By Nancy Méndez-Booth
Of all the things I taught my ENWR105 students this semester, the lesson they embraced most enthusiastically was how to get naked. Please let me explain before you alert the First-Year Writing Program and Campus Security.
It began when I read my nonfiction essay “Tilted Naked Weirdo” at the October 10 Live Lit! event. My students were in the audience, and I worried that my selection revealed too much about my own challenges as a writer. They heard about my anxiety each time I face a blank page because I know that to fill it well requires taking risks and getting naked, i.e., digging in the don’t-go-there places for truths I’d rather leave untouched and hidden. I was mortified when they asked questions during the Q&A (why had I encouraged them to be so participatory?) and I had to answer that yes, it is tempting to write “safe, nice” stories that don’t ruffle feathers (particularly mine), and also tempting to not take risks that could end in failure. But, I reinforced, solid writing requires being bold with style, subject matter, and structure.
I didn’t give the reading further thought, but it seems my class did. It began with the semicolon that appeared with increased frequency after mid-October. They were not always placed properly, but I was impressed that my students dared press the key of the punctuation mark they most dreaded. I was more impressed when during class discussions and workshops, they shared with each other their tips on how they made sense of the semicolon’s proper usage.
Taking charge of semicolons was just the beginning. If writing well required the boldness to take risks, some of my millenials were eager to take it all off à la Age of Aquarius. There was evidence of thoughtful, considered revision in final drafts: theses were re-thought and more focused; paragraphs were re-ordered, some eliminated; conclusions were re-worked into introductory paragraphs. Crazy.
Some students sought guidance from me and classmates on how to leap into what they considered off-beat topics. I read essays on why people should bother to care about anxiety disorder, how social media devalues solitude and increases loneliness, and who should wear the pants in heterosexual relationships. Sometimes the essays’ connections to the course readings and the writers’ arguments were a bit stretched. Students made sweeping generalizations and didn’t always capture the point of course readings accurately; however, they expanded their thinking and seized new opportunities for themselves as writers. I don’t remember being so bold at their age—and I’m still too cautious at midlife.
The essays that engaged the course themes, readings, and authors directly and honestly gripped me the most. The young woman who responded to Jonathan Kozol’s “America’s Educational Apartheid” as a real-life, left-behind student from an inner-city school; she expressed the hurt the inequities caused her, and the motivation it provided to graduate college so she could free her family from the confines of their neighborhood. A handful of young women who agreed with Michael Pollan’s argument in “Why Bother?” that individual action can lead to change and inspire others to act; I learned these writers had stood up to bullies, confronted racism, and recognized signals for help from suicidal friends. Some of these stories were revealed and explored for the first time in their submissions.
Please don’t think the semester was a non-stop 16 weeks of writing breakthroughs punctuated by students dancing atop their desks and high-fiving each other—and even me. Some days it seemed the course was just the usual mix of freshman composition undesirables: comma splices, subject/verb disagreement, vague theses, runaway sentences, and distracting shifts in person (my apologies to the many old, faithful friends I left off this list); unfulfilled page requirements (“Yes, five pages means five pages.”); and the post-Thursday-night-party stupor that afflicted my students many Friday mornings during our 8:30 class. I complained plenty to my colleagues and ever-patient husband about these things throughout the fall.
Yet as I crawl toward the end of the semester, sleep-deprived and a little delirious, it is those moments of risk that I recall. Likely most students will leave ENWR105 unable to automatically place every semicolon properly or remember how to recognize each of the 15 logical fallacies; I wish that were not the case, but they leave with the awareness that these things exist and a handbook that is appropriately ear-marked, highlighted, and annotated (actions, ahem, encouraged by me).
I do believe they will remember the risks they took. Not every bold act resulted in success, but each expanded their view of what is possible—and what is within their power to communicate and accomplish. One of my writer friends calls this experience “igniting the burning,” the beginning of an insistent internal flicker that demands attention and when tended properly, illuminates. I hope each student leaves with the burning, and that it inspires them to be bold and powerful as writers, thinkers, and adults. They’re half my age, but have reminded this tilted naked weirdo about the courage it takes to write well.