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.

Teaching the Crucible in the Post-Truth Era

Actual still frame from The Crucible (1996). No alterations have been detected.

“We burn a hot fire here; it melts down all concealment. Are you certain in your conscience, Mister, that your evidence is the truth?” – Deputy Gov. Danforth, The Crucible, ACT 3.

Dear College Professor,

As you may have read, I recently taught The Crucible in my 11th-grade English class. I know what you’re thinking. “I read The Crucible in high school in 1990, you read The Crucible in high school in 1971, you’re teaching The Crucible in 2019. What’s the diff, man?” When I first started teaching The Crucible last year, I didn’t know either.

But this year, I kind of started to, which is why I wrote the first part of this article, where I explained some of the difficulties I was encountering this year, and how I hoped to work around them. In this second part, I’m going to tell you how my solutions worked out, and what I learned about my students and myself.

Since I was once a College Professor, perhaps one not that different from you, I’m hoping that my observations about my students’ political and information literacy will help you prepare to teach this same body of students as they enter your classrooms.

If we limit ourselves to the historical context of the 1950’s, The Crucible is not a difficult text to teach. It’s when we try to help our students examine the play’s relationship with our 21st-century politics that things get sticky.

In 1952, the already acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller used the plot and setting of Salem Witch Trials as the foundation for an allegory about his own experiences during the Red Scare of the 1950’s. During this decade U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy led the House Un-American Activities Committee to accuse numerous Americans, based on little or no evidence, of being communist spies. Miller represented the contagious panic and mass-hysteria of the Salem Community to show his audience how a search for truth and justice had become corrupted by fear and a compulsion among the political elite for self-preservation.

As a result of Miller’s play, as Erin Cassese recently explained in a recent Vox article, the term “Witch-Hunt” entered the American consciousness as a means to describe a government-led, fear-driven persecution of marginalized members of society (often, as in the Salem Witch Trials and the Red Scare, women) for scapegoats. Did you notice that woman being inappropriately assertive? She might be a witch, or a communist.

But as Cassesse points out, our modern “Witch Hunts” – the term invoked by President Trump each time his actions are investigated or his authority questioned, “are often invoked defensively by men in positions of power and authority.” Calling investigations into patriarchal abuse of power, be they Trump’s alleged collusion with foreign powers or accusations of sexual assault by men like Brett Kavanaugh (as in this shaky argument), “witch-hunts” does more than undermine their veracity in the public eye – it delegitimizes them, and repositions the powerful as victims.

This second point – about the way that the term “Witch Hunt” has been co-opted by men those who control the apparatuses of state power – is the lesson that I find both more important for my students to understand, and found impossible to teach in my classroom. But it’s the point I find most important because it’s about language and literature and the way language changes. About how a term used to describe the abuse of the weak by the powerful has been co-opted to protect the already powerful. Whether or not we believe Kavanaugh, for example, or even sympathize with his outrage, the use of the term “Witch Hunt” has changed – and this is relevant to an American literature classroom.

When I tried to discuss this problem of language with my students, they were mostly silent. It’s true that they’re in high school – many of these students don’t follow politics closely. But probably fewer of your students do than you think, either. Yet, I found that they are nonetheless exposed to the modern use of the term, through either their social media or their parent’s television sets. Yet, because of the disparity between the ways that conservative and mainstream media sources portray current events, a classroom cannot create a consensus because it cannot agree on basic facts.

As I told you in my last post, in an attempt to remedy this problem, I asked my students to research a controversial current event that has been characterized in the news media as a “Witch Hunt.” I asked them to then write an essay that argued whether their event really is a Witch Hunt. In other words, based on their research, are the accusations driven by actual evidence of wrongdoing, or by mass hysteria and desire for political power.

Well, I’ve now had time to read their essays, and to reflect on what I learned from reading them. I’m ready to share with you, reader.

And the main thing I found: finding good, unquestionably unbiased and reliable sources about current events is getting to be kind of a sticky situation.

When Things Are Sticky

Quand y’en a marre […] via Adrien Leguay

As in any research project, our choice of sources will often determine the answers to our research questions. When I taught research in college, and when I teach it now, I try to teach my students how to identify reliable sources and to avoid unreliable sources.

My students made a lot of mistakes in this part of their projects. Often, these were the same mistakes my college students typically made – failing to understand the difference between an editorial/opinion piece and investigative journalism, for example. Or relying heavily on sources that did not analyze any primary information, but whose primary purpose was just to generate web traffic. Or accepting the face-value assertions that their source is non-partison when just a little digging reveals it’s sponsored by an oil company or something. So, I need to teach this better. You might consider the idea of placing an emphasis on this area, too.

There is no oil in the water. Coast Guard_100618-G-5176S-237-oil via Florida Sea Grant

On the other hand, I found that when we’re researching current events, it’s much more difficult to find the lines between a reliable source and an unreliable source than when we’re doing the research typical of the college classroom. We can’t just say “use only peer-reviewed sources.” If you’ve ever tried using your university-provided databases for research on a topic less than a couple of years old, you’ll know it doesn’t work that well.

When we leave the sources open to the online sources that could be arguably deemed reliable, which I did when I assigned the “Witch Hunt” project to my students, students can find the “facts” to support either side of an issue. My students found the sources to support arguments that Trump and Kavanaugh are victims, as well as that their victims are victims. They were not always sources I necessarily liked. But they were sources that, based on my initial online surveys, their families and immediate social circles would find reasonable.

Faced with this issue, I’m aware that some teachers make a list of prohibited sources. For example, you can use CNN but not FOX. You can use the Washington Post but not the New York Post. But I’ll tell you, it’s really easy to alienate your students by telling them that the primary sources of news accepted as unbiased in their household are really propaganda.

The Fire of Concealment

Fire! Via D4E

In your research and in my research peer-review is the gold standard but there is no peer review for current events because no one can agree on who has authority. Our standard news conduits leave open questions we would have once deemed reasonable to all but conspiracy theorists. What is reliable information? Is it the Attorney General of the United States? Is it the Central Intelligence Agency or the President of Russia?

In the United States we cannot agree on the answer to these questions as a society. In teaching The Crucible this year, I’ve come to doubt that it is not reasonable to presume that I can solve them in my classroom.

In Act 3 of the Crucible, the protagonist John Proctor who, as the saying goes, has 99 problems with him but being a witch is not one of them, tells Deputy Governor Danforth, the judge of the play’s Salem Witch trials, that Abigail Williams and the other accusers are lying. To prove this, John Proctor calls on Mercy Warren, who has herself accused others of witchcraft, to testify. Danforth warns Proctor: “We burn a hot fire here; it melts down all concealment. Are you certain in your conscience, Mister, that your evidence is the truth.”

Danforth’s fire is one of purification, that burns the impurities away from society. But what if our 21st-century fire does not “melt down all concealment” but instead burns so brightly that none can see what is behind it? What if this fire burns so long that we come to question whether there is any truth behind it, at all? Maybe this is the danger. Maybe this is the lesson of The Crucible in the Post-Truth Era.

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Clay Zuba is an English Teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches American Literature and writing. In 2016, he was awarded a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Delaware. His acclaimed blog love7g.com about Nathaniel Hawthorne is a precursor to his upcoming historical novel Love in the House of the Seven Gables.