Years ago, my best friend from high school accused me of being confessional. Decades later the accusation still bothers me. In part, probably, because there is an element of truth to it. But also, and this is why I bring it up, because I think the accusation oversimplifies and discounts the role that story plays in our lives. To confess is to tell a story about ourselves. Confessional stories may include a particular moral framing, but nevertheless, a confessional story is a narration of our lives for a particular purpose, in this case, redemption or catharsis. To narrate our lives is to admit to a point of view and to ground our arguments in the lived experience of who we are. It is to push back on the so-called objective view, which holds that we can carefully reason through a position without our own motives interfering.
Speaking of motives, let’s take a look at the motives of writing teachers—both of teachers who embrace narrative and those who shun it as not sufficiently academically rigorous. Certainly, the role of story in writing classes has been debated vigorously off and on for many years. Did you know that writing teachers disagree about what kinds of writing they should use or teach, even if they (sometimes? often?) act as if there is a consensus? Seems writing teachers may be regular people after all.
A fuller sense of this debate came back to me recently when I attended a CCCC’s panel (a national conference for writing teachers) about teaching narrative in the writing classroom. During the panel, Irene Papoulis confessed how, in her first year of teaching, she lied about her actual beliefs about using stories in her writing classrooms. She bemused, “I find it amazing to think that so many years later I still strive to argue for storytelling as a form of analysis, and I still carry a nagging sense of shame about that, a murmur of ‘you’re touchy-feely, you’re not rigorous enough.’”
This is an important word. Teachers are sometimes engaged in a debate, maybe even a contest, concerning how rigorous their courses are in comparison to other colleagues. I suspect that, in fact, throughout your already lengthy academic careers, a lot of extra work, sometimes busy work, has landed on your lap because a teacher of yours was trying to prove herself a rigorous teacher.
Unfortunately, rigor is often defined, unknowingly at times, as that which students simply do not like: if students like a curriculum too much, we teachers, looking in from the outside, may assume the instructor is just having fun and really not teaching much at all.
I have much anecdotal evidence that students choose to write stories when given a chance. For many years I taught an assignment called the “Open Genre” where at the end of the term students could choose any written genre to study and then produce. By far most students chose fiction. I think this makes sense as we are constantly immersed in stories. Movies, arguably our most prolific art form, are stories. Video games, which make more money than even movies, are stories. Both have a basic plot where there are characters who face some challenge and then come to some sort of resolution.
Maybe stories are talked about less in writing classes because they are too fun.
When some argue that writing classes focused on story or narrative are not rigorous, they are in effect arguing that story is not rhetorical. Rhetoric is a code word for rigorous. A rhetorical analysis … now that sounds rigorous and academic. Personal narrative . . . sounds squishy, personal, even wimpy.
And these decisions are rhetorical. Of course, these characterizations oversimplify. In Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts, Thomas Newkirk argues that “there is a conflict between the ways we treat narrative in school (as a type of writing, often an easy one) and the central role narrative plays in our consciousness” (5). If this claim has at least some validity (it’s also worth noting that Newkirk is a composition scholar who directs the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes), then it’s odd that many writing teachers are apologetic about their narrative assignments. But regardless of Newkirk’s claim, the discipline of writing has often viewed narrative writing as insufficiently rhetorical, something to be done at the beginning of the semester to connect students with writing and get them started. But just as with any type of writing, creating an effective story requires a deliberate set of decisions that attempt to spark a particular response in readers.
Story as meaning-making
Not only is storytelling rhetorical, from a broader perspective, story is the method by which we understand the world and our place in it. No amount of emphasis on the so-called academic or the rhetorical or argumentative will ever move us away from story. Newkirk contends that “narrative is a form or mode of discourse that can be used for multiple purposes . . . —we use it to inform, to persuade, to entertain, to express. It is the ‘mother of all modes,’ a powerful and innate form of understanding” (6). Therefore, story is not simply rhetorical because writers make decisions about it.
It is rhetorical because story is embedded in all writing, regardless of form or genre.
