I haven’t taught this gorgeous essay because it was published this summer, and this term is my first CNF break in a few years. I am leaving it here mostly so that I remember to add it to my Spring syllabus. I’ll come back and update this more eloquently later, but for now, if you haven’t, this one is so worth reading.
Memoir is the second unit of my 300-level CNF course–the one we spend the most time in–and “A Memoir is Not a Status Update” is one of the piece I’ve assigned on that first day because Shapiro does such a great job of cutting through some of the misconceptions that students new to nonfiction might have.
“As I often tell my writing students, just because it happened doesn’t make it interesting.”
“In order to write a memoir, I’ve sat still inside the swirling vortex of my own complicated history like a piece of old driftwood, battered by the sea.”
As Shapiro acknowledges, we live in the age of sharing–sometimes over-sharing–and she does a better job of laying out a simple notion quickly: the ways we engage with social media are not the same work of memoir.
Other times I’ve assigned “Dear Disillusioned Reader Who Contacted Me on Facebook” instead. In this, Shapiro further covers how we write memoir–and how it differs from what people might expect–and I prefer this piece because it’s a bit longer, the nuances greater. But at the start of my memoir unit, the reading load is heavy, so what I assign varies a bit.
In this piece, Shapiro writes the lines that I most often quote in class when working with students on the scope of their pieces:
“The memoirist looks through a single window in a house full of windows. After all, we can’t look out of all the windows at once, can we? We choose a view. We pick a story to tell.”
Ain’t it the truth?
1. Revel in how good-looking he is, how he channels Jude Law when his lazy eye doesn’t wander, how his weaving a ghillie suit that he keeps in the rusted hutch of his white pick-up shows exceptional dedication.
2. Convince yourself it’s meaningful because he plays Nina Simone as you disrobe and paw at each other for the first time. Pay no attention when the music flips to “The Piña Colada Song.” Read more…
I teach Sei Shonagon’s “Hateful Things” early in the term (on the same day as William Hazlitt’s “On The Pleasure of Hating”), and let’s be honest: a Japanese court lady from the Heian period probably isn’t the most relatable to our Snapchatted (and awesome) students. But later in the term, we read Gretchen Legler’s piece “Things That Appear Ugly or Troubling But Upon Closer Inspection Are Beautiful,” a piece after Shonagon that uses her same form, a piece that let’s the students learn that they are, indeed, in discussion with works from so long ago when they begin their apprenticeship as nonfiction writers.
Both of these are list pieces in a way–just small snippets–which is great in terms of bringing varying structures into the classroom. The pairing is solid, and has worked really well for me. Later in the term we also read a piece from Agni by Greg Bottoms titled “Dinner With Strangers,” and his way in to his essay is through Hazlitt. Another solid connection.
I never say abuse. Instead, I slide into cliché. It was no picnic, I say. Had a rough childhood, but the texture means nothing to anyone else. Rough: my father’s cracked hands, the sound of them dragged across blankets in search of my curled body, hands full of static and Read more…
1. Waiting Room
Muzak earworms a song so deep into your subconscious that for weeks afterwards: hum, hum, hum. And it’s Juice Newton. It’s Steely Dan. The Girl from Freaking Ipanema. Read more…
July 18, 2014
“Songs of Our Lives: Dead Kennedy’s ‘Chemical Warfare’,”
In 1987, at a family arcade in New Jersey, I’d hoarded enough Skee-ball tickets for a real prize—not just some ratty stuffed animal. I claimed my bounty with fervor: a single-tape boombox small enough to keep under the covers and muffle the sounds of my parents’ endless fighting. In the dark, the volume at just one bar, I’d lie with my ear pressed against the speaker mesh, my index finger poised, waiting to hit record on any of the groups I loved…Read more…
ISSUE 48 / WINTER 2015 / NONFICTION
We ran for ringing phones. Loitering in front of Sbarro, sweating through our bomber jackets, our hair partially shaved and streaked blue. We looked tough in our Docs (though not so tough as we thought), and at one ring, maybe a two hundred-foot clip, we’d abandon the food court to get there first. More often than not, Read more…