Wednesday, October 10, 2012


My grandmother kept a journal for me. She was a bit infamous in our family for her crazy stories-- gossipy, matter-of-fact portraits of characters much too strange for fiction. I loved those stories and didn't want to lose them.

Seven months after her death, my grandmother's journal found its way back into my hands. When I opened the pages, her voice came flooding out. She didn't write revelations or poetic reflections; she simply wrote the way she always spoke to me. There are stories of her neighbor's knee surgeries, her tomato vines struggling against the weather, the difficulty of sleeping at night, the bane of cleaning out old keepsakes, and catalogues of who she called today or what package she will be sending tomorrow. What emerges from these sporadic entries is her crackly laughter and scolding tone, her keen observations, and an overwhelming presence of sitting very close to a woman who is no longer here.

I'm working with my 12th grade seniors now on their personal statement essays for college applications. Our single most difficult struggle is not what stories they choose to tell, not even their style or grammar (though that is a massive struggle yet to be reckoned with), but instead we are scrabbling together like two people chasing after a wild chicken to capture that elusive quality of Voice.

Perhaps I am wrong to say it: there is a craft to articulate what it is that is quintessentially You. No, what you wrote just now, off the cuff, filled with personal pronouns and single-mindedness is not the closest you can get to your You-ness. And yes, you might need some nudging from an outsider to help you find it. Just because a sentence is true doesn't make it honest; just because you are the author doesn't imbue an essay with your voice. So how do you turn the linguistic equivalent of a shrug into a song?

"I am who I am, doing what I came to do, acting upon you like a drug or a chisel to remind you of your me-ness, as I discover you in myself." - Audre Lorde

The dissonance of finding a universal connection amidst a dialectic struggle is exactly what I'm aiming towards. The best measure of when a student has really "got it" is when she hits all the right words and her singular story of an experience only she could have had, told with a voice that can only be her own, resonates with her most personal thoughts and reflections and it strikes upon a chord that all readers can understand.

But I'll be damned if I can figure out how to teach this. Lots of conversations. Lots of revisions.


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