A Deer Killing Story: Moving from Experience to Narrative

Over two decades of teaching writing, I’ve discovered most student writers (and most adult writers) have trouble distinguishing what details matter and what details are extraneous during a first draft.  They may not know what details matter because they don’t even know why the story they’re telling matters.  Figuring out the significance of a memory is one of the initial steps in crafting a successful narrative about that memory.

Including everything they experienced without interpretation keeps the memory or story at the level of an anecdote.  It’s a yarn untouched by the powerful tools of narrative; it’s an un-interpreted experience.  How did this happen?  Yes, we need to know that, but “why did this happen?” is the most critical question a student can ask of herself. When students interpret their experience and recognize its significance and meaning, they begin to shape the narrative in a way that creates a greater degree of both personal and public use.

Here’s an example:  A boy decides to write a personal narrative about killing his first deer. So what? For the record, as a teacher in rural Kentucky for 15 years, I have read approximately 12,893 deer killing stories. Everybody has a “I shot a deer” story. But it’s the student who writes the “I shot a deer and here’s how it changed me, or here’s what I learned, or here’s why it was an important memory” that raises the experience to the level of a narrative through interpretation and witness.

When I worked as site coordinator for Rural Voices Radio, a National Public Radio program featuring students writing about place, I received hundreds of these hunting essays as we put together the program that would ultimately become, Sweet Home Kentucky.  The representative deer hunting story we chose for the recording was one that perfectly rose above the “then this happened, then this happened” story to become a beautiful narrative about loss.

In “POW!” by tenth grader Travis Dixon, he and his cousin, Jack, go deer hunting on a nearby farm. During the drive, Dixon says he is a “nervous wreck” and is glad when a Kid Rock song comes on the radio, so he can take his mind off of what he is about to do. They arrive at the farm and hunker down behind some hay bales to await their prey.  Unfortunately, they have no luck.  As it grows dark, they decide to go home.

As they drive away, however, Dixon spots a “big beautiful doe with a small fawn” standing in the creek below them.  Dixon commands Jack to stop the truck.  “My heart was racing with fear and guilt for what I was about to do.” He sticks his gun out the truck window (“illegal” he says) and shoots the doe, aiming high to avoid shooting the baby.  “You got her,” his cousin says. “Good shot.”  The deer runs about 500 yards and then drops in a briar patch.  The fawn, however, “just stood there in shock.”  Dixon and his cousin follow the blood trail and find the deer, “still alive and bleeding profusely from the bullet wound.”  Then Dixon comes to a critical point in his narrative. “My cousin did something that will stay in my mind forever. He cut her throat, and she died.  I just about cried for what I had done. I had taken this fawn’s mommy.”

It’s on this last sentence that the story turns. There’s no indication the speaker has made some revelation to put down his gun, become an animal rights activist and eat vegan for the rest of his life. In fact, if the essay had included those details, I would have been disappointed that this beautiful story had trivialized itself into a sermon.

No, actually, something more powerful happens. It’s evidence of a personal epiphany – that he recognizes the magnitude of what he has done and the emotional and personal weight of killing an animal. And with that last sentence, Dixon pulls together the narrative elements that move this story from being merely a retelling of chronological events and shapes it into a narrative.  By layering in the details of his fear, the long day of waiting for the prize, the illegal shot taken out the truck window, the quick and decisive moment of his cousin slicing the throat of the doe, and the vision of the baby fawn transfixed in fear, Dixon frames the story into a narrative that evokes the experience for the reader, moving us to feel the same loss and guilt. In fact, we experience the moment because Dixon sifted and selected the details guaranteed to move us to his inescapable purpose.

 

Generating Questions That Lead to Claims: 24 Hours with a Camera Crew

My students don’t remember an entertainment landscape that didn’t include around-the-clock reality shows.  More than 750 reality shows aired on cable television in 2015, 350 of which were brand new. From talent contests to quirky families to dating hopefuls, reality shows appear to be scripted, but in fact, they aren’t written until all the footage has been shot. During the editing process, the director and editors look for patterns, storylines, opportunities for tension and arcs as they create the narrative.  All scenes that don’t support the narrative end up being cut away, which is one way I often explain writing revision to students.

