Sunday, 5 June 2016

And now for something completely different

Occasionally, I have an educational epiphany. It isn’t often, mind you, but roughly I have one every five years. This year, my epiphany took place whilst teaching autobiographies and biographies. Every year, I drag out the same tired, lifeless resources for teaching students to write an autobiography and I go through the unit in the same old tired way. This year, however, I digressed. I moved away from the topic by focusing on digression. I chucked out all my usual techniques and approaches and explored digression and all its forms in writing.

Usually, when I teach students to write autobiographical accounts I read several extracts and get students to mimic the writing style. A lot of my teaching addresses the following targets:

Convey more emotions in your writing.

Give a sense of place by describing things in more detail.

Present ideas in an original way.

Along the way, I’d teach specific aspects related to the writing of an autobiography. How do you avoid using ‘I’ all the time? How do you convey emotions without explicitly saying what you feel? How do you accurately describe the situation for a stranger? I suppose when I teach an aspect of writing, I have several questions at the heart of teaching of the genre. Take a story writing. The questions I might explore in my teaching are:

How do you make the story feel like something the reader has never read before?

How do you avoid spending the first few paragraphs introducing characters and setting?

How do you make the story emotional?

All too often, writing is reduced to basic components. Rudimentary blocks for students to arrange in a piece of writing. The problem is that writers don’t tick techniques off when writing. They just do it and get on with the job. The writer probably didn’t even given it a thought.

Anyway, I have digressed. So this year, instead of making lists of features of autobiographies, we looked at how writers could digress, go off the topic, steer the writing away and change focus. An autobiography is about stories within stories and that is what digression allows a writer to tell. Narratives within narratives. Our lives are complex. That time when somebody did something funny is only funny when seen in the complex web of mini stories. There’s so much history and backstory in one simple anecdote.  

Take this example from a student.

The main narrative

A student describes how she spills nail polish on a sister’s duvet. 

What other narratives under the surface?

The student’s relationship with her sister.

The student buying the nail polish.

The student’s relationship with make-up.

The mother’s reaction to daughter.

The mother.
The sister.

The mother and daughter’s relationship/  

The student’s history of being clumsy.

The sister’s pride in her bedroom.

I could spend ages describing the different narratives with a simple event. But, when I unlocked these for students, they went mad for telling narratives within narratives. Sometimes, it was a small sentence, or a throwaway comment, but their writing was much more textured... and more much interesting to read. The main narrative wasn’t seen as a juggernaut to dominate the storytelling. They understood that you had to paint more of the picture for students. I had students trying to convey relationships with parents and friends in a sentence instead of the typical: ‘We all laughed – it was so funny.’

Digression isn’t just telling a different story. It is also going off at a tangent. So students went off in different directions. The student, in the example above, explored the colour red and what it meant to them. I also had potted histories of things and random discussions on all aspects of life. Again, it didn’t have to be a massive part of the writing. It was just a small bit of texture. It added life, nuances, richness to a simple story.

We overly simplify writing. We make it a clear process. We make simple diagrams to make students structure a piece of writing. Writing is complex. If we use simple structures, we will see simple writing.

Thanks for reading,


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