by Harmony Button
Don’t just write what you know. Write what you want to know. — Melanie Rae Thon
In the fall of 2014, I had the pleasure of taking nine students to the Lake Effect Writers Conference. This conference featured three prominent writers who read from their work and presented various different methods for entering into the writing process.
Melanie Rae Thon is an unflinching, careful, beautiful writer and teacher who almost always looks to research to ground her work. She read from a long lyric prose piece called “The Exclusion Zone” which described the clean–up efforts and continual fall out following the Chernobyl disaster. Her advice to the young writers gathered for this conference was to use their writing practice as a way of expanding their knowledge bases, instead of just rehearsing and performing content that was comfortable to them. She told them to write about things that wanted to know more about — not just things they already knew. She told them to use their writing to find the gaps and discover what they still needed to learn before they could continue.
Recently, I’ve been talking to a couple of history teachers about the technique of asking students to write short scenes or dialogues between famous figures in order to demonstrate their various stances on significant issues. Personally, the idea of writing historical fiction seems completely daunting — there is so much research involved in accurately presenting a world! But this seems like a pretty useful way to discover what you don’t know. So often, in our writing, we try to communicate what we already know, but we fail to see the blind spots. Certain techniques of fiction — setting, dialogue, character description — can serve to reinvigorate a sense of wonder, waking the senses and letting students realize how much they don’t know… yet. This seems to be particularly useful in the historical realm, but I would be curious to hear if anyone is able to adapt this technique to the sciences or arts, as well.
Note: it seems like these so-called “creative” assignments are often used across disciplines as a way to pique interest, but they can be a little bit weak in terms of real, challenging, legitimate content. Don’t fall into the “bonus points” mindset of using creative assignments as a way of buoying grades. Set up your parameters ahead of time, define them clearly in the assignment, and then hold students to your expectations. If you’re asking a student to write a letter from a famous scientist following an important discovery, then push them to make that letter as accurate as possible, conveying a sense of excitement, confusion, hesitation, or whatever that scientist might have been experiencing at that time, given what you know about the context of the discovery. If you’re asking for dialogue between two artists of various styles, define the topics: 1. a defense of personal aesthetic, 2. an appreciation for the other’s work along with a parallel to their own, 3. a question or confusion regarding the other’s work and 4. an appropriate tone of voice and sense of character to fit each artist as you know of them.
Adapting fiction writing techniques in various disciplines to set historical figures (or mouthpieces of various principles) in context allows students to see these concepts as grounded in human beings — and human beings are always more complicated, diverse, and broad ranging than a single discipline would suggest. Asking students to “play” with these figures helps them to remember the details of the concepts, allows them to see their “blind” spots where they could acquire further knowledge, and encourages them to see the interdisciplinarity of the real world.