“School Daze”: A Memoir-Writing Course That Addresses Student Mental Health.…Notes From A ‘First Responder’
Elizabeth Stone | July 2019
A summary of the newest survey about the mental health of 67,000 undergraduates arrived in my email not long ago, and it was troubling. Dr. Cindy Liu of Harvard Medical School and her collaborators found that seventy-five percent of US college students had experienced “significant stress” the previous year with one out of five considering suicide and one out of four diagnosed with “a mental health condition” such as depression or anxiety.1
My own recognition that my students’ lives were more difficult than I had ever imagined came fifteen years ago, the first time I taught a writing course in memoir, though by then I was a seasoned college teacher. At the time, emotional distress among college students was less well-recognized and perhaps less common than it is now, but more striking to me was the fact that the courses I’d been teaching had never exposed me to my students’ lives in the way that this first memoir-writing course did. Seated in a circle that semester were students whom I knew from other literature or writing courses as fresh-faced high achievers who spoke up in class and wrote competent papers. But now they were writing about their suicidal thoughts, their memories of the suicide of friends, sexual abuse they’d suffered, their eating disorders, self-cutting, their money problems, family turmoil, uncertainty about their sexual orientation, and more.
I was stunned. Now, many of us in creative writing programs know, even before we meet our students on the first day of class, that by the last day, we may have to expedite a student’s access to counseling. But we didn’t know that then. As an administrator said to me recently, half admiringly, half incredulously, “You people, you’re the First Responders, the nerve endings of our community.”
To toss in yet a third metaphor—in my experience, the dark cloud of student distress has had a surprisingly ample silver lining. Fifteen years ago, what most struck me—and puzzled me—was that my students’ increasingly troubled writing was often matched by an ever-greater conversational buoyancy in class.2 The buzz I often heard as I approached my classroom before class became more animated by the week. And that, as they say, has made all the difference. As I continued to teach the course over the semesters, I saw another interesting pattern. After the semester was over, groups within the class found ways to stay in touch with one another, which didn’t seem to happen in my other classes. One group got together to curate and design an online anthology of their work that took them into the summer.3 Another group joined a moribund campus literary magazine the following semester with an eye towards revitalizing it. (And they did). Just recently, a student, now a senior, who recently took my memoir course (because she was involved in a campus-wide storytelling effort to build community) mentioned that the students from that class are the ones that she’s kept most in touch with.
No matter how difficult or traumatic the life experiences are that a student may want to share in workshop, the shared discourse about craft allows readers a productive generosity…
I am a nonfiction writer, not a therapist, and what we do in my classroom is nonfiction writing, not therapy. But I believe the opportunity for self-disclosure and response meets students’ hunger for emotional community, the same appetite that draws so many, like my former student, to the deeply personal storytelling at the heart of story slams and open mics on campus, and that attracts all sorts of people to “Moth” events and to the mobile “Story Corps” booths around the country.4 But writing workshops have an advantage over other such venues because they offer students a skill—a way to talk about writing and connect with each other as authors. No matter how difficult or traumatic the life experiences are that a student may want to share in workshop, the shared discourse about craft allows readers a productive generosity (and one that may helpfully sidestep awkwardness), and offers the writers the chance to know they are heard as they work to clarify and communicate their writing.
What moved me to stop merely musing and become more deliberate about teaching writing in a way that fostered student well-being was an experience—more stick than carrot—I had one night in class after I had given a writing prompt. I was walking around the periphery of the class circle glancing at what students were writing when I caught sight of a few phrases one of my students had written, leading me to fear he might be suicidal. At 9 p.m., when the class ended, I asked him to stay behind. I told him that I had read a few words over his shoulder earlier in the evening and was wondering if he was feeling he might want to harm himself. Yes, he said, he was having those feelings.
The counseling center was closed, and since my student was a commuter, there was no one in the residence halls for me to turn to, either. In the end, the student’s safety was assured, but it left me determined never to feel that helpless again. If I was going to have to be a First Responder, I wanted to be a proactive and prepared First Responder. I wanted to know the university had a 24/7 plan in place. I wanted to be able to alert a campus professional before the eleventh hour.
