When you hear the word narrative, what comes to mind? If you’re like most people, you’re probably thinking of words like “novel”, “book”, or “story.” But narrative plays a bigger role in how we communicate than we give it credit for.
Today on the podcast we’re speaking with Liz Prather, author of Story Matters: Teaching Teens to Use the Tools of Narrative to Argue and Inform. Liz believes that narrative has for too long been kept separate from nonfiction writing, but has much to offer. “Stories are the cornerstone of all human communication,” she argues, “and for a student who sets our to write a compelling argument or an interesting informational piece, that foundation can be narrative.”
We started our conversation with asking how and why narrative takes such a hold on us…
Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Liz: Well, I think that narrative writing has always had a hold on us, and I think that narrative's not going away. Narrative is at the center of every civilization that has ever been. Humans telling stories, whether it's around a campfire or around the dinner table or in the town square, this is how people connect with one another. This is how people pass along oral traditions. And this is how people pass along corporate stories and the unspoken rules of the way communities work, or the spoken rules, so the way communities work. And I think what has happened in a lot of educational circles is that narrative was seen as too childlike, and too soft, and somewhat lesser than the more expository forms of argumentation and informational text.
So, narrative is kind of, at some point, been kind of shrugged off to the side and I think we are seeing a resurgence of narrative now. I had a veteran teacher one time tell me that education is just a series of a car driving down a road. They fall off one curb and they over-correct, and then they fall off the other side of the road and they over-correct. And they continue. It's been this way since the 1800s, so we've just been in a pendulum swaying back and forth. And we find ourselves now in a pendulum swing where people are really embracing narrative, and they're embracing it in a way that shows its complete utility and malleability and its faculty in supporting other forms, other modes. That's what the book is about, is how do you use narrative to support the nonfiction modes of argumentation and information?
Brett: So how do we do that? You specifically write that it's important for us to be able to take narrative writing and blend it into informative and argumentative text. How do we do that? How do we approach that?
Liz: Well, that's where it always starts. I mean, no one comes to a writing task from form. You may have had a teacher at some point in your career to do that, but that's not the natural way that humans come to a writing task. Humans come to a writing task or any communication task with the need to communicate, the exigence, right? The emergency, the urge to communicate, and most of the time, that need to communicate will find itself in the form of a story. So, really when we talk to students about writing arguments and we talk to students about writing information, the entry point into those two modes will be their personal experiences and their personal stories. That's really where I ask students to step into the nonfiction world is through the window or the portal of their story.
And they cannot, I mean, writing is such a struggle anyway. I mean, writing is really hard, even for the most gifted of us. Well, I wouldn't say necessarily I'm gifted but I'm practiced at it. I practice a lot at it and I'm a professional writer. But it is as hard for me as a professional writer as it is for any one of our students to work up enough a head of steam or enough energy to overcome the struggle of writing if we don't, in the first place, have a story to tell, or have some energy to bring to bear on the argument that we're trying to make, or the information that we're trying to tell a path to the reader. So, if students don't have the energy, if they don't have the story right there, I think that's the first place that they have to start.
So I always ask my students, how can we find your topics, the things that you're passionate about, the things you value? And the way I think of it is, and I heard a really interesting way, just this past weekend, I heard a really interesting way, I heard a speaker, Rebecca Hall, she's from Marshall University, and she says, "An essay is just something you believe based on something you've lived through." So, I love that definition of essay and I think if we can start with students' stories, that's where we start. That's where we, that's ground one, like ground zero, the bottom floor of where we go into these larger expository modes.
Brett: I love that definition. And I also love how you approach this as a writer. You write specifically that you approach writing as a writer, not as a teacher. As you're teaching us in the book about this, you talk about how you approach writing with your students, with the term narrative nonfiction, and that you try to avoid terms like creative nonfiction. What is your goal there? It makes a lot of sense in your writing, but I want you to talk a little bit about what you're doing there and what that means to your students.