Academic argument as autobiographical
In arguing that academic writing can be (and already is) narrative based, I’m arguing that academic writing is not nearly as objective as we often like to imagine. It is autobiographical. I’m also arguing that much of the academic writing I’ve done, which explicitly relies on narrative, is just as valid as any other type of academic writing. That is, my writing is revealing the truth of Thomas Newkirk’s argument that “[my] theories are really disguised autobiographies” (3). If we are indeed narrative beings, then surely we do not simply shut off the narrative machine the minute we start writing an academic or argumentative text, even if we may pretend that we do.
To explicitly make connections to one’s life in an argument piece does not make it a less valid or less objective argument. It merely makes explicit what is always functioning in the background.
Narrative as argument: A personal example
While taking an upper-division literature course with the theme of the Wall (as in THE wall that divided Berlin after World War II) in the ’90s, I made an autobiographical move in my last paper for the class. We had been exploring how we define ourselves through the Other. The first part of my paper was traditional literary analysis applying this idea to the novels we had read. But in the second half of the paper, I reflected on how I define and label my professors. As I was at BYU, a private university owned by the LDS church, professors, for me, generally fit into a few Mormon types: overly didactic older prof; younger, more liberal female prof; testifying churchy professor, etc. Yet this particular class was taught by Gerhard Bach, an American literature professor who generally taught in Germany. He was a visiting professor and . . . not a member of the LDS church. His identity disturbed my naïve sense of order in the universe. “For two semesters I’ve been fascinated with understanding Dr. Bach’s soul—why is he such a good teacher? What makes him such a good Christian (a person I respect), so understanding and non-judgmental . . . without the gospel of Christ I hold so dearly?” I wrote.
I cringe as I reread these words now, especially the word “soul.” It sounds too intimate, too familiar for a paper turned into a professor. And yet that’s where my thinking was at the time. I was merely being honest, maybe even confessional. At this moment in my paper, I narrated the happenings of the class. I was using literary devices and theories learned in class to figure out my own position and perspective within the English course and within life as an active Mormon.
By sharing this example in this essay, I’ve admitted to past beliefs I’d rather keep hidden from students. In fact, I’m a bit ashamed that I wrote that sentence, which to me now clearly demonstrates my narrow view of people who are not LDS. But this is part of my story. For many years, I was an active LDS member who served an LDS mission and went to BYU, and who was wrestling to figure out myself as a writer. In fact, before Bach’s class, I’d never received an A grade on a paper. I often say I learned to write in Bach’s class, and I believe a big part of why was Bach’s willingness to make the writing we did meaningful in real and present ways. We shared our writing with the class each week and then discussed the papers. This immediate audience allowed me to make that personal turn in my paper and to invoke my analysis of the class and this particular professor.
I received an A on that paper, so it seems my professor still found an argument in my personal story. These lurking autobiographies are, I believe, just below the surface of most of the arguments we make. As I have admitted, the very argument I am making in this essay actually supports how I see myself as an academic—it argues that my confessionary and autobiographical academic work counts as much as traditional-sounding objective academic writing.
All arguments are autobiographical.
Rhetorical moves: The story… of this essay
My colleague, Clint Johnson, and I teach in the Online Plus program together. During the 2016–’17 school year we were thinking about how best to teach narrative writing and how best to persuade our colleagues that narrative writing forms the backbone of all good writing. This is a challenge. While discussing these ideas, Clint and I have written pages and pages of notes. We’ve read many different articles. And we’ve gotten feedback on our OER texts from a number of people. Even after all of this, I was a bit lost as I tried to make the argument I’m making here that narrative is a part of all effective writing. Lost until Allison Fernley, a long-time colleague and friend, mentioned the book from which I’ve quoted above, Minds Made for Stories. I quickly scanned a few pages from the book online and ran across this line: “narrative is the deep structure of all good sustained writing” (19). I immediately ordered the book on Amazon. This was the missing link. We already had a lot of good sources on how important story is in our lives and how they shape our minds, but we did not have any sources directly arguing that even argumentative essays, at least the effective ones, also rely on a narrative structure.
