In teaching how to write memoir, autobiography, personal narrative, family story, personal essay – all more or less the same thing, based on the same skills – one of my jobs is to get people to spill their secrets. That is, to delve into their deepest truths, if they can, and shape them into narrative. And what I have learned, what I see in every class, fills me with profound respect. I am privileged, in my work, to see, over and over, the courage and grace of the human spirit.
Not everyone who comes to a writing class like mine – as opposed to, say, travel writing or science fiction – has had a terrible childhood or has a terrible secret, but some do – ranging from surviving the Holocaust to surviving various kinds of abuse, to battling cancer, abandonment, mental illness. Sometimes they don’t even know why they’re there – that they have come because a vital story needs to be told. On the first day of class, I see a group of ordinary-looking people – nervous, wondering if they have made a great mistake, a waste of money and time, they’ll be embarrassed, bored, humiliated, they’ll find out they’re without talent. Who wants to hear MY story? What the HELL am I doing here?
By the end of our term together, those who have made it through – because not everyone does – know each other deeply. Some have experienced that moment I call “jumping off a cliff,” when they tell the truth, often for the first time. And to their amazement, they land safely. Nothing happens. We listen, we talk about the writing, and, yes, sometimes the circumstances. And then we move on to the next piece.
There are others who simply cannot go deep, cannot get to the truest stories, but they have learned to recognise and acknowledge what they hear when their classmates do. That’s as far as they can go, and it’s enough. It’s a start.
I love stories. Just last night and Monday afternoon at U of T, Monday night at Ryerson, last week in my living room, I heard a series of fine, powerful, true stories. And I, O lucky woman, am paid to listen.
Not only that, but there’s another #$%^& blizzard swirling outside, the streets are solid ice, and I get to stay home and write a love letter to my students.