I teach memoir writing to undergraduates at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, students with challenging lives. They are first-generation college students, first-generation Americans, often from the lower rungs of the economic strata. They're on the Autism spectrum or have learning disabilities. They are students who've already suffered loss of loved ones from family strife, poverty, the opioid crisis, gang violence, prison. In my creative writing workshops, students write about these experiences, showing hard-won wisdom borne of facing these obstacles. They write poorly, at first, and then over the four years, they write better, and then better, and by the time they graduate, some are accomplished story-tellers who want to continue writing, who I hope will. I'm sometimes frustrated because students haven't read the assigned essays, or they can't resist peeking at their phones even during class. They're late with their work or have forgotten the assignment. Then I remember to give them the benefit of the doubt. They are working, often full-time; they are commuting, sometimes an hour or more on a combination of buses and trains; they are sleeping on someone's couch as they can't afford an apartment; they are tired, they are ill, their cars broke down. Sometimes they miss class, they tell me, because they had an anxiety attack. I believe them. I move past annoyance to understanding, and I tell them to write about it so that so we can understand each other's lives. I tell them their stories are part of our cultural heritage, our history. Their stories matter; their lives matter; their opinions matter. I tell them if they don't write their stories, someone else will and they may not get it right. I'm motivated because if I don't show them that their stories are important, maybe nobody else will.
What Drives You to #AchieveMore?