Contingency: How We Situate Writing to Create Meaning

College Writing and Storytelling

Bernice Olivas

Let me tell you a tell a little secret. It is something the teachers, professors, and writers who write assignments, textbooks, and advice for college students know but rarely articulate. We know it in our bones but struggle to put it to words.

All writing is storytelling.

That’s it. That is the big thing writers learn in college. You are going to spend the next few years learning to tell stories in a whole bunch of different ways, using new techniques, and following the rules of different audiences. All the big new terms, ideas, and definitions like genre and literacy you will learn in college just describe how different groups of folks tell their stories.  So, here is what you really need to know, right now:

  1. All writing tells a story.
  2. In academia every specialized group of people (disciplines) have different rules about who may tell stories, how they tell stories, why they tell stories, and what makes their specific type stories good.
  3. College writing is mostly learning storytelling for all the different classes you take and, in time, specializing as storyteller in a specific type of story—the story of your major.

 

DON’T BELIEVE ME?

Consider these examples:

  • A biology lab is just the story of how a scientist solved a problem. The parts of the story are hypothesis, experiment, findings—it’s the scientist’s story of what they think will solve the problem, what they observe when they try the solution, and what they think it all means. Scientists speak “lab report” so college students and beginning scientists must learn to speak and write “lab report.”
  • Math writing tells the story of making the equation work, not just once, but every time, and why it matters. Math folks just tell it in a language that is so special and secret that it takes a writer years to master it.
  • A history research paper is telling the story of how things came to be this way and what it means now. Historians expect a writer to always be able write about two things without muddling them together: first, history writers need to be able to write about what people know, with proof, about the history; second, history writers need to articulate what they think it means to other historians, to the general reader, to everyone.
  • Technical writers are telling the story of how a thing works, what might break it, and how to figure out what we need to do to fix it.
  • Literature writers are telling the story they found between the lines of the novel, poem, or drama they read.

Truthfully, college writing is about 75% learning what kind of story a professor wants when they use words like analyze, interpret, explore, or argue. Take the “argument” paper. Writing an argument is like telling that one family story, the one that no one is sure of when and where it happened, or if it even happened at all, but everyone has different memory about it or a different opinion. An argument is just writing out our side of it as persuasively as possible. Writing that story means telling our side, as we know it.

In argument writing you must make sure your version is supported by facts—don’t say a hurricane happened on July 4th when the newspapers show there wasn’t one on that date. Use the newspaper to show that the hurricane happened July 3rd and other people just think it happened on July 4th.  Back up your claim about what happened that day with other people’s knowledge, especially people who were there. Be honest with other people’s words.

All writing is storytelling.

Over time, you’ll will learn all the terms, the rules, the languages, and you’ll forget that what you are really doing is telling a story. But right now, as you are just beginning to think like a writer, you should always ask yourself, “What story am I trying to tell? Who is listening and what do they expect the story to look like, sound like, and include?”

 

THE LITERACY NARRATIVE

Take the literacy narrative, which asks you to write about how your literacy developed or to tell a story about your own literacy. And that may seem confusing or intimidating, but the literacy narrative is just a telling a story of an experience with reading or writing that has made you feel stronger and more empowered or an experience with reading or writing that added to your fears and insecurities about writing.

How to write the literacy narrative:

Step 1. Use a literacy profile to write a narrative

A literacy profile is just a series of super short stories about experiences you have had with reading or writing. Try writing about three times literacy experiences empowered you, made you feel stronger and more positive about yourself and three times they made you feel bad about yourself.

Example: Professor Olivas’s Literacy Profile

Early experiences

I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read, nor do I remember who taught me or how I learned to read, nor do I remember a time when books were not an escape from a complex and often difficult childhood. My parents joke that I was the easiest kid, that I never cried, never talked much―didn’t say her first real word until she was six―and always had a book in hand. Looking back as the mother of two autistic sons, I wonder if I was a nonverbal autistic child in my earliest years and if I learned to interact with other people, to talk, to communicate through books. Now, my husband laughs at me when I tell him that I often think in text. Blocks of words run down my mind’s eye, like the opening of Star Wars, like an old-fashioned silent movie. It is only recently that I have learned to “hear” my own thoughts instead of “reading” them.