I read a lot, thought a lot, and talked with students, colleagues, administrators, and clinicians, including the director of our campus counseling center. The eventual result was the creation of “School Daze,” first and foremost, a memoir-writing course, but one that—in the course description students see prior to registration5—actually invites students to write about what is on their minds. As I said, I am a writer, not a therapist and so “School Daze” does what all creative writing workshops do—it provides instruction in elements of craft (scene, dialogue, voice, flashback, and so on), offers pertinent autobiographical readings for us to assess and use as models, includes strategic use of prompts, and so on. But with a little bit of customized pedagogy, and a little bit of reframing, the course, fundamentally a memoir-writing course, aims to enhance student well-being without lessening academic rigor. For those who might be interested, what follows are the parameters, practices, theories, and tweaks that went into the development of “School Daze.”
Quick Access to the Counseling Center
In developing “School Daze,” I spoke with three clinicians6 expert in treating college students, all of whom agreed that the students enrolled in the class (capped at fifteen) should have immediate access to the Counseling Center if they requested it or if I suggested it. Research indicates that “expressive writing,” meaning writing undertaken with the primary goal of articulating one’s feelings in an uncensored way, is usually beneficial, though it can on occasion stir up troubling feelings.7 Therefore provisions for immediate access to Counseling were in place by the start of the semester the course was offered, and were made explicit in the syllabus.
Expanded Penalty-free Withdrawal Options
All three clinicians I consulted agreed that students in this class should be able to drop the course without penalty at any time during the semester, and that option was arranged.
Most of my colleagues and I use “trigger warnings” in relation to curricular texts, such as readings or film. In feedback I got from students after offering “School Daze” for the first time, several suggested that provisions for “trigger warnings” be provided for student work. It’s a practice I will follow, especially because my college serves a large population of veterans, some of whom suffer from PTSD.
Organizing the Content of the Syllabus
Generally, in creative writing memoir classes, in offering models, I aim for a range of readings, loosely organized under neutral topics (like “Food,” or ”Winter” or “Animals”) and covering a range of craft elements, such as dialogue, flashback, scene, and summary. The neutrality of the topics has been deliberate. I intend neither to encourage nor discourage intimate self-disclosure, though the writing models themselves cover a wide range of experiences.
In “School Daze,” however, students come prepared to be self-disclosing. Too much too soon, may not only be awkward but having a chilling effect, so I attempted to organize the readings with an eye toward modulating the pacing. I had alerted students early on that I might be altering or re-ordering the readings—and truth be told, my original course calendar does not reflect what we actually did. Lena Dunham’s funny self-consciously hypochondriacal essays from Not That Kind of Girl (2014) came early on, and so did David Sedaris’s funny but darker essay, “Let It Snow.” That was followed by an excerpt from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” and after that, a writing prompt about what they were unwilling to carry: “When I leave for class, I leave ____________ behind.” The most developed piece of writing on friendship and family in college life, and the one students later picked out as their favorite was actually fiction, ZZ Packer’s short story, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” originally published in The New Yorker.8 However, this customized approach to readings led to several changes in writing assignments, requiring students to be flexible in a way that was occasionally inconvenient.
Group Activity Without the Instructor
Our creative writing program sponsors an event each year, a competition, where the members of each creative writing class (usually a dozen or so offerings a semester) perform a five-minute sampling of their work for their peers. The students enjoy the process of collectively creating this mini-performance, as well as the mini-trophies the judges distribute. In end-of-semester feedback, one suggestion I got, and will incorporate, was that I assign a group activity early in the semester to foster connection among class members.
