Personal writing is frivolous, something best left to those students with the poor judgment to actually major in creative writing. This was essentially the opinion I heard expressed in an English-faculty meeting last fall. We should be teaching our first-year, general-education students to write for their intended professions, my colleague said; teaching “expressionist crap” is a pointless diversion, a waste of our students’ time and ours.
I have been on the fringes of higher education, as an adjunct instructor in composition and creative writing, for almost two decades now, and everywhere I have taught, there has been tension between writing-faculty members who value writing for its own sake and literature-faculty members who too often seem to view freshman composition as torture to be endured before they can get around to the business of teaching things that are really important.
This issue extends to other departments where faculty view introductory English courses as mere gateways designed to acclimate students to the college writing experience.
Therefore, so the thinking goes, the best way—the only way—to prepare students for the rigors of college courses and for their subsequent careers is to teach them to compose lab reports, police reports, interoffice memos, and researched-based, third-person essays that allow us all to pretend that those works carry no personal bias. Hence we will produce the ideal scholar, one who is capable of spitting out convoluted sentences that circumvent the word “I” with the same ludicrousness with which the androgynous Pat from Saturday Night Live left 1990s viewers guessing his/her gender through the deft omission of pronouns.
Instructors in literature, writing, and other disciplines all want students to know and use basic grammar, to be able to develop and structure their ideas, and to understand the conventions of documentation that will allow them to enter into intellectual exchange. Where we often differ is in how to achieve those goals.
Yes, students need to learn how to write grants and proposals and research papers. Yes, students should learn the conventions of their fields of study. But should biologists know only how to compile lab results, and police officers only how to write reports? Or is there something for all of us to gain when students engage in rigorous, compassionate, empathetic reflections on their own experiences?
Last fall I taught four classes of underprepared, first-year students from some of the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago. They wrote personal narratives through which we explored the basics of strong writing—clarity, organization, voice, diction, syntax, grammar, punctuation, and so on. Of course, we could have discussed all of those things had we been writing academic essays or reports, but what made the personal narrative especially effective for these writers was their passion for their subject matter.
Telling their own stories first—before attempting to interpret and synthesize information from the works of others—enabled them to write in a relatively low-stakes context. I could not tell Student A that she was wrong, that her first-grade teacher in fact had red hair and not blond, that the dog that bit a hunk out of her calf when she was 2 was a poodle and not a French bulldog, that her father was not really cruel but only distracted and distant. She was the expert in this subject, and she alone could tell her story. For a student with little control over her own life until that point, this was a powerful and empowering concept.
When my students realized that they had control over their stories, they wanted to get them right, to choose the precise word to express a certain emotion or idea. Suddenly diction and syntax mattered. And as they struggled to get the right tone, the right blend of simple and compound and complex and compound-complex sentences, the strong opening line, the punch at the end that would leave readers thinking about their stories for days to come, they began to pay attention to the rhythms of speech around them and to place their own voices in the context of all the other voices in their lives.
In this way, personal writing demands empathy, a quality that is necessary not just for writers but also for parole officers and firefighters and radiologists and investment bankers. How can we write about the characters in our lives without having some sort of understanding of their passions, their dreams, their motivations? And in coming to realizations about the ways in which other people think and behave, how can we not become more compassionate human beings—better employees, better citizens, better spouses and parents and children and grandchildren?
Personal writing also demands compassion for the narrator, for in order to write about why we have behaved in a certain way, we must acknowledge the forces that have shaped us and must recognize the things we have most fervently believed. In case this all sounds too lofty, too out of touch with what one might need to know for a career in, say, biomedical engineering: These insights add up to the ability to think analytically, an unmistakable mark of intellectual prowess.
This past semester, my students wrote humorous, haunting, lyrical prose—brave prose. They described the smell of menudo simmering on the stove, the gooey deep-dish pizza from the dive down the street, the neighborhood drug dealer who covered his braided hair with colorful barrettes, the sound of Kanye West’s “Homecoming” mixing with the smell of weed and barbecue on the grill in their neighborhoods, the pink pajamas of the little girl who was shot and killed one morning on her grandmother’s front porch. Their stories changed me, made me a better teacher and a more compassionate human being, and perhaps it is not too self-indulgent for me to believe that telling their stories transformed them, too—made them more self-aware, more conscious of their place in the world, more prepared for the rigors of academic writing.
Certainly personal narratives, like other forms of creative writing, involve self-expression. Some may even be worthy of the designation “expressionist crap.” However, personal narratives are not really all that personal after all. They are windows through which we analyze our world. A good narrative places us in a certain time and place with certain people, and it explores belief systems and values and social forces. Oh, yeah, and when you are writing one, you can also learn the proper use of a semicolon; go figure.
Jennifer McGaha has recently taught at Western Illinois University, at Brevard College, and in the Great Smokies Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.