Last week, I spent five days teaching a creative nonfiction workshop for ten high school students who were participating in our Young Writers Workshop at Ohio State University. Twenty-eight rising juniors and seniors from Columbus City Schools gathered for a week-long immersion into the study of creative writing. This is a residential program that allows the students to live in a dorm and to experience college life. It’s also a chance for them to benefit from the instruction of faculty and MFA students from the Ohio State Creative Writing Program, as well as other writers who are usually Ohio State MFA alums, and who teach at other institutions. This year, the fiction writer, Mike Kardos, and the poet, Catherine Pierce (they happen to be married and they brought along their adorable baby, Sam), who teach at Mississippi State University, taught workshops in their respective genres. The students took classes in their primary, secondary, and tertiary genres in the mornings–so everyone had instruction and practice in all three genres–and then attended their primary workshop each afternoon. This is a program that I founded three  years ago with a gift from an extremely generous donor who was interested in doing something with the Ohio State Creative Writing Program that would benefit students from Columbus City Schools. I think we’ve hit  upon the right sort of program, patterned after other such summer workshops for young writers, the only difference being this: thanks to the gift from our donor, none of our students have to pay a cent for this experience. My colleague, Michelle Herman, now directs the program and takes it in new and interesting directions as it continues to grow.

One of the first things I learned from this year’s group of nonfiction writers was that they hadn’t read all that much nonfiction, though some of them had read memoirs such as Ellie Wiesel’s Night, or The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. I started our first workshop with an ice breaker that also serves as a writing exercise. It’s my old standard, my shoe exercise, where I ask students to recall pairs of shoes that they can remember from their childhoods. Then I ask them to choose the pair of shoes from their list that seems to be calling them most strongly. I tell them that this attraction is usually because there’s something unresolved in their life experience that is brought to the surface by those shoes. We then do a freewrite that begins with the words,  “I was wearing them the day. . . .” The shoes really don’t matter, of course. They’re only a trick that allows the students to recall some sort of complicated moment from their lives. I keep telling myself I’ll come up with a new ice-breaker and exercise, but this one works so well that I usually stick with it.

It’s one thing, of course, for the nonfiction writer to recall a complicated moment from the past. Perhaps it’s a moment of choice, or a moment in which something out of our hands happens and changes us forever. It’s another thing, though, to write vertically down through the layers of that experience to articulate and interrogate its complexity. So my exercise allowed the students to dramatize a significant moment without paying much service to investigating the many aspects of that significance.

That’s why at midweek, I gave them another exercise. I asked them to think about the moment of complexity in the short piece of memoir they’d written from that first exercise. Then I asked them to find a place where they could insert a sentence that began with the words, “One part of me wanted/hoped/feared. . . .” Then I asked them to insert another sentence that began, “Another part of me, though, thought . . . .” The results were immediate and wonderful.

So this is now my sure-fire way of getting students to deepen the significant moments of their memoirs. “One part of me. . . , but another part of me. . . .” Of course, the language doesn’t have to be exactly like that. Any variation will work. The important thing is to investigate your own contradictions. My ten young writers were eager and willing, and I was so proud of their results.

10 Comments

  1. jessica handler on July 25, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    Don’t you just love teaching teen writing workshops? I just finished teaching one at VOX here in Atlanta, and I see myself in them. And you know I always go to you for good writing exercises.

  2. Lee Martin on July 25, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    Jessica, I love how fearless they can be sometimes, and in that week together I love to see how close they become and how supportive. We form a little family and we trust one another. They’re so full of energy, too, and they’re right there on the cusp of their adult lives. It’s exhilarating to be with them. I hope your experience was equally as rewarding.

  3. Linda Kass on July 26, 2011 at 9:33 am

    Lee, your affirming and insightful guidance of these students has certainly left an indelible mark on their journey as writers. If only all teenagers had this kind of intensive, expertly facilitated writing experience!

    • Lee Martin on July 26, 2011 at 10:07 am

      Linda, thank you so much for all your support. This was a wonderful group, and they were sad to see the week come to an end. We’ve had three great years with the program, and we’re looking forward to the years, and the new students, that lie ahead. Well, if they’re in nonfiction, they better not be lying 🙂

  4. Bren McClain on July 26, 2011 at 10:54 am

    Lee, this is what I love so much about your characters — their deep complexity and contradictions. Wholly human. I wonder if these students realize how fortunate they are to have spent this time with you.

    • Lee Martin on July 26, 2011 at 12:38 pm

      Thanks so much, Brenda. I was talking to my young writers the other day, explaining that it wasn’t our job to judge ourselves or others, but to try to understand the complicated sources of our behaviors.

  5. Kate Flaherty on July 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    Wow! What a great exercise! And I’m not just saying that because I just finished writing a chapter of my memoir in which a pair of Candies sandals plays a very important role. Thanks, Lee–and I just finished Break the Skin–wow. . . you recaptured the restless desperation of a lonely woman so well. Not that I have any personal experience with that. . .

    • Lee Martin on July 26, 2011 at 12:36 pm

      Hi, Kate! Isn’t it amazing to see the places our shoes can take us in our memoirs? Thanks for your kind comments about the exercise and about BREAK THE SKIN. Good luck with your memoir. Does it have anything to do with the restless desperation of a lonely woman?

  6. Richard Gilbert on September 1, 2011 at 11:04 am

    Your shoe exercise rocks! I tried it yesterday in a writing class for business majors, as an ice-breaker and way to get them ready for their first essay about the roots of their passion or career desire (a short memoir, really, though I don’t call it that in this class). The kids were a bit doubtful, but got into it and told great stories. Of disastrously broken jellies and a pair of hateful brown Merrells, and of course red cowboy boots, light-up sneakers, Air Jordans, and Converse High Tops.

    It made me think of a couple resonant pairs of my own shoes, though lamentably I used their writing time to try to learn their names.

    • Lee Martin on September 1, 2011 at 4:39 pm

      Richard, I’m glad to hear that the shoe exercise was useful for your students. It’s certainly served me well over the years.

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