And again, the move I just made in the last paragraph was to tell the story of my research. The progression of our ideas and filling this hole in our research demonstrates the contours of this debate. It is easier to make an argument about how to use narrative in the writing classroom than it is to argue that story or narrative is foundational for all writing. The first claim doesn’t really even need to be made, as we all recognize short vignettes or stories in all types of writing, but the second claim has tension (Newkirk) because other writing teachers could certainly disagree and back up this disagreement with studies and reasoning. However, the story of our research, in this case, is a form of evidence in and of itself.
“Itch and Scratch”: A practical strategy
Ok, so let’s tackle this second claim: narrative is the deep structure of all sustained writing. Newkirk demonstrates how effective, informative, and argumentative essays are necessarily grounded in a good story. For example, Newkirk outlines his ideas in chapter three, aptly named “Itch and Scratch: How Form Really Works.” In one sense the chapter title gives away the entire thrust of the chapter—writers must create an itch that readers want to scratch. Kind of an interesting way to think about the purpose of writing, isn’t it?
He builds off this main claim by citing writing experts like Peter Elbow (grandfather figure for writing teachers), who says that “Narrative is a universal pattern of language that creates sequences of expectation and satisfaction—itch and scratch” (qtd. in Newkirk 38). He also fleshes out why all effective writing is narrative in structure. He explains that instructors can “help students unlock the dramatic structure of ideas and information—and they can exploit this drama in their writing” (39). And that “good arguments feel dramatic, and sometimes, when they speak back to common sense and accepted wisdom, they can be exhilaratingly liberating” (45).
That’s right . . . writing can be exhilarating and liberating when we see our arguments through the lens of story.
An argument about end-of-life care: Sara’s story
Sara Thomas Monopoli was pregnant with her first child when her doctors learned that she was going to die.
This is Atul Gawande’s first line in “Letting Go,” an essay about end-of-life care. The first four paragraphs outline the basic narrative of Sara’s diagnosis: lung cancer, 34, non-smoker, chemotherapy options but no cure. Not until the fifth paragraph does Gawande offer any analysis and even it is quite subtle: “Words like ‘respond’ and ‘long-term’ provide a reassuring gloss on a dire reality. There is no cure for lung cancer at this stage.”
As a reader, I begin to feel an itch. I’m already caught up in Sara’s story and not only do I want to know how it turns out, I’m already thinking about the ethical issues involved in end-of-life care. Gawande continues to narrate Sara’s story for several paragraphs, detailing the failed attempts at treatment, and then he asks the problematic question—scratching the itch that the reader has already been thinking about even though it has not been stated explicitly.
This is the moment in Sara’s story that poses a fundamental question for everyone living in the era of modern medicine: What do we want Sara and her doctors to do now?
For nine paragraphs, Gawande cites research on cancer treatment, health care costs, and historical examples of how our early founding fathers died. Then there is a brief vignette about one of his own patients (Gawande is a surgeon): he is sitting with the patient when asked by her sister if the patient is dying. He is unsure. This unanswered question again creates an itch: how do we know in this world of technology when we and our loved ones are actually dying? But Gawande does not immediately answer the question. Instead, he launches into a more lengthy vignette about visiting the patients of Sara Creed, a hospice nurse. We get to know several people in hospice care and their various circumstances and the ethical dilemmas raised by their conditions. There’s dialogue with the patients:
“How’s your pain on a scale of one to ten?” Creed asked.
“A six,” he said.
“Did you hit the pump?”
He didn’t answer for a moment. “I’m reluctant,” he admitted.
“Why?” Creed asked.
“It feels like defeat,” he said.
Most of these vignettes contrast with the earlier story of Sara Monopoli because these are much older patients. Yet Gawande uses these stories to help us see the grave difficulty that doctors, nurses, and patients have when trying to decide the best options for end-of-life care.