Small Group Workshops Within the Workshop
In our Creative Writing Program, workshop courses are capped at fifteen. In “School Daze,” in addition to leading whole-class workshops, I also created small-group workshops—three groups of five each—with different members taking on the role of facilitator, while I circulated, available for questions and dropping in on each group once or two. At the end of the semester, I asked students to evaluate the small groups (from a low of one to a high of five). The average rating was 4.5, with students preferring the more intimate groups to the larger group. I wasn’t surprised. The small groups were advantageous not only because each student had more time for more feedback from peers, but also because the small group allowed for a spontaneous conversation among students who came to know one another quite well. In their feedback several suggested that while they preferred the small groups, they would have liked to have those groups shuffled up from time to time, a suggestion I intend to incorporate. From my point of view, the primary shortcoming of the small groups was that the students got to know one another’s lives so well that they often forget to imagine the exposition a new reader coming to the text would need.
You Saw Colonel Mustard Hit Over the Head In the library with a Candlestick?
Even in a course where students are invited to write about what troubles them, it is important to remind them—frequently—that they should not write anything they do not feel ready to write about or have classmates ask questions about. I also make it clear that it’s equally important for students in the workshop not to ask pointed questions about events outside the narrative simply because they’re curious. I offer the instruction lightly telling students that if they are ready to write about what they saw befall Colonel Mustard in the library, fine. We’ll all be very interested in that candlestick as well as the library, Colonel Mustard, and the details of the confrontation itself as well as what happened before and after, and the writer should expect questions on clarity, detail, scene, summary, dialogue, what it meant, and so on. As for questions about Miss Scarlett? If she’s pertinent to the story, sure. But otherwise, probably not.
Now for the Good News: Researchers Have Demonstrated That People Feel Better When They Clarify Their Thoughts to Themselves
Psychologist James Pennebaker, PhD,9 has demonstrated that when students clarify their feelings to themselves in “expressive,” or spontaneous writing, they may actually feel better, and others have shown expressive writing can be good for one’s physical health.10 In fact, the line between the literary and the therapeutic already appears to be thinning or at least getting a little blurry. In 2015, The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing ran an article by Carolyn Jess-Cooke entitled “Should Creative Writing Courses Teach Ways of Building Resilience?”11 Her answer was yes. An article in The International Journal of Mental Health Nursing asserted, “We argue that the rehabilitation benefits of creative writing might be optimized through focus on process and technique in writing, rather than content, and that consequently, the involvement of professional writers might be important.”12 Most recently, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a professor at the University of Puerto Rico who was “using autobiographical narrative to help her students regain a sense of control…”13To reiterate, Pennebaker underscores that it is not enough to ventilate. But that seems to me to be the same point Patricia Hampl is making in “Memory and Imagination,”14 when she writes, “It still comes as a shock to realize that I don't write about what I know: I write in order to find out what I know.”
The notion that one’s identity is inseparable from language is not new, but the idea that one’s own substantiality is bolstered in the act of writing was brought home to me in a way I had not considered through feedback I received as I was developing “School Daze.” It was offered by a student I’ll call Tina who, no longer suicidal, had shared with her class her experience the previous year of standing on a subway platform wanting to jump on the tracks as a train was coming but also feeling that she didn’t have the “right” to cause delays to the many commuters who would be “inconvenienced.” She had gone on to do her final project—a segmented essay—on her depression.
In her feedback to me, Tina wrote, “I have always been told and consequently believed that I am too privileged, too fortunate, not broken enough to experience any intense sadness. Depression was a special word for the girls who lost their fathers and best friends to cancer, the girls who watched their fathers walk away from their families, the girls who experienced trauma. I couldn’t possibly be on their spectrum; my presence would diminish the value of their struggles and mock the true melancholy in their bones. I was unworthy of the title of someone who feels unworthy.” In writing about depression, she asserted her own “worthiness” by insisting on the legitimacy of her feelings. “With the push I gave myself to write about depression, I no longer allowed it to control me. I named it. It’s mine… I have power over how it is told…. It is mine. I am not its. I needed to write about and have people read about my depression to fully claim it.”
