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Liesl Schwabe, David Puretz and Brian Trimboli Present at Writing Conference

On Nov. 9, 2019, Liesl Schwabe (director of the Yeshiva College writing program), David Puretz (lecturer in writing) and Brian Trimboli (lecturer in writing) held a roundtable at the 2019 SUNY Council on Writing Conference, “The Writing of Art/The Art of Writing,” at Purchase College.

The Art of the Story: The MFA Influence in the FYW [first year writing] Classroom covered such subjects as the power of stories, the art of nonfiction and teaching students how to say what they mean and believe it.

General Overview
Stories are powerful forces of persuasion, empathy, and understanding. Facts can be contested. History can be ignored. Unfortunately, contemporary politics have proven this. But stories have stamina. In other words, narrative is at the center of effective communication and argumentation. It offers nuance and perspective. It builds interest and intrigue.

For this reason, the ability to engage a reader’s curiosity through narrative, through story, is foundational to both the philosophy and the practicalities of our First Year Writing (FYW) program. At our institution, FYW is the only class required of every incoming student in our liberal arts college and our business school. FYW is also the foundation of our Core curriculum. In this light, we believe that the ability to both find and tell stories, across disciplines, enriches students’ learning and empowers them to discover and share meaning.

Our Master of Fine Arts degrees in fiction, nonfiction and poetry respectively have trained us as storytellers. As different as the analytic, argumentative and informative genres we require in our FYW classes are from the traditionally “creative” work of literature, we’ve found that teaching narrative (and the associated literary techniques) have been essential to students’ understanding of the invention, development and revision necessary in any writing process.

In this panel, we explored the benefits of using narrative to teach foundational concepts such as audience, tone, context, clarity and structure. At its best, narrative is a doorway to the enthusiasm necessary to wanting to understand the ideas behind a text. This enthusiasm benefits all writing and reading, during college and beyond.

Exploration and the Art of Fiction
David Puretz

David Puretz, Lecturer, English, YCI assign the narrative as the first major essay assignment of the semester in First Year Writing. There is good reason for this because in life, too, story comes first. We teach our children our most important life lessons using story. We define abstract concepts and familial context using story. In a writing class, then, developing the ability to tell a story and to understand stories that have been told must come first. It is the feeder for the other writing genres to come.

I am a fiction writer, and my graduate work was in fiction writing, and though students are not writing fiction in my FYW course, they are reading it, for it, too, is self-reflective (and self-reflexive): with fiction comes freedom of expression. Applying fiction writing techniques helps students better know and tell their own stories and stories of all of life’s intricacies. Part of that technique is exploration.

An exploratory essay is reflective storytelling, and reflective storytelling is critical thinking at play. Exploratory essays are very different from the algorithmic closed-form structure that many students are taught in high school. Instead of writing to convince an audience of the validity of some preformed thesis, students are writing to further investigate something and to form nuanced conclusions, or if not to form conclusions, then to come closer to an answer. In a story, we are doing the same thing: finding meaning. Through this comes a new understanding of research as well. Research does not have to be dull and monotonous. When done right, it is empowering because it helps build our story.

Other News from David Puretz

Context and the Art of Nonfiction
Liesl Schwabe

Portrait of Liesl Schwabe, lecturer in English, who has been awarded a Fulbright to teach English writing courses in India.In nonfiction writing, the clarity of the context is essential to the momentum of the story. Readers want to know if something is “true.” If the people are “real.” If this thing “actually happened.” But as writers, students must begin to grapple with the fact that the “truth” alone is not inherently interesting. “Real life” is not, in other words, a story.

In order to shape lived experience into essays, into stories, students must consider not only who their imagined audience is but also who they are. Who were they when this thing happened? Who are they now? And why should any reader care?

With these questions in mind, I encourage students to think less in terms of authority than honesty. Compelling writing, especially in the FYW classroom, is not the result of expertise but of a student’s willingness to level with himself. For all kind of essays, persuasive and otherwise, I require students to write in the first person and to establish the context of their own points of view. This can include but is not limited to articulating their age, ethnic or religious identity, general assumptions or beliefs and any pertinent human idiosyncrasies. We explore several low-stakes exercises that help students establish the context of each essay. In the process, students begin to see that any story has many angles, of which their own perception is just one. This work helps to both ground students in their own perspective while also opening them up to existence of others.

Other News from Liesl Schwabe

Intentionality and the Art of Poetry
Brian Trimboli

The use of narrative is essential to the FYW classroom because of how it develops the necessary sense of agency that students require to say what they mean. Often, writers come into these classrooms producing half measures with what they write, unattuned to the approximations taking place. Poetry, and the intentionality that comes with its craft, can be utilized with narrative to demonstrate for students the multiple layers of communication that rest below the surface content and to provide them with loose directions towards imbuing their own writing with dimensionality.

By demonstrating the constant negotiation of form and content within poetry (specifically, narrative poetry), students can be brought to a better understanding of how the craft of a piece influences the content that the piece communicates. These writers can be made aware of the numerous tools that get left on the shelf but can be used to craft magnificent arguments that speak to the person as well as the subject.

Using poetry to widen the inner circles of the Zone of Proximal Development (that gap between what a learner has mastered and what her or she can potentially master with support and assistance) functions to concurrently develop the ideas that our students have as well their propensity to communicate those ideas, which inherently makes their ideas more meaningful. I encourage my students to value their thoughts enough to convey them with intention and to develop the respect for their ideas that will help them to responsibly communicate to multiple audiences.

Poetry demonstrates the different elements of writing’s infrastructure and can bring clarity of writing, and thoughts, to our FYW classrooms.

Other News from Brian Trimboli