Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sharing Stories

For Thursday, September 15, 2011

I hadn’t planned on sharing stories of my brother John today but after assigning my class to read an excerpt from Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood, I did just that. I’d begun telling my AP students of how I had grown up with four older siblings and how being between 10 and 16 years younger, my childhood was greatly influenced by the four who had come before me. The stories of my brother, and more specifically, the reasons John had not been trusted to babysit me when I was little, made my students chuckle. By the time the bell to change classes rang, we were all laughing and sharing stories of our own American childhoods.

I absolutely love the genre of memoir. I love reading memoirs and I enjoy writing them. That is probably quite obvious to anyone who happens upon my blog, for on here I share daily recollections of my past or present. But I think what I find to be the most interesting aspect of reading memoirs is the way in which another person’s story allows us to connect. Being able to hear someone’s tales we all find common ground. We stop and reflect on the adventures, big or small, that make up the minutes, hours, days of our lives, and we smile learning that we all celebrate and struggle through similar occurrences.

In 2006, William Zinsser, author of the classic guide On Writing Well, talked about the challenges of writing memoirs. Zinsser shared his opinion that since the 1990’s many memoirs have focused on victimhood, rather than forgiveness. He also commented (his books) “are about small episodes that were not objectively "important" but that were important to me. Because they were important to me they also struck an emotional chord with readers, touching a universal truth that was important to them” (From The American Scholar 2006).

Reading his words, I began thinking of this blog and of how writing in this way has allowed me to create a memoir in various pieces. It has been fun to share the “small episodes” of my life and more enjoyable have been the ways in which, after reading my blog posts, others have shared with me their own stories. As Zinsser suggests, I am now supposed to, “Read them through and see what they tell...what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it's not about. They will tell you what's primary and what's secondary, what's interesting and what's not, what's emotional, what's important, what's funny, what's unusual, what's worth pursing and expanding. You'll begin to glimpse your story's narrative shape and the road you want to take”.

Maybe I’ll eventually look at the pieces I’ve created here in that analytical way. And all I’ll have to do is put the pieces together to form my story’s “narrative shape”. But I don’t know. I’m in no rush. I think of the puzzle makers in my family. Although there is pride as the last puzzle piece is placed in that last blank spot, and although there is admiration of the completed picture, I know that the true enjoyment of puzzle making is within the process of building the puzzle.

My former students have often come back to visit or have written to tell me they still remember the day I told them a particular story and that’s when I know that it’s not so much the funny tale I told one day in class, it’s more that I dared to share something that gave them a window into who I truly am, where I came from, or how I came to be “me”. My students are now selecting a memoir book to read and they have begun crafting their own memoir piece which will be shared with classmates, first in writing workshop groups and later through the creation of a digital story project when they'll record their personal history story and add visuals and perhaps music. The unit will end with a digital story showcase day. It's always one of my favorite days of the school year for the films of everyone's memoir pieces are masterful year after year. How could they not be? Making those connections with others is a beautiful part of life. We are nothing without our stories.

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