I have just come back from administering the English 252 midterm prompt for my class. We are on day one, which means there is another full class period for everyone to use to write the story of one very unselfish act that was somehow life changing. My students are instructed to use a good hook and have a thesis statement in the first paragraph that sums up what they learned from the story they are going to tell. (It is a narrative essay, and that means, at the risk of redundancy, a story with a foreshadowing of lesson learned in the first paragraph.)
This year’s midterm prompt is about a kindness, or to be more specific, a great show of unselfishness. At the age most of my students are, they either haven’t performed such a significant act OR ,more plausibly, they have not attained the maturity to recognize that they probably have performed an unselfish act for someone else more than once if not many times. Recognizing such a thing takes reflection, and as Sylvia Fowler will attest, sometimes the writing of a full memoir.
Sylvia once told me The Red Sea Bride took five years to write. She did not realize what she had accomplished or endured until she had written, rewrote, lost her mind and rewrote, wrote yet again to wild gnashing of teeth at night and exorbitant pounding in temples by day, and then—to be blunt, did it all over again and again. She read her words aloud, sent the manuscript to her agent (who read and made notes), read to other writers in her group and finally finally finally begin to understand what she had lived. There were days she looked like a wild woman.
Based on Sylvia’s testimony, writing about anything one has done, wonderful or terrible, but especially when such writing is meant to praise or at least exonerate one’s self, is the damned hardest thing one could possibly be asked to do, certainly a writer, and my God, especially anyone who is still trying to gain confidence as a writer.
However, I am not—let that be carefully understood–not trying to say the English 252 prompt is bad. This is a wonderful prompt. This is an inspired prompt. This is a prompt which will make the students grow in ways that will improve them as not just writers but human beings.
Thinking is a good thing to do, no matter how painful, and thinking about whether one can define what one has done as selfish or unselfish is a good exercise, which can give one something to do for the rest of a lifetime.
(I really hope I did not mess up all that goodness by telling them they could lie.)