Thursday, June 18, 2009

Writing for the ages
   Through stories we transcend time

I’m working with my students right now on their ”essays of place”--which is the last writing assignment of the year.

Part of what I tell them is that I am not their audience I want them to think about. I want them to write a piece of family literature that their children will read--something that their family will pass on--something that people will still be reading 100 years from now. A lot of them take that seriously.

In writing about places that are important to them, they write about who they are, really.

Who are you, really? That’s a question writing teachers should pose, in dozens of ways, to every young person. The answer often depends on who is listening, or who they imagine is listening, or who they want to listen. Speech is social. Who is a teenager living in Terry, Montana, or Sutherlin, Oregon? Who will hear him? Who will care what she says?

Teenagers who have been introduced to family history get excited to find a page or two written by their great-grandparents. Such students respond well to the idea that the most attentive audience for much of what they are writing may well be their own children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Reminding them of that is a way of slowing things down. I’ve just looked at several blogs where the posters seemed frantic, wild for something to link and comment upon. They reminded me of gamblers in Reno dropping quarters in a dayless glitter of hope for the jackpot that hovers forever just out of reach. Slowing things down strikes me as quite wonderful.

I like the thought of high school kids imagining their own grandchildren reading their words fifty or more years down the road. It’s better than their imagining that their writing is best rewarded by the applause of strangers. I would rather they saw themselves giving themselves a form, sentence by sentence--a form that will not pass away and that others will consider through the ages.

The more I learn of memory--my own and that of my people--the less I believe that what finds its way into words, either said or thought, is lost.

Though we ourselves are not merely words, we are partly words--a great part, and a part that persists. This is not something we can readily teach a sixteen-year-old. One way, I’ve found, is to lead young people into diaries or journals written by people a hundred or a thousand years ago. Preferably local people, not yet fictionalized by historians. Best of all, the works of their own ancestors, which tend to more plentiful than you might imagine.

What sort of characters were they? What were they trying to do? What was the setting of their lives--what did the world look and smell and sound like? We begin to understand they emerged to handle trouble, and that none of it was quite inevitable. There was in all of it a trace of will. It was made, and the main part of the making was imagining. Character drove the plot--evoking the events that triggered the actions, the consequences, and the other characters who responded. Always, desire was the invisible fire rippling like God’s breath through forests and canyons of time.

As they understand how those people of the past were authors of themselves, and that the theme of their lives was the plot, reflected upon, they better understand themselves the same way. They begin to see how it will be that people of the future will read our lives, tracing us as characters related to events, texts, ideas, and other characters. Already one of the primary personal uses of the internet is family history research, and archivists at such institutions as the National Archives and the Library of Congress report that their collections are used heavily by genealogists. Nothing in the trend lines suggests that this interest in recovering and understanding ancestors is going to abate.

What we can do today with famous people, others will be able to do tomorrow with not so famous people, such as that fifteen-year-old girl in the third row, who sent five emails this morning and visited a chat room last week. She is leaving records that, combined with the records of her time, will make possible a reading experience so broad and deep that most novels seem flat and dull by comparison.

If you want a sense of what I mean, do this: take a well-known person from the past, such as Theodore Roosevelt, and take a period of time: say, 1910. Try to figure out what Roosevelt did during that time, and why.

Try to figure out what ideas he would have been encountering, what people he would have been hearing about, what the news was, what he would have been anticipating and what he would have been worried about. Try to figure out his life and times. You will quickly have many thousands more leads than you can follow, so follow the ones that seem most intriguing or most likely to lead to new insight. Learn as much as you feel you need to know about names you come across, ranging from Luther Burbank to Emma Goldman to Gifford Pinchot.

Spend considerable time with photographs and primary documents. Slow down. Read academic papers and personal narratives. Continue reading for 6 months with the intent to create some final product based on your researches, maybe a website focused on the life of Teddie Roosevelt in 1910. This last condition--the motive of teaching--gives your reading form.

If you conduct this little experiment, I predict a few things: you will have a reading experience as profound and engaging as any you’ve had in print media, you will deepen your understanding of the present by deepening your understanding of how it came to be, and you will wish young people in school were doing something similar.

When we invite young people into such experiences, they are grateful, though they often resist at first. As a place to start, we can ask them to do the important work of writing about the lives of their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles. These nearby people are a point of entry into the past and its enchantment. In gathering and forming their stories, young people do important work, but they also combine their energy and their time with the seasoning and insights of their elders. With such partners, they find the right things to say. Family elders are, most of the time, an excellent audience for young people trying to decide who to be.

It’s good to see high school students struggle with understanding what it means to be a character immersed in time. It’s good to see them embark on expeditions into the past-- to search for those significant stories of an ancestor making a hard decision, coming to a new insight, holding on to a dream or feeling a dream slip out of reach.

It’s good for them to slip away from the hurly burly of the daily show to stand in holy places, where things change more slowly than seasons, if they change at all. It’s good for them to discern character that endures through decades like the gray-black trunks of cottonwoods along a winter creek.

It matters that they experience how it is that moments can arc across decades, so that a sister dying on the living room couch sixty years ago in a story told by an eighty-year-old friend is as present as the smell of cedar permeating a small collection of unforgotten and precious things.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/18 at 10:37 PM
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