“You can write about anything from your life,” I promised. “Your first job. Your first kiss. You can tell me about the time you shaved off your eyebrows.”
Groans echoed across the metal desks as I passed out copies of the rubric. You would think that after months of Hemingway and Hawthorne, offering students a personal narrative unit would bring them to cheers. But every semester, students received the assignment like cold medicine.
“These are the worst!” they chimed. “Can’t we watch a movie instead?”
With any other assignment, I would’ve rolled my eyes. Thought that they were lazy. Insubordinate and dramatic. But this wasn’t a research paper on British poetry or a PowerPoint presentation on Transcendentalism. This was storytelling.
“I don’t get it.” I shook my head. “How is this worse than your essay on The Scarlet Letter?”
“Because,” they said simply, “I’ve got no story to tell.”
I laughed and said “Nonsense!” but they remained unconvinced. A teenager without cancer or natural disasters to speak of was boring.
It didn’t take long to realize that they thought a story was only a good story if it was outlandish. Traumatic. One with crazy plot twists and dramatic endings. But Connor McAlister was someone who took the lesson to heart even if he didn’t understand it.
He decided to write about his one-year anniversary with Breanna, a pretty brunette who sat on the opposite side of the classroom.
His story took place in a grocery store as he frantically paced throughout the aisles. Chocolates. Flowers. Should he get materials to bake her a cake? The majority of the narrative featured his anxiety, his worrisome over messing up this very, very important day.
Finally, he hands Breanna a basket of everything.
“And I realized, as she smiled, that it was enough.”
This was his ending line, and as he read it aloud, the class erupted in awws. “Connor!” they gushed. “I love your piece!”
He blushed and nodded his head, not wanting to say anything more. But he gave me permission to share his work with other classes because it was the perfect example.
It didn’t have galactic aliens, scheming magicians, and traumatic endings. There was no cancer or a shocking family secret. Rather, his piece was simple and honest. Enough heart to resonate with romantics but enough straightforwardness to keep it from being cliché.
The truth is, if you strip any story down, you’ll find bones of normalcy. It’s what you do with the bones that matter.
“This,” I told my students, “is great writing.”
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