At this point, Gawande returns to the story of Sara Monopoli, a story which serves as the narrative arc holding together the research and other shorter vignettes. It’s now Thanksgiving five months after the initial lung cancer diagnosis. None of the treatments have worked and at this point, Gawande thinks, Sara’s doctor should have begun a conversation about end-of-life care, but didn’t. As readers, we know that Sara and her family do not want her to die in a hospital, but we are starting to realize that is exactly what will happen. Gawande uses Sara’s story to allow us to inhabit a family negotiating the difficult ethical questions about treatment and quality of life. We rush, as if reading a nail-biting short story, to get to the next bit about Sara, yet we must also read about studies, research, and other short vignettes to get there. We are propelled forward, hoping to itch the scratch.
It’s a fairly long article so Gawande has space to cite more research, discuss a successful medical program that allows patients to stay in hospice while receiving some treatment, and write several other vignettes. And then he makes what seems to be his overall claim:
But our responsibility, in medicine, is to deal with human beings as they are. People die only once. They have no experience to draw upon. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come—and to escape a warehoused oblivion that few really want.
Gawande’s claim comes near the end of his essay. Sara’s story has given us a structural space in which to store the research and analysis offered. The claim retroactively to pulls together the overall ideas. Structurally, the individual stories do not matter as much as the overall narrative arc: Sara’s story. The structural power of the piece comes from the interweaving of story with reasoning, evidence, and vignettes.
Argument is a journey
Gawande’s essay and Newkirk’s claims set up a damning critique of the way much of argumentative writing is taught. Newkirk writes, “We can undermine critical thinking by treating the thesis . . . as the key to an effective argument” (45). Say what? I thought the thesis was the most important element of an argument, right? The thesis creates tension, as discussed above, and narrows the focus. But . . . in Gawande’s essay, the focus is communicated through story and subtle analysis. And while Newkirk doesn’t dismiss the thesis, he argues that too often we, as writing teachers and students, get too focused on placing it in the right spot rather than thinking carefully about how we will communicate the journey it took us to uncover that thesis.
Note the word “journey”—a journey is a story, like Frodo’s journey to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. Someone too focused on the placement of the claim in Gawande’s essay may miss the forest for the trees. They may only see argumentative writing as a claim followed by three points, counter-arguments, and a conclusion. They would miss a beautifully painful narrative arc that begins and relies on Sara Monopoli’s story until the very last lines:
“It’s O.K. to let go,” he said. “You don’t have to fight anymore. I will see you soon.”
Later that morning, her breathing changed, slowing. At 9:45 a.m., Rich said, “Sara just kind of startled. She let a long breath out. Then she just stopped.”
The final movement
I am arguing, along with Newkirk, that when we write we are asking our readers to come along with us on a journey. Even if this movement is not mentioned explicitly and even if it is not accomplished with literal plots, there is movement: a movement from one insight to another, the movement of inquiry. When we do not engage our readers in this movement, we lose an opportunity to allow them a window into our meaning-making process.
Midway through “Letting Go,” Gawande recounts how Sara Monopoli came to him about a secondary thyroid cancer which was, unlike the lung cancer, operable. Even though Gawande knew the lung cancer would kill Sara long before the thyroid cancer, he confides that he was unable to follow his own advice:
After one of her chemo therapies seemed to shrink the thyroid cancer slightly, I even raised with her the possibility that an experimental therapy could work against both her cancers, which was sheer fantasy. Discussing a fantasy was easier—less emotional, less explosive, less prone to misunderstanding—than discussing what was happening before my eyes.
This event could have been hidden within the layers of traditional argumentation. Yet, because Gawande makes visible the movement of his inquiry, we not only recognize him as a surgeon and an expert in end-of-life care, but as a flawed human being trying to make sense of difficult problems.
While we can try to escape our own stories when we make arguments, we most certainly don’t have to, nor should we.
Gawande, Atul. “Letting Go.” The New Yorker. 2 Aug. 2010, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/08/02/letting-go-2. Permalink: https://perma.cc/LC9U-DR7R. Accessed Oct 2016.
Newkirk, Thomas. Mind Made For Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2014. Text.
Papoulis, Irene. “You’re a belles-lettrist, and that’s no good!” How creative nonfiction has shaped and reshaped my composition pedagogy. CCCC, 8 April 2016, San Antonio.