21 March 2011

Telling Stories

I spent most of my day grading essays. After a week off for spring break, preceded by a week shortened because of Mardi Gras, I left the entire stack for today. Twenty-two essays total.

The essays were personal narratives. Each student wrote three pages about a significant event that somehow changed him or her. It's incredible what they will disclose in an essay: pregnancy, abortion, religion, sickness, death. I admire many of them for their bravery, and I feel privileged to be among each essay's few readers.

What struck me most as I read through the stack was the balance each writer took on showing and telling. Most students spend too much time telling. They explain why someone they loved was important or why they came to a certain belief. Even after much class discussion about showing and letting the story stand, they still rely on telling.

What's most interesting about this is that it's usually their first paragraph or two that does all the telling. Instead of jumping into the story, they write an explanation. Over and over I wrote: This is all telling. Your essay should start here (with an arrow pointing to the second paragraph). Then I would feel guilty that they won't have the time to revise these essays because so many of their stories are beautiful.

It reminds me of what William Zinsser wrote about the importance of writing our stories even if they will never be published:
Sorry to be so harsh, but I don’t like people telling other people they shouldn’t write about their life. All of us earn that right by being born; one of the deepest human impulses is to leave a record of what we did and what we thought and felt on our journey. 
Each of our stories is important, which makes it all the harder to write comments on students' papers when they write something heartbreaking and beautiful but that's riddled with grammatical errors. Still, I feel privileged and grateful, and mindful of how important it is for me to tell my story.

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