Early reader

My parents rarely read more than the family Bible or a menu. Yet their work demanded that they be highly literate in the language of business. My daddy was a foreman for a big potato man in Oakley, Idaho; my momma ran the food-stand truck that fed the workers for cash or on credit. In these roles they wrote receipts, orders, notes, checks, reports, inventories, and checks with the confidence of college graduates. They were good at what they did, and they knew it―that same confidence vanished when we asked for a bedtime story out of a book. My daddy would toss it aside and settle in on the couch to tell a story―his way around struggling with words. And so, we learned about tricksters, and wailing, murderous women who haunted the waterways, and Coyote who couldn’t be trusted. Here, we learned about our great grandfather, our ancestors, here their stories mixed with stories of gods and ghosts, warriors and lovers until they became intermixed, like the homemade taco seasoning that my mother scattered onto everything she cooked.

My grandmother

My grandmother wasn’t an easy or kind woman. Her life was neither easy or kind and that life could be heard in the snap of her voice, it could be seen in the cold in her eyes. I don’t know if she loved us and I don’t know if I loved her. I loved―until she died―the idea that someday, I would return to her home, the one we never really felt welcome in because of the thick, angry, unspoken everything between my mother and her mother-in-law; I would return and ask to write her story, and we would, finally, begin to learn about the other. That idea died when she did, and I am left with only one real memory. I remember her sneaking away from family gatherings, from the dinner table, from the babies, to read a book. My grandmother showed me what a woman who demanded the right to literacy looked like. That memory is invaluable to me.

The literacy of hard work and community service

My family was well versed in the literacy of hard work, if not in the literacy of success. We got up early, we took care of the living things we loved―the dogs, the horses, the chickens, even the stupid smelly sheep―we took care of the things that sustained life―the garden, the kitchen chores―and then we went out and worked for money. My father taught us to negotiate, to say no when we were undervalued, to take pride in doing a job right, and my mother taught us to give freely―time, knowledge, empathy. My father was the voice of migrant workers that the farm boss hired every year. The boss spoke to him in the languages of money, and my father spoke back in the languages of labor and integrity. My father refused to let his crew’s labor be undervalued even when it cost him a job. My mother, who attained a GED in her early 20s, helped the community with the paperwork that can make life so hard. Sponsorship papers (back when those were a thing) applications, resumes, letters home. My parents never made much money. We knew hunger, and want, and cold. We also knew our worth in the languages of labor, integrity, and service.

The literacy of mothers

The first time I held my son I was gripped by shame, a shame so deep, so raw, that I shoved the squirming bundle into the nurse’s arms and puked over the side of the bed. Everyone assumed it was from labor, but it was because I looked at that child and realized that I had already failed him, already set him up to fail, already put him on a path that would lead him to a life that demanded he sacrifice his body and health for money, that he know hunger, and cold, and want, that he was already behind. I knew that because I had chosen not to return to school, not to do something more than work at a slightly shady call center, to coast just a bit, he would have less of a shot at college, at finding a way to make a living and live a life. I applied to BSU as soon as he was six months old. My sons do not remember a time when college was not part of our lives.

Step 2. Find a main point in your profile

Look for things each story has in common. Is your mom in every story? Maybe your literacy narrative really needs to be about how your mom empowered you to be a better reader and writer. Or is there a sense of frustration or stress in every story? Maybe this is about how you developed anxiety about reading and writing over time.

For example, some main points from my profile:

    • My family’s class (working poor/working class) has had incredible impact on my literacy.
    • My family motivated me to go to college and get my PhD in both healthy and unhealthy ways.
    • My motivation is tied to my relationships with people who encourage me to read and write.

Step 3. Choose a main idea

Once you have figured out the main points in your literacy profile, choose one to be the main idea of the narrative. For example, I chose my family’s class (working poor/working class), which has had incredible impact on my literacy.

Step 4. Begin writing

On a clean sheet of paper, start with the story of your main idea. This is the beginning of your literacy narrative. All you need to do is tell that story.

Example of the opening paragraph of my literacy narrative

It was not until I was older, a PhD, a teacher, that I began to understand just how much growing up working class impacted my literacy: from going without medical intervention even though I didn’t speak until I was six; to learning to make time for reading only because I saw my grandmother do the same even though my family’s main focus was work; to realizing, after my son was born, that I wanted him to have more choices than the working-class men of my family were offered and deciding that college was the way to create those opportunities. My class has, quietly, subtly, shaped my literacy.

Following these steps will help you figure out what story you really want to tell in your literacy narrative.

And as you learn more about college writing you will learn how to tell lots of different stories, in lots of different ways, for lot of different people. Just remember that no matter what rules you are following, you are always telling stories.

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Open English @ SLCC by Bernice Olivas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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