Liz: We have a lot of conversations at the beginning of the year, and I ask them to kind of build an awareness or a taxonomy of the language that we use around writing, like what is the difference, I might ask them, between literary journalism and creative nonfiction? What is the real difference between memoir and personal essay? What's the difference between personal narrative and personal essay? And what's the difference between opinion writing and argumentation? It's some very nuanced ways in which we use all that language. And to throw another wrench into this, we also talk about what's the difference between fiction and nonfiction. I may be talking about narrative nonfiction and I mean a certain kind of thing, I have an idea in my mind of what that is, and my students may be thinking it's something else. So we have to kind of parse through all those, the definitions, what we're talking about.
One of the terms that always comes up is creative nonfiction. And I think anytime, and I hate to say this, because any kind of writing, all writing is creative, but I mean, all writing requires creation, therefore it is creative. But typically, creative writing is tagged as such because it comes from the imagination. It is imaginative writing. And so, we have kind of tagged creative writing as something fun to do on a Friday afternoon, a poem or a short story or hey, let's just write about being a butterfly for 25 minutes, whatever it is. What animal are you most like? And then let's just write about that.
Well, that's why using the term creative nonfiction to me kind of undercuts what we're really doing, which is pairing narrative to another nonfiction mode. So that's the term that we use in my classroom is narrative nonfiction. But other teachers and other writers may use a different term that means basically the same thing. I think it's really, really important to have those conversations with students, so that you don't come across as the arbiter of all things in the classroom, number one, and so that they can have, they can be conversant about the language of writing and the language of genre and mode in a larger arena.
Brett: You sort of referenced this in a, I think it's in the first chapter of the book. It may be in the introduction, where you're trying to sort of move things away from this fantasy of this mysterious writer off in a cabin somewhere doing something magical and it just sort of all comes to them in this moment and that's who a writer becomes. I love how you sort of make writing more accessible. You really write to the fact that it takes more practice, it takes more exercise, but you also write to the fact that there needs to be an openness to narrative. How do we build that openness or awareness to narrative with our students?
Liz: I think they need to have narrative on the table, and I think that's the place where we start, is that we can't exclude any tool in the great toolbox of any kind of writing when they are attempting to communicate an idea to a reader. And I think that's one thing that we've done is we've taught argument in kind of a silo, or we've taught informational text in a silo, and then narrative in a silo, instead of allowing it all to be just, what does this piece need? What is my idea? How do I need to cultivate the idea in order to communicate it to a reader? I think that a lot of times, we are very dogmatic and kind of black-and-white thinking when we start to teach these things. So we teach these skills in isolation. And we teach techniques, writing techniques in isolation.
I think oftentimes, we separate, like you said, we separate creative and we separate these other more, what we think is more cerebral kinds of writing, more statistical or logical. But fantasy stories, science fiction stories, they need logic just as much as an argument. A classic rhetorical argument needs logic. So, everything needs to be on the table when a student goes to communicate their ideas. And I also want to say I preach freedom, and with my students, I want my students to choose their own topics. I want them to choose their own modes and forms and genres. And I'm really interested in them, and understanding and cultivating that kind of agency that is necessary to make decisions, writerly decisions. But the other side of it is, I really want them to develop a writerly discipline so that they do have a personal standard and a personal expectation that this is not just something that is gifted to people. This comes as a result of hard work.
E.B. White said a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper. And I can't remember the exact quote, but I think Jack London said you can't wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club. Sounds like a very Jack London-ish thing to say. Every writer has said something along those lines. That's a very romantic version of what writing is all about is that these people, these magicians just put paper in a typewriter and it comes out this beautifully well-crafted syntax and diction and beautiful tone and the pacing, and the logic of it is just exact and wonderful. But writing is rewriting, and rewriting absolutely requires that my students are committed. And so it goes back to the energy, it goes back to their passion for speaking what it is they have come to speak on that page.
Brett: Later on in the book, you write that the best stories set traps. And I wanted you to say a little bit more about that.
