My interest in teaching monologues arose out of a personal interest in radio essays, from listening to This American Life and an interest in the work of Spalding Gray, who I really feel invented his own form of the monologue. He began performing monologues when he had a role in Chekhov’s The Seagull and then his mother died or became sick, and so he was never able to perform the role he had prepared for, so he recited his lines from the play along with a monologue he had written about his mother and his own life. What I particularly admire about Gray’s work is the way he is able to look at himself through the intersection of his own life and events outside himself. In “Swimming to Cambodia” this is especially true; in the movie he situates his own experiences making the movie “The Killing Fields” in the context of Cambodian history and the history of American-Cambodian relations. So what I borrowed from Gray was the idea that our personal narratives always intersect with local, national or international narratives. What I asked my students to do was to write a personal narrative that related events in their own lives to something outside themselves.
Now, I should also say that at the time I was teaching this class, in 2003, several events were foremost in the minds of my students: namely, the disappearance of Elizabeth Smart from a neighborhood that borders the University of Utah, and the impending war in Iraq. So when I showed them clips from Spalding Gray’s movie “Swimming to Cambodia” I could almost see them having these “Aha!” moments.
I gave my students the assignment of writing a two-page narrative about what they did on Spring Break with the requirement that they refer to current events in some way. I should also say that this particular class had a very jovial and humorous personality. Also in this class, unlike other courses I have taught at the University of Utah (which are usually 99 to 100% white students), I had an Iranian student and an African-American student. The students were required to write the monologue and to read or perform them in front of class.
What happened was that when my students came back from spring break the Iranian student read her essay about participating in anti-war protests and what, specifically, drivers had yelled at her as they drove past the corner where the protest was taking place. Then another student read his essay about drinking beer on Saint Patrick’s Day with his brother who was about to ship out to Iraq. Another student read an essay about shopping for lingerie while wondering where Elizabeth Smart was. Then the African-American student read an essay about stereotypes and dating in Utah that was so funny that by the end, everyone was laughing so hard they were crying. Finally, another student read an essay about racial politics and the city bus, called "Discipline and Punish on Public Transit."
What I learned from this assignment is that requiring students to contextualize their own experiences and to perform their own work in their own voices had inspired students in ways that exceeded the usual assignment to write an essay (or a story or a poem). What this assignment had required was that they not only step back from their own experience to take in the world around them, but also that they look to the world around them in order to see their own experiences. And because the world around them rarely conforms to the structures they are familiar with, offering students alternative forms can open creative writing to those who do not see their voices fitting neatly into a story, a poem or an essay. Part of this is clearly their own preconceptions about what constitutes a poem, essay or story, but part of it is the failure of some forms to convey what students, when they speak in their own voices, need to say. Like Spalding Gray they can create their own forms, or transform familiar forms by speaking in their own voices and of their own experiences. What the monologue provided for the students was a form that required a consideration of audience and reflection on their own thoughts.
The energy of the monologues derived from combining two disparate narratives: the personal and the public. And this is the strength of teaching other forms in the creative writing classroom: it forces students to integrate ideas and genres that they had previously thought of as separate. If one of the goals of creative writing is to encourage creativity, then the best way I know how to do this is by allowing students to speak and to claim forms as their own.
(Another resource: transom.)