Friday, February 20, 2009

We started today by sharing a bit of our own personal biographies including what experiences we’ve had that inspire our imaginations and influence our perspectives. I started by explaining I grew up skiing my entire life and that in the space of the chairlift, when forced to encounter a stranger, I could create any story I wanted about myself. A point in time, an encounter, an emptiness to fill, not only could I create a first person narrative different from reality, but I could also influence the stranger’s perspective about “me.” For me, the encounter in the ski lift and the blankness of perception which allows me to influence it, is a place to create story. Because most of my students are female, I also mentioned that in being completely covered in a parka and snow pants, I wasn’t judging immediately on my sex, on my physicality, which allowed even more room to influence and shape perceptions of myself. One student said she enjoyed imagining things while driving in a car and watching the scenery change. Another student said he enjoyed sleeping; he dreams often and in those dreams, is a fantastic possibility for interpreting reality and telling story.

I then had the students write about themselves in the first person narrative form, in the voice which just shared a piece of their biography. I asked them to never stop or pause, but to push themselves to keep writing (not worrying about mechanics or structure, free from personal censor).

Next, I asked them to, from that same first person narrative perspective they just wrote from, to write about how they perceived the person to their left. I asked them to consider writing about the character on their left based not only on what that person shared with the group, but also from their own perceptions about that person.

Then, I had the students consider the person on their right (the person who just wrote, from their perspective, about “you.”). I asked the students to write, from the first person narrative perspective, in the voice of that person, how they would characterize or perceive “you.”

For example, consider students:
A, B, C

So in the first phase, student A, B, and C, wrote from their respective perspectives about themselves. In the second phase, B wrote, from B’s first person narrative perspective about A as a character that B perceives. C did this for B. In the third phase of writing, B wrote in the voice of C (as they perceived or would image how C would write), from C’s first person narrative about perceiving and characterizing B. A wrote, in B’s voice, B perceiving and characterizing A.

This sounds complicated but the students got it. They were extremely mature about the exercise and very respectful about observing and characterizing each other (I told them to keep what they wrote to themselves). In the discussion after the exercises, I think the students really understood the incredible nature of perception and narration. I then explained the homework assignment: write two letters, one from one person’s perspective writing to another, and the response from that person writing to the first letter’s author.

One student mentioned that through an online program, she wrote a letter to herself when she got to high school which would be emailed to her when she turns 18. They got it! We discussed and considered how the “I” on paper can be from anyone’s perspective. Every time I write I, it does not imply that I am Trish Calvarese, and that in fact when I do that, it is a fiction and it is thus necessarily different from the reality of I, Trish Calvarese. In this way, the possibilities of perception and voice in storytelling and fiction are limitless. I suggested that in the homework assignment, they could even write a letter from “I” in the past to I in the future or present (or vice versa) because the experience “I” have is always changing and “I” am really never the same person.

I’m shocked with how well the students got this. They thought the exercise was “trippy” and they looked pretty confident in their understanding of it. We had a few minutes left so I asked two students to share a bit from the previous week’s assignment. The first student shared a lovely first person perspective speaking about salvation. I asked her who the “I” was whom was speaking and she said while writing it she wasn’t sure, but after doing the exercise, she realized it was her mother’s voice speaking at a time when she was the student’s age (15). The language was incredible, and to be honest, I got goosebumps- very passionate and moving. This was one aspect of the discussion from last time: passionate, rhetorical writing which is particularly effective in the political speech and which is told from a first person perspective. Then another student shared the first bit from her story. She was reluctant and said she was confused about the assignment, but with encouragement, she shared anyway. She wrote about a corrupt, incompetent mayor (who had the IQ of a 4th grader), who was in charge of all the money for a town and how he ruined it. Incredible! I explained to her that she really had understood the assignment. She had created a fiction that dealt with issues in reality, but in the fiction she created, in the fictional town and in the fictional character of the mayor, she could explore the issues of reality in the way reality can‘t. This was the other aspect of the discussion from last week- I had the students read “The Lottery” to get a better understanding of this point.

Another student said she had arrived at an ending in the story that she imagined but had arrived there in a different way than she anticipated, she wanted to know if this was okay. Ha! These kids get the issues of creative writing, and as artists, I think they know it intuitively. I told her it was more than ok and that when writing, though you can have an idea of where you want the story to go, you have to let evolve from what you write, because each sentence you write, eradicates all other possibilities. What is written down is the reality of the fiction, and building on sentence to sentence, natural patters and flows develop which, as an artist, one should be open to and aware of following.

I’m reading the rest of the students stories and am floored. One sounds like a short story from Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House.” She writes, “The brokers (which in this case refers to those who are broke, bankrupt, lacking funds, financially insolvent) were confused.” Holy s***, these kids got things from the assignment and discussion I couldn’t even teach directly, but which I had hoped were implied. The only issue is that they don't really understand that they understand, the author of the above sentence wrote at the top of her story, "I did this very wrong." Using some examples from this assignment, I'm going to illustrate some of the things the students subconsciously understood from our first discussion. Seriously, a phenomenal experience all around, can't wait to see what they do with the homework assignment. Wish I had more time with them!

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