Metaphor for a narrative

by Mr. Sheehy

I need a living metaphor.

For my students’ final this year, I am asking them to write a letter of introduction to a portfolio of their work (They’re to assemble the portfolio in the days prior). I don’t want the letter to look like an essay, and neither do I want it to resemble a list, but it took me 640 words and a graphic to try and communicate to my students that I wanted it to be a narrative of their year.

I made a similar request of my freshmen for their projects following Romeo and Juliet, as I wanted them to capture the narrative flow of the play in their presentations. They know the structure of a basic plot line, which is good, but that’s not really what I want from them. If I ask them to recount a plot line, I don’t get to see most of the conflict and then climaxes are described as peaking halfway through the story. Instead, I want them to build a rise and fall – a graph in story form that matches the emotional energy of a narrative.

I’m a bit consumed with this concept – the idea that the formal writing structure has become too rigid and inflexible as it is conveyed by English teachers. I’ve come back to it with practically everything I’ve read lately, including Barbara Ganely‘s question about technology:

What is the correlation between your own personal use of Web technologies and the way you use them in the classroom?

While the correlation has been the soul of the blogging I do in the classroom (if it’s not fun for me, why would I assign it to them?), I also apply the idea to writing. I write papers for graduate school, articles for blogs, and proposals for school-policy, and the structure I utilize each time is a narrative structure.

My own practice confirms my conviction that the narrative structure of a story has more relevance for the structure of formal writing than what the formal structure has become. I’m also convinced that the formal structure was originally a mimic of the narrative flow – that idea of constructing it with a beginning (introduction), middle (supporting paragraphs), and end (conclusion). The structure is strong – seemingly innate – and though it may not actually be innate, people have a very closely held understanding of conflict, resolution, and excitement. If nothing else, students know what is exciting and engaging – and we literature people have made a discipline out of examining things that are exciting.

Most teachers can be flexible about this structure for a skilled writer’s sake. In my experience as a student, I knew many peers who cast off the suggested structure and wrote alternatively, and teachers accepted the work since they recognized it as good. I enjoy giving skilled students without the daring personalities the opportunity to cast off that formal structure’s restraints and to write with the flow that is natural to the writing process. But most importantly, I am excited to give all my students the chance to cast off that restraint and write with passion in the form that seems less like formula and more like a narrative.

In blogs and in other writing tasks I assign my students, I ask for such alternative constructions.

But where my method lacks the most is in my explanation of that narrative, because my colleagues will counter (correctly) that the method I describe does not require the students to consider the reader enough – that it lacks the organization necessary for a reader to maneuver through the thinking and story of another person. And while the content of what I have successfully taught this year falls squarely under this accusation, I am not willing to concede that my concept does, because the narrative does consider a reader. In my mind, a narrative considers the reader more than a formal piece of writing, since it so often aims to entertain as well as inform and explain. And it has a beginning, and it has a middle, and it has an end. For the reader, the trip through a narrative resembles more a journey alongside a writer than a hearing of a recitation.

I think that’s why my peers who chose alternative structures always got away with it. They took the instructor on a little journey, and it was so clear and enjoyable that the instructor could not assign it a poor grade, but instead felt compelled to reward it.

But can I teach this structure to my students without beating it into another convoluted structure? How do I convey to them the feeling of a narrative? That a narrative is not equivalent to stream of consciousness; that a narrative is not an easier way to write but a more innate style; that a narrative writer cherishes and understands the experience of the reader?

At this point in the year, I am about ready to admit to the ironic difficulty of teaching this process: I cannot do it through words. Thousands of words into this year, I have yet to explain quickly and easily what I mean by writing in this way. That’s why I need a metaphor – either a picture, or an experience, or a video . . . something to reach those students who, as Will Rogers explained, aren’t going to learn by reading or watching and instead have to pee on the electric fence and find out for themselves (Thanks to Doug Johnson for digging those words up).

I’m toying with some ideas, including a partner-blindfolding trip to help us realize what it is to be the reader searching for guidance, but I have not discovered a clear winner. Thankfully, I have until Labor Day to work one out.

Which means for now, this narrative lacks an ending. I just hope it ends happily.


Original image: ‘Insulated‘ by: Bryan Costin

Original image: ‘Expression of freedom‘  by: Rosh pr

Original image: ‘Last meters for one porter‘  by: by: Mahatma4711

Original image: ‘Heart rate, distance, speed, temperature, and altitude data‘  by: Brett L.