Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Assignment: Complete first draft, personal essay

In doing prewriting for their personal essays, my students have taken four quite varied approaches: 1) Generating the raw data of lived experience; 2) Likening another's life to the Book of Mormon; 3) Composing Devotional Writing; and 4) trying to add character and humor to one's personal writing. Now comes the selection and narrowing part. It's time to write a complete draft.

While drawing on any of the material written so far (and certainly not trying to include all such material), they must compose an essay that follows these criteria:

  • the essay must be short (about 800-1200 words, comparable in length to this personal essay
  • the essay must be personal (in terms of both experiences related and in terms of tone)
  • the essay must be literary (specifically, making use of scene-setting, characterization, and vivid imagery to draw readers in)
  • the essay must include the Book of Mormon (in a personal and non-preachy, non-moralizing way)
The danger of "churchspeak":

Like many communities, Mormons fall into set patterns for expressing things that they value. Nothing is wrong with this per se, but these expressions often do more to affirm community with fellow believers rather than to convey things so that others can relate to them. I am pushing my students to find less abstract, less direct, and less traditional ways of expressing things that matter to them. And so, while Mormons draw upon the power of personal expression from being a journal-keeping people and from bearing testimony of their beliefs, I am asking my students to avoid "churchspeak" -- by which I mean overt affirmations of religious concepts, especially in patterned and familiar expressions such as "I know that ____ is true." I hope they do feel things deeply and know that they are true. But I want them to express these ideas in ways that will connect with others who do not share their background or faith, but to whom a candid relating of lived experience will be meaningful.

Integrating the Book of Mormon into their personal essays may prove difficult, since my students are so accustomed to citing and reading scripture following patterns of speaking and writing used in LDS settings. But scripture can be integrated into personal literary expression very well, as I modeled to them by reading from Terry Tempest Williams' memoir, Refuge. There, Williams earns our attention by taking us to the physical and emotional landscapes of personal, lived experience, before she then quotes scripture relevant to that experience. She doesn't give us a sermon, or even a "testimony" in any conventional sense. But she does give us a witness of her experience as a prelude to witnessing her spiritual beliefs. Readers must be able to "witness" (view, vicariously experience) an author's life before that author can credibly "witness" (relate more explicitly) the spiritual meanings of that life.

A pattern:
Williams' memoir uses this pattern, a viable formula for the writing I am urging them to do:

  1. Create a scene that is credible in terms of the physical (and perhaps the social / psychological) environment. One may hint at, but not overtly state, any theme or meaning.
  2. Identify a theme that goes along with that scene or something that happened or routinely happens in that scene.
  3. Reach for the language of scripture to express this.

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