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“Stories are the antibodies against illness and pain,” notes Anatole Broyard in his classic work, "Intoxicated By My Illness." But a subset of college students cautions that these same stories could trigger adverse emotional reactions. The works they cite range from Chinua Achebe’s "Things Fall Apart," to Virginia Woolf’s "Mrs. Dalloway," to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "The Great Gatsby," to Shakespeare’s "The Merchant of Venice." These books, they warn, contain depictions of racism, violence, rape, misogyny and anti-Semitism that could wound.
What is wrong is the presumption that a narrative can touch a person’s soul before that person has learned to tell his or her own story.
Is Broyard wrong? Not from what I have seen through my work as a writer and teacher. What is wrong is the presumption that a narrative can touch a person’s soul before that person has learned to tell his or her own story.
Touching our souls means wrestling with what makes us uncomfortable. My wrestling mat is a blank page and a pencil. I write about illness, depression and death, and about what can happen to a child despite a parent’s best efforts to protect him or her. As a teacher, I help draw life stories from homeless mothers, at-risk teens, and those who have experienced physical and mental illness.
As I encourage others to write, I quote the author Reynolds Price, who, after undergoing treatment for a spinal cord tumor, wrote that he needed to read “…some honest report from a similar war…” I know this need firsthand following my daughter’s treatment for cancer. I can also understand when an 18- or 20-year-old college student says, “I’m afraid to read this.”
I remember a conversation I had with a mother whose child had also had cancer. Five minutes into the conversation, she nearly fainted. This was a highly competent, worldly woman in her forties, whose daughter was now well, and she had been triggered unexpectedly by our conversation.
So how should colleges respond? A trigger warning is one strategy; sometimes not being caught by surprise as you read is enough. Wouldn’t colleges benefit their students more, though, if they showed how stories can comfort rather than scare? What if writing came before reading?
An enhanced program in writing about personal experience can make a difference. I don’t mean a therapeutic program, I mean focusing on how becoming a better writer can help you tell your story. Such tools as metaphor, personification, the third person, or setting small scenes rather than taking big bites enable students to approach their stories on their own terms. I once worked with a group of teenagers who had been sexually abused. At no point did I direct them to write about that experience. Rather, they tip-toed toward the expression of their deepest hurt, which opened them to the stories of others.
Writing is a different emotional experience than speaking, reading or listening. When you watch writers delve into their deepest emotions, their faces are calm, their breathing steady. There are few clues to the emotions that are being transferred to paper. They have become observers of their own lives and can enter their well of feeling with no fear of drowning.
A student I will call Carol, to protect her anonymity, participated in a workshop for homeless mothers. In a group session before writing, she said she had no one to lean on, no family to celebrate the holidays with. It wasn’t that they didn’t exist; rather, they chose not to see her. Carol remained dry-eyed while talking, as if this were just the way things were. The writing exercise was to imagine it was Christmas morning. You open your eyes. A person you want to talk to is there. What do you say? Carol’s face was calm as she wrote, but when she read her story about her father, from whom she had been separated at age eight, her emotions cracked open. Writing allowed her to access feelings that speaking hadn’t, and she was no longer afraid of her sadness.
Make a student a storyteller and you will create a willing story receiver.
My trigger in college was not a book but a musical work, "The St. Matthew Passion" by J.S. Bach. As a music major, I was required to perform in this choral work every year. The venue was a gloomy, Gothic cathedral with a crucified Jesus looming over us as we sang. As a Jew, I found the story foreign and the images disturbing. I was in the midst of my first experience with depression and anxiety, and I trembled through each performance. This became a central scene in my writing about that time period. Writing gave me the courage to buy a recording of the Passion. I have since fallen in love with its beauty and complexity.
College should always be a place for free expression and the exchange of ideas, even those you may not like — or, perhaps, especially those ideas. But the other half of a college’s responsibility is to teach the art of listening. Make a student a storyteller and you will create a willing story receiver.
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