Recently, I spoke to a group of fourth graders about how I go about writing creative nonfiction, and one tip I gave them was that writing a true story is not just about retelling the facts. Unless you’re an elementary school principal listening to who pushed who first on the playground, very few people are interested in a blow-by-blow account of our days. (I’d argue that principals don’t care too much, either.)
“So what you have to do,” I told them, as I sat next to an easel like the one I used to have in my classroom, “is choose something to write about that is true, but also bothers you a little bit.”
I went on to tell them that if they are bothered by the truth, then that is a sign they’ll need to figure it out. “And that means,” I said, as I leaned forward to the circle of kids sitting around me, “that you’ve found yourself a story.”
To sit with what bothers us in order to transform it into a story or poem is not an easy task. It can be downright overwhelming. One response I have for this concern is to suggest reading Marilyn McEntyre’s Make a List: How A Simple Practice Can Change Our Lives and Open Our Hearts.
I’ve read her book and am making my way through the many invitations she offers for list-making, but I also had the pleasure of hearing her speak about list-making at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.
She describes lists as a mirror, “Something comes back to you,” she said. Making lists allows us to “drop into deeper places” and — my favorite — “move toward greater subtlety.”
Memories are tricky. I often sit down to write thinking I’ll tell the story of one moment, but in the process, I’ll remember something else. This happens throughout my day too. Such was the case the day I talked with fourth-graders. My plan was to discuss my writing process, but when I walked into the classroom and saw that easel, it was almost as though I was assaulted with nostalgia. It was difficult to concentrate on what it was I planned on saying, and I’m afraid I didn’t say much worthwhile.
McEntyre explained that list-making allows us to name something and “naming helps [us] contend.” My husband, Jesse, and I have been discussing teaching for several months now, and he says that until I can figure what bothers me and turn that into a story I will not be able to figure out how I feel and what I think. I cannot contend.
There seems to be too much to contend with for me when it comes to teaching, but seeing the easel felt familiar and good, like a wave from an old friend and an offer to sit and wonder.
I think I can contend with an easel.
For this week’s prompt, think of a memory, a moment, or an experience that bothers you. It should feel as though it’s too big to tell, too scary, too sad, even too hilarious. Next, make a list that includes objects, people, or sentences or phrases related to the memory. Finally, see if you can craft a poem using part of the list.
When I was a little girl, I always wanted to be a teacher. I ended up an accountant instead, and after reading The Teacher Diaries: Romeo and Juliet, I realize it’s probably a good thing, because I don’t have the gift that Callie Feyen has. She pulls meaning from even the smallest things and helps us relate something that can be hard to understand to situations and feelings in our own lives. It’s been a long time since I have read Romeo and Juliet, and to be honest, I didn’t enjoy it very much when I did study it in school. But now I know how much I missed and I am looking forward to reading it with new eyes. If only we could all have had teachers like Callie, challenging us to see more and feel more!
—JJN Mama, Amazon reviewer