More Good News: People Feel Even better When They Share Their Writing With Members of a Trusted Community With Whom They Share a Common Language—Writer to Writer
One student—I’ll call her Amala—had been working on her final project for several weeks—a segmented essay on friendship. But a week before the project was due, she came to my office to tell me she was changing her topic. As an adolescent, she had been sexually abused over a period of months by a clergyman with whom she had private religious instruction. She had wanted to write about it for a while, and now she was ready. She told me:
In this class, we [had] the tools we needed, and it was definitely an open space where we could try out a lot of different writing styles. We were practicing having the right lens. My other friends who weren’t writers didn’t know how to criticize my piece in the way it needed to be criticized. The thing I’m still learning is really getting to understand the tools I have at hand and being able to use them properly. I’m still learning, but I used what I had at the moment.
Somehow in this class we all knew we could trust each other, and we all started to dig deep. [Tina] wrote about a lot of scary things [see above]. Her piece gave me the most courage. After, I didn’t notice anyone treating her differently. She knew she was not going to be judged or sympathized with but treated as a writer.
As a result of writing, I find myself focusing less on the past and thinking more of the future. My own experience became more tangible to me. It became a piece of writing. Sharing it helped, especially the way it was received.
Reframing: A Bit About a Common Language in Memoir, In Which the Narrator May Not Have Agency But the Author Does
When I teach the literature of memoir, I regularly acquaint students with a bit of theory offered by Philippe LeJeune in “The Autobiographical Contract”15 that I hope reduces their sense of vulnerability. Since both autobiography and a novel use the same techniques, he argues that the way to prove that a piece of work is an autobiography is to demonstrate that the author, the narrator and the protagonist all refer to the same person. I use Lejeune’s framework to make the case to the class that the narrator and the author are distinct from one another in two important ways: the narrator may suffer and lack agency, but the author does not, and second, while the narrator and/or the protagonist live in the past, the author is grounded in the present moment. As a way of exploring how narrator and author differ, I offer them an excerpt from Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. Frankie, they see, is both a child narrator and a child protagonist, while the author, Frank McCourt is not and avails himself of a humor and irony that the protagonist, at least, is unaware of. Eventually, students come to see that in any autobiography, the author of a second draft likely knows more than his or her narrator does. The author is the clarifier, the re-writer, the manager of tone and diction, the arbiter of where the story starts and ends, the one who makes the decisions about scene vs. summary, about what to include and what to exclude from the narrative. In short, the narrator has the raw and sometimes difficult experience, but it is the author who gets to construct the narrative and is the master of craft. In daily life, we may not always know quite what to say in acknowledging someone else’s suffering. In workshop, as Amala realized, because we are simultaneously readers and authors, we can address a fellow-author who has both agency and craft.
Journals Make Excellent Raw Material
“Clarifying” oneself to oneself is a process rather than something that happens just because a thunderstorm of words hits the page. I do not generally ask students to keep journals, but for “School Daze,” I did, asking, that students write for fifteen minutes several times a week. It was a way of helping them gather up a variety of matters that concern them, but I had a second reason as well: I wanted them to understand concretely what Hampl comes to understands in “Memory and Imagination”: however rich and inviting an initial outpouring is, it is raw material, a mound of words a writer will go on to shape. Clarifying feeling shapes the writing, while the writing further clarifies the feeling, and so on, Möbius Strip fashion. As a way of suggesting to students that journals are a way of keeping track of feelings that are powerful but possibly evanescent till lucidly fixed in language, I assigned Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook,”16 especially noting her recognition that for her the function of the notebook was to clarify herself to herself, so she could “Remember what it was to be me. That is always the point.”
As it turned out, most of the students in “School Daze” were already “journaling,” and the others were interested in the prospect. Once they understood that journals were a source they could turn to when they were looking for something to write about, it was evident that matters of craft would come to their aid as they worked to clarify for themselves the meaning of their own experiences.
A Word on Good Manners
In my experience, students tend to be careful and tactful as readers of one another’s work and are rarely unproductively negative. Not a bad thing, since students have to feel safe with one another and to trust that they will be protected from ad hominem criticism. All writers are vulnerable to criticism, but I caution my class that memoirists have an additional area of vulnerability because there is relatively little that separates their own personal “I” from the narrating “I” of their text. As narratologist James Phelan once pointed out in an essay partly devoted to Joan Didion’s grief memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking,17 there is no room in nonfiction for an unreliable narrator. Probing inconsistencies or unintended contradictions in a narrative needs special delicacy because a defensive memoirist is then ill-equipped to explore nuance. I make this clear to students at the beginning and will intervene if necessary.
