Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Bulletin from Conferences with Creative Nonfiction Students

I felt a little bad because I'm not conferencing with my composition students this week like Middlebrow and Assertively Unhip. But then I remembered, I am conferencing with my students from Creative Nonfiction.
I had a day of conferences last week, and they were okay. My least favorite was with the student who needs the most help. He turned in a draft that he had clearly written just before emailing it to me. "What's the heart of this essay?" I asked. He looked at me blankly. I'd forgotten about this kind of student. He doesn't have an idea, he doesn't know what to do, he doesn't even know how to ask me a question so I can help him. "Okay," I said and sent him on his way. I'm accustomed to this student in beginning writing, but in an elective? I'm not sure why he's in this class. He is an okay writer, and I think he might even be creative, if he just wrote some stuff and loosened up.
In contrast with this conference were the majority of the conferences I had today. First, a student who wants to be an English major. I gave her a handbook. She's great at description and terrible with grammar.
Later a guy who's been quiet most of the semester. He's a good writer, but he clearly hadn't found his subject, until now. He had told me he was going to write about random conversations on public transportation. Okay, fine. But he sent me an essay about how his family moved to the woods, essentially, and how his mom came out of her depression for awhile. Because he wrote about it before I know that his mom eventually committed suicide. What was interesting was that in this essay he shifted from the third person (referring to himself by name and to his parents by their names) to the first person. He clearly was dealing with some tough emotional territory. In the final section, he began posing some questions that he hadn't quite addressed in the rest of the essay. I pointed to this section in our conference and said, "This is the section that can change this from a good essay into a great essay. But you have to decide for yourself, are you doing this essay just for this class, or are you a writer?" Like a good lawyer, I didn't ask a question I didn't know the answer to. Obviously he wouldn't have started this essay if he wasn't a writer. It's that kind of essay. It's messy, it's not done, but it's what he really needs to write about. I hate it when creative writing classes become therapy, but I see some real potential in him as a writer, and in this essay in particular. He said he saw this project extending beyond the end of the class. What greater compliment is there for a teacher than for a student to finally confront the subject matter he most needs to write about and to pursue a project beyond the end of a class? It's those quiet ones. You never can tell.
There was also another student who told me that she wants to turn her essay into a book. She's writing about her father and Viet Nam. He wrote a remembrance book that she is going to include in her essay. She had some great lines that began, "The story I want to tell is..." I referred her to "How to Tell A True War Story."
A few of these students told me that they are signing up for my Fiction class in the Spring. One, a great writer and a student from last semester, is working out a special deal with me, as he can't fit it in his schedule because he finally got into the nursing program.
Just when I had almost given up: hope.


Lisa B. said...

What a happy story. Even telling terrible, awful stories--hope.

ErinAlice said...

There is always hope isn't there? At least for me. That sounds like a great class. I wish I could take it from you!!! Of course you already know my stories and could probably write them better but hey, I would enjoy it just the same.