The Personal Essay: Secret to World Peace?

by Marion Winik, U. Baltimore/Communications Design

A few years back, I was invited to read from my work at a high school on Long Island. I assumed I’d present a section of Rules for the Unruly, an advice book I wrote with young people in mind. But when I got there, the principal asked if I’d read “Mrs. Portnoy’s Complaint,” an essay about parenting, in particular about the challenges of raising adolescents, about the insanity and the heartbreak of having the cuddly little darlings who once worshipped the ground you walk on metamorphose into testy zombies who cannot stand to speak to you. And while they are biologically programmed to make this break, you are programmed only to keep loving them with every cell of your being.

This was an essay written for other parents, I explained to the principal. I sincerely doubted a roomful of teenagers wants to hear me whining about how hard it is to be a mom. Plus, I pointed out, it has the F-word in it. Twice. It’s an essential part of the story, so it couldn’t easily be cut. Saying that word into a microphone on the stage of a high school auditorium seemed scary. Wouldn’t I get detention or something?

The principal told me not to worry, just go ahead and read it. So I did. To my surprise, the students listened raptly, alternately laughing and exclaiming at my detailed accounts of conflicts and arguments with my sons — including the one with the F-word, at which there was a collective gasp.

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In the Q&A that followed, several kids said that what they’d heard could have been transcribed from events in their own homes, but this was the first time they had ever been able to imagine what their moms felt. They heard those harsh words and saw those slammed doors from the other side. “I’m going to call my mom right now,” one boy said, and a girl who was on her way back through the double doors from the hall said, “I just did.”

What I saw that day was the power of speaking from the heart, even across enemy lines, or perhaps especially across them. Without recourse to polemics or persuasion, memoir has the rare capacity to allow people to fully experience other points of view and other lives. And possibly to change because of it.

I left the high school that day thinking perhaps I should go teach personal essay classes to would-be suicide bombers. At least we might get to understand what they’re trying to say.

Instead, I ended up teaching at the University of Baltimore, to undergraduates and in the MFA program. Because of the extremely rich diversity of the student body, UB is a terrific place to teach memoir, and to observe its power to increase understanding. I’ve taught in a room that included African-Americans from the Baltimore and DC projects, kids of all races from middle-class suburbia, a white woman who grew up under apartheid in South Africa, and writers ranging in age from their teens to their eighties. I have taught people who are deaf, who are gay and transgender, who were adopted. Single teenage parents, military in Iraq and Afghanistan, professional cheerleaders, cops, musicians. We have students who were bullied in high school, were raped, were abused by their parents. We also encounter beginning memoirists who are ashamed to confess that nothing of interest has ever happened to them. Of course, this has never turned out to be true.

Sometimes, understanding doesn’t dawn instantly. The group has questions. Why did you do that? How could you do that? What were you feeling? Why did you feel that? What happened next? Those discussions can be tricky, but as long the questions come from curiosity, not from judgment, what usually happens is that the writer ends up narrating a big, important part of the story he or she forgot to include. And so, on to revision.

In business writing and journalism classes, one of the questions we teach students to ask themselves is “who is the audience for this piece?” In memoir classes and storytelling workshops, the audience is anyone. Everyone. And the less you think they would care to hear this story, the more profound the result may be.

 

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