THE BLOG
11/22/2013 12:20 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

The Mixed-Up Files of the Sideways Truth

This is a condensed/revised version of the keynote address I gave at the Bank Street Mini Conference:

Say we wish to write the truth. Say we wish to teach it. Unearth the essential. Scotch the ordinary. Build, with words and the spaces in between them, something both alerting and authentic. Say we wish to yield to yearners the immeasurable joy of language smithereened and language reconstituted, and say out yearners are young people who watch the world through secret hopes and tensions.

What then?

More and more, I've come to think, we go about it sideways.

We take our writers to the banks of a river, for example, and we say, The river bends and the river breaks and the river knows, and so do you. Imagine the river in the wake of a storm. Imagine the river on a hunt for love. Imagine the river confused by the broken things that get tossed at her from the bridge above. Imagine the river burned by the moon or blinded by stars or taken from or afraid. We say, Imagine. We say, Empathize. We say, Write it as one word. Write it as three lines. Write it as a prose poem or a memoir or a novel or a villanelle or a map or a bit of theater and don't forget that blank space--occasional nothingness--is a story, too. Write it as if it were true.

And then, we say, shift sideways. With the language you just liberated, tell us something truly true.

We wait.

We listen.

Or perhaps there is no river near. Perhaps all we have is a borrowed room on the edge of town, and the yearners, and their backpacks and their pockets. We say: Write the autobiography of the dollar bill that has sat crumpled in your jacket pocket for years now. What's that about? What's the story there? Or: Dig into your backpacks and pull out the first thing you find and write its story in first person. Yes, we say, that lonesome, stiffened stick of gum is now a capital I. So is that traveling toothbrush, and so, by the way, is that tarnished key with the pink and yellow chain that looks a bit like a strand of worry beads.

Are they worry beads?

Or we collect the young and travel to a garden and set them down the path in teams. You are a pair of musical notes, we say. What is your story. Or, You are an elephant walking the skinny line between trees. Your thoughts? Or, You are a kite caught among the leaves of that tree. What are you thinking, please.

A boy named Samir might write something like this. He might begin with the I, he might travel toward the we, he might speak, in the end, of a soul in need:

I the kite
Avoid water,
Avoid elephants.
I seek out danger,
I want to know
Where everything is.
We have fears
Of lawn mowers and trees
Because we always want to be free.
We attract to color
Because we want to see
If there are more of us
Who want to be free.

We exit ourselves to locate ourselves. We journey beyond so that we might know the delirium and triumph and ache and wonder of return. It sounds obvious, but we can forget that our primary privilege as teachers is to ask for something bold and true--to set our students into motion toward the vulnerably new. To make it safe to break the rules. To facilitate the discovery of new postures, new attitudes, new ways to be alive inside this worlds, new ways to bridge to others, through words.

Three years ago, I was invited to spend a day with the ninth graders of an urban school. They were shy at first, these students. They were quiet, back there in their chairs, not so eager to respond to some stranger delivering the straight-on glare of requests for personal essays or autobiographical tales. And so I shared with these some old-fashioned classified ads. The Wanteds, I called them. Read them out loud. Gave them a hint of what others want in this world.

Then I said: Write a classified ad declaring your secret ambitions or yearnings, and we were off. Engaged, impassioned, the students worked at a quick pace, then clamored to read their work out loud. Wanted: Peace. Wanted: Fluency. Wanted: Summer freedom. Wanted: One more chance to say goodbye. Wanted: Someone to look up to. We'd gone from something very still to something very alive through indirection. The Wanteds exercise offered an open window. It led to a house of many rooms. It gave us the freedom to walk around and to get to know not just ourselves, but one another.

Last January, I joined the National YoungArts program in Miami as a master teacher, which means that I had the great good fun of hanging out with nearly two dozen gifted high school writers. Here I was again thinking about autobiographies and, because it was Miami and my hair is my hair, I was thinking about curls, plaits, bangs, clips. Write the autobiography of your hair, I said--what it has seen, how it has felt, what it has hoped for, how it has negotiated despair. And here, like so many greeting cards, are some of the words that came back to me:

Here is what we love most: the touch of hands, hers and others, all she takes for granted. Time reaches us in pieces, like sunlight through leaves. By the time we see some minutes, they have been as light through water, stretched long as days, and weeks knotted up into instants.

And:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy self-esteem is like, and how I practically didn't exist and all before Flannery was nearly five years old, and all that kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

And:

Your mother used to cut me, inch by inch, on your porch, until you decided you were never getting rid of my length again. I lined the nests of birds. I supplemented the grass. The wind scattered me throughout your neighborhood, onto the highway. When it snowed, runoff water pulled me into the pond in your back yard, drained me into a swamp, carried me to a river, whisked me to the Atlantic. For all you know, I could be in Barbados by now, or Madagascar, frozen to an iceberg in the Bering Strait. For all you know, I will stay woven into the teeth of your brush until you work me out or buy a new brush. Either way, it is no great loss.

We went at it sideways in Miami--entered through the imagination's back door, where the unconscious stews, and stories aren't yet filtered, and language isn't conventionally stitched. These were four to five paragraph long hair autobiographies, for the most part. They were fiction. And yet in so many ways they were not. Reading them through, I knew something deeply exhilarating about these young people--something to which traditional autobiographies could never have gotten us so quickly, so happily, so disarmed. I knew who these young writers were and what their attitudes were and what they could do with words. I knew what we, as a group, had to do. And we knew one another.

Ask someone to sit down and write, on a blank page, the truth, and you will find, more often than not, personal history catalogued and explained. You'll find conventional structures, mere autobiography, dutiful recitations and reports. But lead a writer to her own history sideways--help her find the alleyways, the clouds, the questions, the uncertainty, the previously dismissed or unexplored, the language big enough to crack the kernels and nudge toward the truth--and you will be setting her down on a wider path, toward liberated language and unadulterated soul, toward the real and essential.