What’s the Story #20

Last night in class, Jessica, an undergraduate in my creative-writing senior seminar, confessed that she was too depressed to write, and Laura, who had vowed the week before to snap out of her own depression and get back on track, was absent. I don’t doubt their depression, but judging by their previous essays, they drink and party at the expense of work.

Sometimes I tell students what I think about their behavior, but usually I just listen and encourage them to consider the future, when they will become working adults, which is just around the corner, and get more serious and better prepared for the working world.

Dawn dressed and carried herself as if she were part of that world: stylish and neat. In an essay, she described how compelling Ecstasy was; she had tried it recently at a rave. As the semester progressed, she began looking gaunt. Soon she stopped using make-up; her clothes were wrinkled. She gradually disappeared, did not answer e-mails or telephone calls. I never heard from her again.

Teaching writing, creative nonfiction especially, I learn a lot about students’ lives, and their burdens. Seems as if half of my students write about alcoholic or divorced parents and the toll such trauma has taken on their own lives. Abandonment is a common theme.

Last year, I asked Jason, who couldn’t decide what to write about, “What is it that you most want in this world to do?”

Jason paused, swallowed hard, and announced, “Meet my father.” Turns out his father left when his mother was pregnant, and although the man sent money sporadically, the two had never met.

Before I could comment, another student, Connie, yelled out, “I tried that, and it was the worst mistake of my life.” Connie’s dad left when she was 7. Last year, when she finally tracked him down, they quarreled bitterly. Other students volunteered information. Half were estranged from their dads.

Unlike fathers, mothers seem to stay at home with kids—in order to torture them with religion. There are always essays about Pentecostal, Mormon, Mennonite, Hasidic, Catholic, etc., households ruled by radical, salvation-obsessed mothers. College life set my students free from religious oppression—at least until my class.

To set up a situation leading to a dramatic action, I ask students to do something that may precipitate a change in their lives, and then write about it. Doris, a single mom at 16, was banned from her church and scorned by her priest. As my student 25 years later, she returned to the same church and attended Mass every morning for a month.

Revisiting her church, she wrote, helped her realize that her connection to Catholicism had fortified her character, and that the shame and anger precipitated by rejection actually strengthened her commitment to her child and to her own search for stability and identity. Her brief return led to acceptance of—not necessarily forgiveness for—what had happened, which was a measure of clarity she had never before achieved.

Jon, supported by his parents throughout college, took his first job—in a convenience store. Working the night shift, he gained an appreciation for the privileges of his childhood and a respect for people not as fortunate as he. He kept his job through the following term.

And Jason chose to follow his dream and visit his father. He got on an airplane one Friday morning, flew to Mississippi, rented a car, tracked down his father through a number of old addresses, walked up to the front door the following Saturday afternoon, and knocked. His father opened the door, and the two strangers silently embraced, “like it was in a movie,” Jason wrote in one of the drafts of his essay. “A magic connection.”

It pleases me that Jason and other students find clarity through their writing; clarity is a gift nonfiction writers share with their readers. But it isn’t magic. It took a lot of courage for Jason to confront his father in such a significant and bold manner and then to recreate the experience for the rest of the class, and perhaps someday the world. Jason’s essay was a fitting culmination of his undergraduate years, another passage from adolescence to manhood.

Now I sit and wait for Jessica and Laura to investigate their actions and feelings through the written word and perhaps find enough clarity to begin to work productively again. Periodically I talk with them, hesitantly, probing for an opening, encouraging them as subtly as possible to flesh out their pain and confront their frustrations in words.

Perhaps I should be a pushier professor; maybe I could have helped Dawn as she succumbed to the lure of Ecstasy, if my suspicions are accurate. But college teachers walk a blurred line between instructing and interfering. Our students are nearly adults, breaking away from parental authority figures. Teachers can’t push too hard to change students. All we can do is listen, read, encourage, and respond to the revisions of their stories and the revelations in their lives.

The search for clarity in life doesn’t end with a coming-of-age or graduation from college—it is ongoing and endless, as the essays in this issue illustrate.

In “Rachel At Work: Enclosed, a Mother’s Report,” Jane Bernstein seeks a clear vision of the future for her mentally retarded daughter. In “Nerve Endings,” Lucinda Rosenfeld wants to understand symptoms of paralysis that have suddenly affected her, and in “Shunned,” Meredith Hall seeks clarity through the fog of painful rejection in her small hometown—rejection triggered by teen pregnancy.

Laurie Graham is a former senior editor at Scribners’ who helped shape the work of Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams. Yet she, too, seeks clarity as she digs through the rubble of her treasured books, lost in a devastating house fire. Jana Richman finds clarity in the wind and the roar of the motorcycle experience, a search that I especially understand. My first book, “Bike Fever,” forever declared my affinity for the roar and the road of two-wheeled machines.

But, of course, this search for clarity—through revisions and experiences which lead to revelations—is the essence of writing essays, isn’t it? And one of the many reasons we are so hungry to read them.

A final note: This is our 20th issue and our 10th year of publication—a testament to the loyality of our readers and the impeccable skill of our writers, as well as the increasing recognition of creative nonfiction—the journal and the genre—as the emerging literary art form of the 21st century. Look for a series of celebrations of our accomplishments in upcoming issues of Creative Nonfiction.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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