Several years ago, a student of mine (we’ll call him James) stuck around after my introductory fiction-writing class because something was on his mind. This was around week three of the semester. He’d seemed highly engaged in the course so far, but today he was being quiet.
We waited while everyone else cleared out. I smiled reassuringly. He cleared his throat and looked at his shoes. When the room was empty except for us, I asked, “So what’s up?”
He told me that he would never be able to complete the exercise I’d assigned that day.
I had asked students to brainstorm some interesting details from their pasts, and to incorporate these details into a scene of fiction. The idea was to get students to use pre-existing knowledge as a way to give their work more authority.
I asked James what the trouble was.
He shrugged. “There’s nothing remotely interesting about any part of my life,” he said. Then, so I’d understand his dilemma, he elaborated. “I grew up on a farm, in a town of fifteen people, where everybody is related. The next largest town was ten miles away and there were only fifty or sixty people there.”
I told him that to me, a guy who grew up in densely populated New Jersey, his life sounded completely fascinating.
“No, it isn’t,” he said. And to prove his point, he started telling me about the various cows that his family owned.
“I’ve always wanted to milk a cow,” I told him.
He shook his head and tried not to laugh at me. “They weren’t milk cows.” Clearly, I should have known better, but my knowledge of cows is limited to Far Side cartoons and Chick-fil-A commercials.
It won’t surprise you to learn that James was able to use his knowledge of a) farming, and b) living in a very remote area, to create a scene that was fascinating and sophisticated.
Each of our students is an expert at something. Their knowledge and experience runs deep; often the trouble is that they believe their knowledge to be universal and their experience to be common or uninteresting—until told otherwise.
I’m not advocating that students only “write what they know.” I regularly steer students away from writing slightly fictionalized accounts of events in their own lives. Still, I’ve found that it can be very useful for them to put some of what they know—particularly, unusual things that they know really well—into the stories and poems they write. Doing so gives them confidence and their work a startling amount of authority.
[[This post originally appeared on Litbits on October 3, 2011.]]