After the assignment, a meta-assignment

James Clements, American University of Dubai 

When teaching Creative Non-Fiction, one of the challenges is helping students understand the difficulties of "telling the truth" in narrative prose. As the "truth" behind another author's writing is not accessible to the reader, it can be difficult for a student to really understand the craft involved in shaping a personal experience into a work of non-fiction. To help with this, I often give a two-part assignment: First, I ask the students to write a piece of creative non-fiction themselves, usually on a general but significant topic, such as "The Day That Changed My Life Forever." Once I've collected this assignment, I tell them that the piece will not be marked, as the second part is the "real" assignment. In this second part, I ask them to write an essay in which they should reflect on the decisions they made while writing the first part. I include the following list of questions they might consider:

• Why did you choose to tell the story in this way? Could you have told it in a different way?

• Did you know the “meaning” of the story before you started writing, or did it only become clear during the process? 

• Did you change, exaggerate, or remove anything to make it fit your narrative? If so, why? And what are the larger consequences of these changes?

• If other people appear in your narrative, how do you think they would feel about the way they’ve been depicted? How do you feel about their depiction? In what ways are they distorted or under-represented, and what was the reason for this?

• Do you feel that the narrative truthfully communicates your experience? If so, what is it about the form that communicates the essence of the experience? If not, what feels false about the narrative?

• Do you feel you were honest in writing your narrative? If not, why do you think this is?

• How did it feel to write the story down? Did it make you uncomfortable? Did it feel satisfying? Did it help you “make sense” of the event?

• Did you have any issues with your memory? If so, what did you do about the gaps in your memory when writing?

Students usually respond very positively to this assignment, and it gives them a new way to approach the remainder of the readings on the syllabus.