently in the U.S. after Trump said that he would like to have more immigrants from Norway. This NPR article discusses how many Norwegian immigrants there were in the U.S. during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Even though I knew that a lot of Norwegians moved to the U.S. I was still quite surprised to learn how many Norwegians left the country. The NPR article notes, “From 1870 to 1910 a quarter of Norway’s working-age population emigrated, mostly to the United States.” A quarter of the population! And while the beginning of the 20th century was not that long ago, things are certainly much different in Norway today. The chart below shows the number of immigrants and children born to immigrants in Norway. For reference, there are over 5 million people in Norway in total. It is clear that the Norway of the early 21st century is not the Norway of the early 20th.

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I have been very curious about how Norwegians are adjusting to the changes in their demographics. I have asked many of the people I have met in Norway about these issues. Some people want to really engage with a discussion of their changing society and others have shied away from this conversation. I think it can be difficult to discuss because it is not just that there are more new people but also more people who are not white and more people who are not Christian. While in the U.S. we spend a lot of time talking about difference, diversity, and cross-cultural competance, this kind of conversation seems new to many Norwegians. (And/or it is also possible that they don’t want to have it with a relative stranger in English. I don’t think I can take my own foreignness out of the equation.)

From an outsider’s point of view, you can see that this society is not changing seamlessly. In Oslo, for example, there is a clear divide between the western part of the city, which is more affluent and more white, and the east part of the city, which has more people of color. Or take the instances when I hear people referred to as immigrants, when they are second or third generation. As the pushy American, I have asked several people if “immigrant” is just a euphemism for person of color and the answer I have mostly gotten is, well, I guess so. Or take the mosque in a tiny, northern Norway town, which had these posters explaining what it means to be Muslim. I don’t know the motivation for these posters, but I imagine that you don’t make them if you haven’t been met with some resistance or at least have been met with some people who you feel need a little bit of an education.

I often say in my workshops that it is unfair to compare Norway and the U.S. on a one-to-one ratio because they are vastly different places with vastly different histories. So I do not offer these thoughts on Norway’s discussions around immigration in order to say that are the same as the conversations and disagreements we are having in the U.S. around race. And I’m not trying to suggest my very U.S.-centric view of placing an emphasis on diversity is the right way of viewing the world. However, I do think that almost all of the issues that one country faces are mirrored in a variety of ways in other countries. And that sometimes it takes holding up that mirror to see your own world with clarity.