Creative Nonfiction in High School

Danny Stock

In writing a piece about GDS High School students’ first exploration of the literary genre creative nonfiction, it’s tough not to feel the tug toward informal candor, of front-porch storytelling—where you’ve let your guard down just enough to tell a personal story but you’ve got a mind to keep your wits about you in case your neighbor passing on the sidewalk overhears. And sure enough, before you’ve got two sentences, your editor is rolling her eyes, thinking “Get on with it!” and “What are you even talking about?” And that’s creative nonfiction. It’s an introspective genre that’s uniquely suited to the GDS teen: the conversational prose is smart, often witty, and reveals a willingness to think deeply about tough topics.

For Nadia Mahdi’s 11th grade English students, reading great American essayists like Adrienne Rich, Amy Tan, Claudia Rankine, and David Sedaris (full list below) inspired the writing of personal narratives that explore identity. Their pieces begin with phrases like “For all I cared..” and “I, like anyone…” Theirs are essays, like Ross Gay’s “Loitering is Delightful” that thoughtfully consider the “societal implications” of the narrative and take a deep dive with a “personal spin” into what Harrison Lundy calls “concepts people take for granted.”

Aliza Lubitz found inspiration in Sedaris’s “Untamed,” a contemplation on a family rift over a friendly neighborhood fox, to explore an “uncomfortable tension” over a troublesome pet with perverse rat-hunting tendencies. In her video reflection on the project, she discusses “Untamed” and Rich’s “Split at the Root” before reading a sample of her own piece.

Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” traces the Chinese American writer’s exploration of the different “Englishes” she speaks: that of her immigrant mother tongue and the English she grew up speaking in American schools. Several students responded enthusiastically to her piece. In Chandler Marshall’s video reflection, he explained the choice to write about his self-confidence in school and in track and field after reading “Mother Tongue.” Jeremy Margolis reflected on Tan’s highlighting of advocacy, advantage, and privilege.

Jonah expressed his appreciation for the “open-endedness and informal language” of creative nonfiction and the value of learning to “develop a thesis in a less purposeful way.” He reflected on his disconnection with his Jewish heritage in his essay, inspired by Tan’s “Mother Tongue.” “I may speak their language, but I don’t understand them,” he wrote. “I may know the words we must say to God, but I don’t know the message, only the patterns.”

Finally, Bryce Savoy chose to write about the creation of personas through the experiences we have. “Personas grow in the body,” he read in his video reflection, “born from the events that happen in our lives.” He incorporated the lyrical language from Judith Kitchen’s “Young Woman on a Fence” and the unflinching self study from Rich’s “Split at the Root.” “I, like anyone, have had these seeds planted within me,” he wrote.

Fiore Petricone reflected on the ways in which the conclusion of “Split at the Root” “felt very comforting.” As Rich closes her piece, it’s clear that she continues to struggle and “that’s okay—to not know who you are and to not know how you identify and to not fit into the boundaries that you think other people in life fit into,” Fiore said in his video reflection.

Sometimes the genre-defining personal narrative itself brought comfort to the students when they needed it most. The entire unit took place via distance learning during quarantine. Annie Rosenman reflected on the personal, open-hearted style of storytelling as Sedaris’s narrator befriends a stray fox. “It was so personal and made me feel connected,” Annie said. Ashton Brubaker used her own narrative to transport her to a better time, where she had the “carefree nature of a young child.” “For all I cared,” she wrote, “the background chatter was too far away to have any meaning...I didn’t care about the noise.”

Even if students had not found comfort or felt connected and seen in the text of these literary giants—even if they had not felt inspired to go on and tell their own front-porch stories—they had the chance, at the very least, to walk side by side with David Sedaris and a wild fox during a global pandemic through literature, the original virtual technology.

You can read more reflections, including Maha Paul’s on body image and expectations, Adam Mendelson’s musings on being an extrovert who loves to be with people, MacKenzie Jameson’s missing the school hallways during quarantine life, and Lily Singh’s “It’s been a few years” recollections.

Nadia was first introduced to the creative nonfiction genre during her two summers in professional development at the Bard College Writing and Thinking Institute. She notes that the valuable opportunities students have had in learning this genre are a direct result of the opportunity she was afforded, through GDS, to be a learner herself and grow in her teaching practice. Nadia and the students invite readers to join them as learners and experience the original literary pieces for themselves:

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