Sometimes on the first day of a writing class, I bring a baseball. It’s stamped “Wilson: Official Little League,” and between the red seams that wrap around the ball like an infinity symbol are faded signatures from my teammates. It was 1965. I hit .437 with two homeruns and was voted most valuable player on our team. The ball was part of a trophy our manager, Denver Chappell, made for us to commemorate our winning the La Mesa National Little League pennant. I tell my students I keep the ball on my desk and sometimes hold it, feeling the weight of it between my fingers and remembering what would be the highlight of my sports career. Back then, I knew I would one day play professional baseball. As with so many things from childhood, I was wrong.
These days when I touch the baseball it triggers memories of those happy days at the ballpark. I can hear cowbells in the crowd. I can see the blue California sky stretching beyond the grove of palm trees outside left field. I remember the solid whack of bat striking ball, the glorious repetition of fielding grounders and throwing on a line to first base. There’s the smell of the grass, the scent of leather gloves, the serious weight of the 34-ounce Louisville Slugger that bore the autograph of Wally Moon.
I ask my students to think about an object from their own lives that might be a trigger for memory. For the next class, I tell them to bring the “thing” and be ready to tell the story of why it’s important in their lives. Amazing things happen: One student brings a leather bracelet given to him by a young Guatemalan boy he’d befriended on a church mission trip. He talks about how he wears the leather bracelet to remind himself of how grateful he is for his own life and to be able to share it with others. Another student shows a tiara she received after being named Miss Southwest Florida. She talks about how she stumbled on the stage and somehow realized she hated beauty pageants. Another young woman shows a silver locket her grandmother had given her just before she died. She opens it and there’s no picture inside; apparently she and her grandma hated each other. A male student shows us a necklace he wears that he never takes off. His mother was wearing it when she committed suicide.
After the stories, I ask my students to write down everything they remember that’s associated with the object they’ve shared. I tell them to write honestly and fiercely, not to edit themselves, to pursue every image, every memory that comes to them. In this way, my students discover what Ezra Pound called the “luminous particular.” There are “things” in our lives that are imbued with meaning, and when we write about and include them in our stories and poems, our work will truly resonate with others. That’s the aim: to share something important we’ve learned or experienced in our own lives with another human being. If we, early on, do this in our writing, it not only will remind us of important stories from our own lives; it also will provide the energy to find more “particulars” and to see how connecting with these images and memories makes our own lives richer and more complex. Writing becomes a method of self-actualization.
Another prompt I offer early on in my writing classes is based on a short story called How to Set a House on Fire by Stace Budzko. I tell my students I want to offer them a practical, real-world kind of writing opportunity that might help them get a job—as an arsonist. The story shows how a farmer sets a farmhouse on fire, in a step-by-step and very detailed kind of way. But, there are other things going on as well: the farm has been in the man’s family for generations; it’s being foreclosed upon by a bank—so the “arson” represents the destruction of what the protagonist most loved in order to protest an economic and social reality that many farmers in America have known only too well.
The story teaches arson. But it also might lead a thoughtful reader to experience empathy and compassion and understand a situation he or she might not have encountered before. And this is the value of reading, which to me is at the heart of being a good human—we encounter the human condition and we are forced to think about it in ways we might not have if we were nonreaders. The next step is to write. If we can see how stories share important insights, then we need to consider ways of making our own work do the same.
Before my students write, I have them read (and read again). Next, we respond to stories in our journals and share our thoughts in class. Then we write our own stories, having used accomplished work to guide us and illuminate the way toward real meaning. That process, like the generation of written work, is not some kind of slavish imitation of another’s writing technique. While we should study and pay attention to the stylistic, it’s more important to somehow internalize the mystery of how writers leap from image and detail and story to the kinds of revelations that make us shiver with recognition. This may sound overwrought, but to me, it’s at the heart of teaching writing: Stories and poems and novels—any literary work—show us how to live in the world, how to treat other humans, how to coexist with nature, how to find meaning in our lives and even how to find a higher power. There are many religious texts that describe the paths to enlightenment. I would suggest that every literary piece my students read can do the same thing. Through literature the human condition is revealed, in all its ugliness, beauty and suffering. We see humans do depraved things, but we also see the consequences, which may be other humans responding in compassionate ways. With our own writing, we have the opportunity to participate in this dialogue.
When I teach writing, I don’t ask my students to do anything I wouldn’t do. The best work is risky and takes courage to share with others. For the most part, the models I show students are not from my own work because there’s better work available to exemplify any trope or style. However, like the baseball story, I can share the process by which I summon material from my own life and show students how to reclaim stories from the past, which often speak the truth in ways that are painful, humbling, terrifying and sometimes redemptive. That place is deep within me. It’s the place where I’m a child in California and my dad’s at sea seven months out of each year. It’s another place where I’m a struggling college student at the University of Virginia. It’s also a place where I’m back in Chicago and drinking at the Blarney Stone on North Lincoln Avenue at 2 in the morning.
