Saturday, January 15, 2011

Memoir: You still have to write one

That headline is addressed to my BU students; their first assignment is a memoir.

The Sunday NYTimes Education Life section has a piece about how it may be asking a lot of college applicants to write a essay -- which, in many cases, is a form of memoir. Well sort of. I imagine they get a lot of essays that have a sum-it-up, moral of the story endings. I advise student to avoid such endings and instead try to embed the moral or theme into  the tale.

Anyway, Times writer Trip Gabriel has this to say:

It was a theme I was to hear many, many times in more than a dozen campus visits. The personal essay, they all said, growing soft and fuzzy, is the one element where a student’s own voice can be heard through the fog of quantitative data.

But what if it can’t? What if, like most 17-year-olds, a high school senior sounds wooden or pretentious or thunderously trite when trying to express himself in the first person? Prose in which an author’s voice emerges through layers of perfectly correct sentences is the hardest kind of writing there is. Plenty of professional authors can’t manage it. How reasonable is it to expect of teenagers?

Nevertheless, college gatekeepers have made a fetish of the personal essay.

Probably,  these essays arey heavily edited. Not to say my students are poor writers or shouldn't get help. But, they are 18 or 19-year-old. I couldn't write a decent memoir when I was that age and there's no reason to think I could. In an evaluation, one critic said I expect students to produce professional quality work. Well, if I did, about 5 out of 20 would pass. What I do expect is effort and improvment.
Which, to sum it all up, the moral of the story is young writers are young -- they need to mature as writers. First person is hard to get right and I try to remember that.

No comments: