Saturday, May 1, 2010

Workshop #9: Empathy

Workshop #9 was about many things, in truth, and the largest part of the class was given over the peer editing. This actually went better than usual, because I gave them detailed questionnaires to fill out about the stories--no matter how many times I told them "Really great!" was not a constructive comment, they were insisting on using it before. In fact, although none of the questions I asked on the sheet could grammatically be answered with "Really great!" some of them persisted in putting it anyway, in response to things like "What part of the story did you like best?" and "What parts did you find confusing?"

Anyway, it went well (I made them erase all the "Really greats!"s that I saw) and I think a lot of the kids got a lot out of it. But maybe you can tell from the above that I'm having a bit of a tough time this semester, and I don't at all think the whippersnappers are at fault. I think they don't want to write stories, most of'em, and heaven help us, that is a defensible position.

So part of Thursday's class was spent brainstorming how story-writing works as a transferable skill--how learning to write a short story full of characters and problems and settings and emotions--could help them in a job that would (I don't know why I didn't guess this would be a high priority in a low-income area) pay them a living wage.

It is the luxury of the middle-class to go to school hoping to expand one's mind and interests and range of friends and readings. Kids in precarious financial situations want the value-add, the curriculum correlation, the job skill in their lessons, because the need to get that damn job looms large. And they don't necessarily see the use in learning to write fiction. In fact, one of my students actually announced this in class--a low point for me.

I like to write stories because I like to write stories--full stop. It's fun for me, and every now and then I get a little bit of attention or praise or money for doing it, and that's enough for me. But I actually think writing helps me in every other facet of my life, too, and I was eager to tell them that--I thought they might really not know.

It seemed, though, as soon as I asked the question, that everyone *did* know how stories could help them. They brainstormed the following list:

police officer (every class mentioned this one)
social worker

They also put secretary, which I didn't get, but whatever--it's a really good list.

They were a bit weaker when I asked "Why do these people need to know how to tell a story?" The three are obvious (how is a teacher or an editor going to recognize good work if she/he can't create good work, and journos do pretty much the same thing as fictos, only with the truth). What else? I asked. "They gotta write reports," was the answer.

Absolutely, of course--being able to write a coherent narrative of events or issues, not a list or a sketch, is so important in many roles, persuasive or otherwise.

But I think one of the reasons that so many of the jobs listed are so-called "caring" professions--because it if you are going to work with people, you need to be able to make a good solid leap towards understanding other people's points of view. What use is a doctor who cannot guess how a patient is feeling when in pain and be sensitive, or how someone will react to bad news. How can a social worker help kids or families in trouble if she or he can't imagine what they are going through?

I think too much emphasis on imaginary people could be a problem, sure, but too little attempt to imagine how it feels to be someone not-me, to get out of my own upbringing and situation and likes and dislikes and education and tolerances, can make it really hard to relate to anyone. Empathy helps life go on, and in many many jobs, a lack of it means you can't do you work.

Obviously, I could stand to improve this facility even more--to have known earlier in the semester that the kids wouldn't automatically see the links and extensions from my lessons, that I would have to *tell* them that I wasn't trying to train them to be writers but rather to train them to be people who could see a story from any angle, and find a story anywhere.

Someone complimented me recently on a story recently, and I said I greatly appreciated the compliment (I did!) because the piece had been very very hard to work on. He said of course, because it was so technically complex.

I was startled for a moment--I had meant that the emotions and events in the story were hard to deal with, and was about to say so, when I realized that we meant the same thing. There is only one way to express emotions, or anything else, in writing, and that is with words on a page, rhetorical devices, pacing and vocabulary, foreshadowing and description, all the skills I've been trying to teach the youngins. The story's emotion doesn't exist separate from my ability to tell it--just like so much of what doctors and teachers and advertisers tell us exists only in their words. So we'd better make it good.

I am really going to miss my smarty-pants students, though I doubt they'll miss me. A kid I like, who has been really alienated lately, was staring at the wall when I described how the last class would be organized. I could have sworn he wasn't listening at all, but when I asked if there were questions, he raised his hand and asked, "Did you say *cookies*?" I said yes, I plan to bake cookies for the last class, and he grinned.

I was pleased, not only because he'd was pleased, but because if he'd caught the word "cookies" buried in all that other stuff, he might have actually *heard* some of the other stuff. But I don't know--in truth, I have no idea what he was thinking.


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