Telling Stories, Teaching Narrative: A Progressive Writing Assignment
Barbara C. Ewell
Recently, I've had the pleasure of team-teaching several courses with a colleague from the discipline of Religious Studies.1 The latest and, in many ways, the most exciting of these cooperative ventures was entitled "(Looking for) God in Faulkner," a course that focused on Absalom, Absalom! as a way to explore the role of narrative and intertextuality in defining culture and values. Faulkner's challenging novel gave us ample opportunity to introduce students to the basic elements of narrative theory as it functions both in literature and in religious studies. One notion we emphasized, for example, was how stories are not only "about" their contents--the quest of Sutpen for a dynasty or the ideological failure of the Southern plantation system--but also "about" the shapes they assume, offering us ways of thinking about reality, ways that both limit and reveal the assumptions of a society--so that Faulkner's complex and multiple narrative voices reflect the cultural conversations about race and gender and subjectivity and power that were central to mid-twentieth-century North America. From the perspective of narrative theology, that search for stories reveals human beings' efforts to understand the ultimate ("God") and discloses an interpretive structure for both their actions and their values as they try to make sense of their lives.
To help our students develop an appreciation for the complex ways in which narrative shapes and reshapes what we know and can know about our experience and how such narratives determine and reflect what we value, we experimented with several approaches. Our most successful effort was an extended writing assignment that could easily be adapted to other Faulkner courses--indeed, perhaps, to any course about narrative.
Several pedagogical concerns motivated the specific assignment: While we had used journals before and wanted students to have the continual writing experience that the journal offered, we also wanted their work to culminate in a more formal essay. We also sought to provide an opportunity for peer review in the small discussion groups that had become a standard feature of our teaching together. What evolved, then, was a series of exercises closely related to the thematic and formal issues of the course: how narratives shape reality.
The process began in the first class, when as an introductory exercise, we asked students to join in pairs and tell each other a story that would in some way reveal themselves. We assured them that the story need not be profound or violate their privacy, but that it should help the listener to understand something about their lives. Then we asked each listener to re-tell the story they heard, while the original storyteller listened. After these exchanges were complete (in about half an hour), we engaged the class in a discussion of how the stories changed and what each listener heard. Nearly everyone was appropriately impressed with the differences in the versions and the messages that were received. Having suggested to them Faulkner's own fascination with stories and storytellers and having armed them with some techniques for tackling his daunting prose, we asked, for the following week, that they write a three-to-five page story about an event in their lives that revealed something about their relationships to whatever reality they meant when they spoke of the divine.
During the small group discussions the next week, we asked them to share their stories and help each other articulate what they had revealed about themselves. At the same time, our lectures worked toward untangling the perspectives of the chapters of Absalom, Absalom!. And then, building on Faulkner's own design, we asked them for their next assignment to re-tell their story from the point of view of another person who was involved in the action. This proved to be a dramatic experience for many students, as they imagined an important moment in their lives, often for the first time, from a perspective other than their own. It was also a powerful lesson in narrative point of view as a shaper of meaning, a lesson wonderfully reinforced by our concurrent reading of Faulkner's novel, with its pyrotechnic uses of multiple points of view. At the next class meeting, in the small groups, we asked students to help each other identify the differences in their narratives and particularly the biases and assumptions--the hidden narratives--that were shaping the new story, applying to their stories the same critical questions we were addressing to Faulkner's fictions.
Our next assignment relied on the venerable technique of imitation. We asked students to choose a passage from the novel that they admired or that they thought would work, and transform a part of their story imitating Faulkner's style--that is, filling his syntactical structures with their own content. This exercise produced particularly interesting results. Students with a strong sense of voice and some sophistication as writers often had difficulty submerging their own voices in Faulkner's, though even they acquired a new appreciation for the inner dynamic of his style--reason enough for the exercise. But for the majority of the students, for whom writing was a less familiar tool of self-expression, Faulkner's rhetorical flourishes and exotic details opened surprising doors into the emotional content of their own stories. This writing assignment was typically a revelation to students, not only about the significance of their narratives, but about the power of imagery and detail to reveal what cannot be said. This portion of our exercise was probably the most helpful to students in learning to appreciate the significance of Faulkner's style--as well as the most easily excerpted for other courses and contexts.
By this point in the semester, after nearly a month of re-working their initial narrative, most students were thoroughly engaged by the project and eagerly awaited our next "pitch"--which was a change-up. Having spent a good deal of class time exploring the various cultural narratives embedded in Faulkner's novel--narratives of Southern defeat, of racism, patriarchy, the stories of Exodus and David--we asked students to construct their own fable or parable that would reveal one or more of the cultural narratives that were more or less silently shaping their own story. This was, in fact, a more challenging assignment than it first appeared, requiring not only creativity in inventing a fable, but also perceptiveness in detecting one of the cultural narratives that lay imbedded in the original story. Many were quite successful at both, and the change of pace was welcomed, since some students had begun to exhaust the narratives they had chosen to tell. We had decided not to collect or comment the stories to this point, wanting both to allow students to develop some self-confidence as critics in the peer groups and also to give individuals as much flexibility as they needed in choosing their own "'comfort level" for the self-revelation their stories demanded. But we also believed--rightly, we still think--that any story one might choose could be probed for more meaning, and the assignment seemed to bear us out.
The final installment of this exercise was to write a formal essay examining the role of narrative in shaping belief and values. We suggested that students review their work on the stories and examine the exercises for evidence of the relationship between story and value, but encouraged them to use other material as well, including library research. The intent was a formal, even theoretical, reflection on what they had learned about the relation between the stories we tell and the values we profess. We reviewed all of the exercises for the first time, giving students our thoughts about the significance of what they had been finding, which they could couple with the continuing feedback they had been getting from their small groups. We did not grade their efforts at this point, reserving that evaluation for their final products--which generally turned out to be excellent. Most students did an outstanding job of connecting the theory with their own practice and could trace a profound difference in their awareness of how both cultural and personal narratives were influencing their beliefs and choices. The failures were those who had never been able to become interpreters of their own stories, to see what was important about the narrative they were telling. Those students would probably have benefited from an earlier intervention on our part as instructors, though that intervention would have had to be selective and cautious, since it would also have risked defining the story's meaning for the student, a path we were reluctant to pursue. But despite such normal lapses of quality in the final essays, the process itself proved to be a powerful tool for everyone, both in providing specific insight into the complex vision and narrative technique of one of Faulkner's greatest novels, as well as furnishing a more general awareness of the ways in which narrative shapes our hermeneutical horizons and makes our stories reveal who we are. That's usually enough to justify most any experiment.
1. My thanks to my colleague and friend, Professor Michael A. Cowan, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, with whom this memorable course was made and the assignment made to work.