They arrive with their stories–at least the beginnings of them. They can write anything at all for this memoir assignment, any single event from their lives. We talk about all the technicalities: vivid verbs and adjectives to set a mood, precise characterization, sensory detail, and dialogue. We talk about pace. We talk about offering that delayed revelation that provides insight to the reader. And, as always, we talk about creating mystery and tension to keep the reader engaged.
I write on the board how mystery forms from life’s unanswered questions, objects that hold symbolic meaning yet revealed, confusion, or a problem that needs resolution.
I write those words like they are simple and easy, like they are as pure as the white chalk that forms them. In reality, words relating to our stories hold entire murky systems of pain and loss and joy and beauty and sorrow.
As I teach students to juggle all of these strategies to tell a good story, I feel like a detached surgeon instructing students to cut into their own hearts. I stand there with the chalk, but when I pull back, I see their own precious stories. I look at their faces and their hesitant fingers that begin to write. I look at the smiles or the trembling chins.
The story they hold inside is no small, easy thing.
Each soul is so infinitely precious. Each one. It doesn’t matter where they’ve been, who never loved them, what kind of money their parents make, the color of their skin, the grades they made in high school, or what kind of covering they wear on their heads. If you sit someone down across from you–that “other person”–and hear that story, you’ll love that person so much your heart will hurt.
And then you’ll want to tell, and listen to, all the stories you can.