I have lived many lives and I write to make sense of them. This is the possibility I hold out to my students: Writing is a way to learn, as nearly every textbook argues. But what you learn about most is yourself. Sometimes that’s exhilarating, other times embarrassing, and often it’s quite painful. I tell my students that writing is a kind of dance with your subconscious in which you try to figure out what’s important, what’s beautiful, what’s been meaningful in your own life and what might actually mean something to another human being. And this last notion is what’s most important: Have you written something that will hold meaning for someone else, that will scare her, enlighten her, and even show her a true lesson from your own experiences? I try to show my students that while it’s important that your writing be vivid and entertaining, it’s even more important that it convey something about the human condition. And because that condition involves joy and sorrow, happiness and despair, our stories need to reflect that ambiguity.
I’m often amazed at the stories my students write. Several years ago for a creative nonfiction piece, a young man wrote about visiting his mother at a homeless camp in the middle of the woods somewhere in South Fort Myers. He went there to try to help her, and found her drunk and surrounded by folks doing drugs. He loved his mother and he wanted to help her, but she didn’t want to be helped. So he was left with the helplessness we’ve all felt at times in our lives when we want to help a loved one, but in my student’s case the loved one had fallen so far, the situation was so desperate, that I learned something about real love that I hadn’t known before I read about my student’s efforts to save his mother.
As I write this, a detail swims to the surface: The student’s mother was in her mid-40s. I also remember the student came to my office later that semester to tell me he’d gotten his mom into an inpatient treatment facility, but he wasn’t optimistic because this had happened several times in the past and each intervention had ended with spectacular failure. I remember telling him, “There’s always hope.” I remember thinking this young man had endured more than I ever had, and here I am offering advice to him, when in actuality, he had given me more evidence of compassion and empathy, of overcoming incredibly difficult circumstances, than I ever had experienced on my own.
Another student wrote stories about women who were victims of abuse when they were children. She wrote about women who struggled to make their way in a male-dominated society. At the end of the semester, she gave me a beautifully wrapped Christmas present. I secretly hoped it was a box of chocolates, but to my surprise, when I opened my gift I found the Book of Mormon. In the front matter was a two-page note from my student in beautiful cursive that thanked me for the advice to write about what’s important, and how her religion was the most beautiful and important thing in her life. A few years later I would teach her son writing at FGCU and he, too, was an exceptionally sensitive and thoughtful writer. I asked him to write about a mission trip to Uruguay because, selfishly, I wanted to experience it. Early on in his essay, I found myself sitting around a campfire as my student helped local villagers learn English.
Because quite often my students teach me—about writing, about empathy and compassion, about overcoming fear and hatred—I willingly share my own writing in class as we respond to prompt after prompt. I try not to be stingy with the details of my own work so that when I confide what I’ve learned, when I try to describe what’s important, those abstractions have been earned with the showing of stories that chronicle my own journey through this difficult world.
So, in class I write on my computer and the work shows up on the projector screen in real time. I’ve told my students not to worry about grammar and mechanics in their first drafts, and I show them my own stumbling attempts—how do you spell “restaurant”? The important thing they see is that I don’t stop my pursuit of whatever it is I’m writing about. I’m not afraid to leap in different directions, to wander off the well-traveled path, to venture into scary or weird or seemingly unrelated places. The truest thing I know is that the best stuff comes from the subconscious, and unless we’re willing to fearlessly dive into this place during our writing, we aren’t going to find the true and beautiful and frightening stuff. Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I tell my students if you really want to surprise and delight with your writing, you have to trust the journey, and this is a journey that can’t be planned or outlined. It begins with a memory, an intuition or a fear that serves as a trigger for what follows. Again, what’s important is not to hesitate, not to censor, not to be afraid to travel in strange, unsettling directions. It’s at the end of this road that meaning will be found.
Jesse Millner teaches writing at Florida Gulf Coast University. He has published seven poetry chapbooks and two full-length collections. The Neighborhoods of My Past Sorrow, his first book, won a bronze medal in the 2010 Florida Book Awards. His poem In Praise of Small Gods was selected for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2013. Millner has received writing fellowships at Fundación Valparaíso in Mojácar, Spain; the Ucross Foundation in Clearmont, Wyoming; and the Betsy Hotel in Miami. He was named Literary Artist of the Year for Lee County’s Alliance for the Arts in 2010.