Every writing assignment given over the course of the unit should help the students move forward in creating their culminating assignment. There are a variety of writing tasks to choose from, but ideally they invite students to engage with the unit’s texts from the perspective of writers instead of critics, experiment in different narrative forms to find the appropriate mechanism for capturing their own constructed voices, and challenge them to think in new and creative ways.
To begin in aiding the cultivation of a sophisticated approach to these difficult texts, the unit will feature a reading journal requirement. The journal exists as a record of their thinking as they read. The requirement is simply to write 200 words in a notebook for each text they read. Reading journals are often problematic, as the very act of enforcing an “engagement requirement” can undermine the possibility of a reader engaging with a work. This problem can be minimized by keeping this writing completely open and low-stakes, allowing them to engage with the text in any way they like. Making an honest reflection of the reading experience the priority over the more analytical or rigorous assignments commonly associated with reading journals should keep the students priority on the reading itself. The in-class discussions will do the work of making their reflections a priority, as the students will draw from them to make their own contributions. It’s
important to use class discussions to create a discourse of writers where students become eager to share what they discover in a text.
What they actually share or discover is secondary to the act of sharing and discovering.
It may be difficult as a teacher to listen to a class completely misinterpret the aesthetic object of a work of fiction, but the point of the class is the experience of engagement as writers, not the decisions they make about the texts – that is simply context. Ideally, the questions we pose and the conversations they create will model a constructive way of thinking about the issues of literature, identity, and voice. These discursive elements will make their way organically into the students’ journal entries as they read texts for ideas for their own work. Instead of simply an emotional or aesthetic reaction, the journal should shift to begin to reflect a thoughtful, writerly instinct.
To supplement this, we will have experimental writing exercises that focus on specific aspects of narrative: conflict, characterization, plotting, use of setting, structural form (e.g., paragraph structure and size, dialogue use or omission, length, exposition, etc.), and most importantly voice. Voice is of course most important to the objectives of this unit in that the voice of a piece is the constructed identity and the one they will have to create themselves, but it is also the most ephemeral and difficult to apprehend. Other aspects of fiction – such as setting and characterization – are more concrete and familiar, and these offer an open door toward engaging with fiction as a form with confidence. I plan on starting with (and moving very quickly through) character analysis, setting, and plot, then dwelling on conflict. Conflict is interesting in that it is both concrete and inferential. When students are adept at recognizing conflict, then they can start to appreciate how voice engages with conflict, and why
voice is appropriate for
conflict. The writing exercises will engage with these concepts both in an interpretive sense as well as in an imitative way, beginning with interpretation, then focusing almost exclusively on imitation as they approach the deadline for their own major work.
Some experimental writing prompts may take the following forms:
Who do you think has one of the most powerful, compelling voices of anyone alive today? Make your decision, then construct a narrative from the point of view of this person.
Pair up with another person in the class. Interview that person, asking them the questions that you believe will get them to reveal the most about themselves. The person interviewed is to lie in every answer. They may lie as much as they like, but their lies must be consistent (i.e., you can’t say you have been in prison for 30 years but last weekend you caught a great white shark on the barrier reef with your bare hands). After writing down your answers, share with the class. What kinds of character is this? Are they realistic? Did the subject of the interview surprise themselves with their answers? Connect this activity to their own narrative writing: does their character ever surprise them?
Take one of the stories we’ve studied and tell a section of it in third person perspective, but with your own, personal voice. How does this change the story?
Review one of the stories you have read: choose one sentence or short series of sentences that you believe truly captures the voice of the narrator. What did you choose, and how did you make that decision?
Lastly, the paper will be an exercise in itself. That is, students will begin working with a draft very early, and experiment with their writing as they read a variety of texts. I will regularly solicit conversations on how the narratives we study connect to their own constructed narratives, highlighting the issues and difficulties involved in constructing an identity.