Liz: Yes. The interesting thing about short stories, when we read short stories, when we watch movies, when we look at a Netflix show we want to indulge in, or we pick up a book that we want to take to the beach and lose ourselves in, it's going to be a dramatic story. It is going to be a story that sucks us in and holds us down and keeps us on the page. And so, what's going to happen is it's going to have a protagonist or a character that we're following that there is a pressure in their lives. There is a conflict in their lives. They are stuck, or they are facing, they want something and they are being denied that thing, or they want to go somewhere and they can't, or they've lost something and they want to retrieve it. Their life, their world has been turned upside down. That's the trap. That is the absolute trap. And narrative...
If something starts once upon a time, I can hear the click of the trap. Once upon a time, one dark and stormy night, this one time I went to town, or this one Sunday afternoon, a stranger showed up into town. These are all the kind of classic traps of the story. And asking my students to craft a trap for the reader long enough in argumentation, long enough for them to be able to make their point, either to change their mind or just to basically bear witness of the thing that they have learned, and the thing that they now believe in because of the things that they've experienced in their lives.
And so I think that's the kind of trap that we're all looking for. We're looking for traps when we're a reader. As I teach writers, I teach them, how can you put the screws to this character? How can you create conflict that is going to create enough tension, and what are the stakes? So, in nonfiction, there are just as many stakes, in nonfiction as there are in fiction. You should have narrative stakes, narrative tension, narrative conflict in an essay because that's what's going to keep your reader on the page.
Brett: You also spend a little bit of time teaching us more about details in our writing and how to write detail. How is a detail not just a detail?
Liz: Let's talk about fiction first. So, in a fictional piece, the detail is almost like the proof that this world exists. If we believe the details of a fictional story, we believe that the writer who's telling us this story is accurate in his reporting, or he's accurate in his craft. In other words, we read fiction to be consumed by the dream. We want to forget that an actual writer is there telling us this story. We want to just fall into the dream, the magic of that story. So, that's what the details do.
And in narrative nonfiction, the same thing occurs because the details basically are almost like tiny proofs. There are little evidences that the reader or the writer knows about what he has lived through, what she's lived through and what she's from, about what she speaks. The details can come in the guise of actual description. They can come in the guise of dialogue. They can come in the guise of scene work. Opening a nonfiction narrative in scene is the number one way to hook your reader. They identify with a character, and the character is believable enough that we're willing to follow them to the end of the essay, to hear what happens to him. And so, that's all done on the basis and of the veracity and the ability for the reader to see and sense and feel that detail is true and real, in the world of the essay.
Brett: You have a little section in the opening of the book that I kind of want you to reiterate here. How would you like teachers to use this book?
Liz: Yeah, well, I think that one of the ways that when I go out and speak to teachers, they're already using narrative in a lot of rich, wonderful ways, and they're already engaging their students in rich, wonderful ways from a perspective of narrative. They're already using argumentation. They're already using informational writing as well. And I'm really interested in asking them not to create those silos, if you will, or create those kinds of barriers, and have that be kind of a black-and-white approach. But that all of these modes, every mode, anything that the writer has at his or her disposal is on the table.
And so, asking teachers to develop ways to invite the story back to, especially high school classrooms, what is a way we can invite the narrative back into our classrooms in a way that supports the kind of academic and writing that they'll have to do for college and career, in a way that is really rich. It's knowing when to zig and knowing when to zag. It's knowing when to put something in and to take something out. It's knowing that this follows that, and you're putting like things together. It's developing the students' writerly decision-making, and for them to know that they can start with their own story. They can end with their own story. And somewhere in between, they can convince somebody of something based on their own experience. That's really, really powerful for a kid. And so I guess I want teachers just to basically open up their classrooms to the possibility that this is the... We can do this.
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Liz Prather is a writing teacher at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, a magnet arts program at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky. A classroom teacher with 21years of experience teaching writing at both the secondary and post-secondary level, Liz is also a professional freelance writer and holds a MFA from the University of Texas-Austin. Find her on Twitter at @PratherLiz