Last Wednesday, I participated in a panel discussion about the role of creative writing in service learning. Sponsored by GW’s Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, the event paired me with Kendra Thompson of 826DC, a nonprofit that provides young learners with programs and resources that develop their creative and expository writing. Kendra and I were asked to speak to how creative writing can enhance literacy education. Why should we use creative writing in service-learning courses and public outreach programs?
It’s an excellent question, if only because it reminds writers and scholars that literature does make contributions to the public welfare. (We’re not so far removed from the post-WWI arguments in favor of teaching literature: namely, “good” literature inspires and humanizes us, and learning to read these texts promotes good citizenship.) Further, service learning is becoming increasingly popular in college courses, evinced by the Modern Language Association’s recent publication of a volume dedicated to the topic: Laurie Grobman and Roberta Rosenberg’s Service Learning and Literary Studies in English.
The contributions to this volume largely focus on questions of social justice and access—the idea being that service-learning classes make literature less exclusive by moving it from the university classroom to youth homes, homeless shelters, prisons, nursing homes, and so on. In the service-learning classroom, creative writing works in two ways: writing assignments empowers at-risk or marginalized populations (the poor, the incarcerated, the elderly, and so on) by encouraging them to see the details of their lived experience as relevant, and writingprompts also transform the service-learning course into a site for personal reflection. Done well, this allows students to struggle with, to articulate, and to realize the affect of the course—the full emotional heft of the enterprise. In one of the volume’s essays, Claudia Monpere McIsaac writes the following about her students’ creative writing in a class that catered literature to prison inmates:
“This poem illustrates students’ frequent observation that writing poetry creates emotional depth. One student says it lets her ‘bring detail to a whole other level . . . a deep emotional level.’ Why is this? Poetry, more than other genres, requires an intense focus on language: every word matters. Most effective poetry relies on details more than abstractions—and in a short, compressed space. Poetry also rarely incorporates transitions, instead inviting associative leaps, unusual juxtapositions. Perhaps it’s not surprising that students see it as deepening their feelings and thoughts about service learning.” (196)
Writing deepens feelings not only for the college-level students in service-learning courses, but also improves the lot of the served population. Miah Arnold, whose essay “You Owe Me” reflects on her experience teaching writing to cancer-stricken children in Houston’s MD Anderson Medical Center, writes the following:
“One of the most meaningful days I had in Writers’ was after a particularly raucous class in which I think we laughed uncontrollably for three or four minutes straight at one point. We collectively got the giggles. Afterwards, an old woman stopped me on my way to the elevators.
“‘I stood outside and listened to your class today,’ she said in the halting English that is common in M.D. Anderson’s corridors, ‘I just stood outside the door and listened to Umberto laughing, because he doesn’t laugh in the hospital room. He never laughs anymore, and I thought I’d never hear him laughing again,’ she said, and she was crying.” (92)
McIsaac and Arnold, of course, have different reasons for writing their essays; McIsaac is presenting a scholarly claim about service-learning classes, while Arnold simply wishes to make her readers aware of how creative writing benefits childhood cancer patients and their families.
There’s one point that McIsaac makes, which warrants some further attention. And it’s the crux of creative writing’s value in service-learning courses, whether you’re teaching writing in prisons or hospital wards. I’m referring, of course, to significant detail: that “every word matters” claim she makes.
Why do significant details matter, and especially in a service-learning context? Of course, these details are the bricks-and-mortar of a literary text. As my undergrad mentor Tom Bailey puts it in A Short Story Writer’s Companion, significant detail generates the “fictional truth” in a story, and these images and nods to day-to-day bric-a-brac perform the same function in poetry and creative nonfiction. But significant details also play gatekeeper. When one literary tradition’s details and physical stuff take charge, the meaningful images and contexts from other cultures get expunged. Consider Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who says this in her TEDTalk “The Danger of a Single Story”: “My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer, because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was.” Or Junot Díaz, who lambastes the unbearable whiteness of MFA programs loudly and often, perhaps most poignantly in his New Yorker bit “MFA vs. POC”: Díaz’s MFA experience was “[t]oo white as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc).”
Creative writing in service-learning classes and outreach programs should actively dismantle the prejudices that Adichie and Díaz identify. How? It’s a two-step process. First, by breaking from the canon and showing students, be they young or old or prisoners or patients, that there are texts that resonate with their experience. Second, by encouraging students to write stories, poems, essays, that incorporate the details of their lived experience. This creates a “fictional truth” that’s real to the students and accurately reflects their experiences, while challenging the universality of what Díaz calls “the dominant culture’s blind spots.”
I could natter on for a while longer—for last Wednesday’s event, I had a whopping eight pages of notes on the topic of significant detail, creative writing, and service learning. But education, as Paulo Freire and bell hooks note, ought to be the exercise of freedom, and there is nothing more liberating than seeing that the stuff of your reality is (and should be) welcome on the page.