What Remains to be Done
My focus here has been on “School Daze,” a single course, offered only occasionally. With so many stressed and distressed students on so many campuses across the country, it will take collaboration in all our academic villages to make sure students in need of care are recognized before their condition become acute. On some campuses, for instance, students coming to the health center because they’re ill are routinely screened for depression, so they can be red-flagged before they are in crisis.18 But all universities, however well intentioned, are structured as self-enclosed “silos”—schools, departments, student affairs vs. academic affairs, etc.— making it difficult for them to easily function as a community for students. We know from experiences we’ve read about in the news that a student recognized as troubled in one quarter of a university can remain unknown to those in another quarter who can help, with tragic results.19
At any university, it is faculty who know students best. Ever since the tragedy at Virginia Tech, we’ve also known that creative writing faculty, because we are most privy to students’ inner lives, are among those who may be the first to recognize that a particular student is troubled. At my college, several years ago, a Senate subcommittee on “Student Life” brought together Student Affairs administrators, the Counseling Center director, and faculty to collaborate in creating brochures on mental health so all faculty would more readily recognize signs of distress (such as depression, anxiety, drug or alcohol abuse, and suicidality) and, would know what to do, what not to do and how to instantly, if necessary, connect the student with a Counseling Center clinician. After my late-night encounter with a suicidal student, I joined that committee. Now, the committee regularly updates the brochures, and regularly publicizes the information in them via in-person presentations at the Senate and other such venues. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.
Elizabeth Stone is an English Professor teaching literature and creative nonfiction at Fordham University. An award-winning writer, she is the author of four books, one a memoir, and many personal essays, which have appeared in publications including Gettysburg Review, Creative Nonfiction, The New York Times, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
- “SCHOOL DAZE: Your Friends, Your Family, Your Feelings, Your Future and Whatever…. “‘Know thyself,’” Socrates once advised. And current researchers agree. Those of us who write about what’s on our mind wind up feeling better. That’s because the act of writing is an act of clarification, especially when we write about those experiences and feelings, present and past, that puzzle us, confuse us, and possibly disturb us. As essayist Patricia Hampl put it, ‘I don't write about what I know: I write in order to find out what I know.’ She is one of many writers who have made discoveries about what their experiences mean to them, a truth you can readily see in her own writing as well as the writings of James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Lena Dunham, David Sedaris and others. Many people find it helpful to keep journals or diaries where they write about their experiences. This is not only a helpful practice but a way of gathering ideas you may want to draw from for the more formal writing projects in this course, a writing workshop which will emphasize the best techniques of non-fiction writing—dialogue, attention to diction level, metaphor, description, flashback, flash forward and so on. “
- The clinicians I consulted with are Jeffrey Ng, Psy.D., a psychologist and Director of the Fordham University Counseling Center; Susan C. Vaughn, MD, a psychiatrist and Executive Director of the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, and Victor Schwartz, MD, a psychiatrist and Chief Medical Officer of the Jed Foundation whose mission is promoting mental health and preventing suicide among teens and young adults. https://www.jedfoundation.org/
- Pennebaker, James W. Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. (New York: Guildford Press, 1997). Print.
- The research on the salutary effect of “expressive” writing is vast, showing it not only helps mood but also appears to help conditions including high cholesterol, high blood pressure and the symptoms of PTSD. See https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mind-body-connection/201603/expressive-writing-physical-and-mental-health
- Hampl, Patricia. “Memory and Imagination.” I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1999. Print). p. 27
- Lejeune, Philippe. “The Autobiographical Contract.” Ed. Tzvetan Todorov. French Literary Theory Today: A Reader. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982). Print. p. 194.
- Didion, Joan. “On Keeping a Notebook.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968). Print. p. 136.