For the purpose of generating writing ideas, last week I asked students to pretend they had a camera crew following them around for 24 hours. Students recorded everything they did for the previous 24 hour days by jotting down a word, a clause or a phrase.  Instead of writing just “work” or “school” or “homework,” I asked that students write a short description of what they were actually doing as if a camera crew was shooting footage.  What was the scene? Who was in the scene? What were they doing?  

The key to this activity is to ask students to look at their own life as if it were a reality show, looking for questions, patterns, significant moments, and meaning.   Watching as an audience or an outside observer allowed students to create distance and objectivity. I also asked students to use a third person pronoun to refer to themselves instead of using “I” and always write “the subject, ” as in “the subject made a tuna fish sandwich.”  Once students compiled this list, we pretended to be producers looking at 24-hours of footage for a controlling question or a claim that could be proven or challenged by the reality of this footage. 

In the documentary film “Sherman’s March,” filmmaker Ross McElwee’s burning question at the beginning of his quest was:   how did Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s military approach during the final months of the Civil War effect the South today?  But right before McElwee embarked on a road trip to follow Sherman’s footsteps, his girlfriend dumped him, and the march took on a very different pursuit, namely as Vincent Canby’s 1986 New York Times review states:   “Is romantic love possible in an age of supermarkets, fast food, nuclear arms and the sort of lightweight camera and sound equipment that allows anybody to film his own life?”

In Elizabeth Barrett’s 2000 Appalshop documentary “Stranger with a Camera,” she states her controlling questions in a voice over throughout the story of Kentuckian Hobert Ison and filmmaker Hugh O’Connor: How is a camera like a gun? Can filmmakers show poverty without shaming the people they portray? What are the responsibilities of any of us who take images of other people and put them to our own uses? What is the difference between how people see their own place and how others represent it?

After students recorded their 24-hour camera footage, I asked them to look over their scenes and extract a broad controlling question. This question could render a multitude of great starting points for informational and argumentative texts.  Wording their claim or counter claim in the form of a question helps students see the subject from various angles.  A question requires students to assume a pursuant stance in order to answer it. Documentary film makers often call this a controlling question.  It’s the question that clarifies and focuses the shooting, production, and arrangement of the film. Here are some of the questions my students extracted from their 24-hours of “footage.”

How does one’s differing forms of entertainment influence their completion of everyday tasks? Can reading and music have a positive effect on procrastination and completion of school work? Do certain daily activities affect the quality of sleep?
How sleep deprived are high school students? Does high school wear down students? Is there really a life outside school for students?
Can being antisocial be crippling?

 

How does one balance dreams and reality and what is the price of trying? Does engaging with passion breed discontent for other things?
Are teens not reading books anymore? Are teens depressed? Are students riddled with anxiety?
Does a church community benefit a student’s overall day? Does politics have to lack good humor across party lines? Are messy people good at anything?
Why do we sometimes avoid things that make us happy? Can someone be social, yet not? Why is fiction such a great escape?
When does obsessive become too obsessive?

 

Can a person have a relationship with God without being religious? Can someone talk like a prick and walk like a good friend?
Is sloth bad? How does participating in a sport affect a high schooler’s life? Are stereotypes about teenagers accurate?
How can you balance school with everything else you want to do? Can a busy high school student still be content and relaxed? How does one withstand the mind-numbing grind that is high school?
Are teens too attracted to technology and their phones? Are we expecting too much from students? Why do some try to replace human interactions with non-living things?

Notice there’s a disproportionate number of questions dealing with fatigue, expectations, procrastination, technology, introversion, and social anxiety, all topics that weigh heavily on teens today.  I did this activity on the first day back from Winter Break, so we were all dying a little inside which explains the dark undertones of these questions. However, these questions make great starting places for both argumentative and informational texts, writing that is pulled directly from their lives.

Why I Write

In 2004, I left Kentucky to pursue a graduate degree as a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas in Austin. I was recently divorced, a walking crisis of faith, and I entered a program primarily peopled with students who were much younger. They both wrote and partied hard. I was reeling from a life rent-in-twain, reexamining every truth I’d ever held sacred.  Getting out of bed every morning and walking to the coffee shop around the corner was a victory.

I graduated from that program and returned to Kentucky in 2007. I came back with a new understanding of myself, the world, and my place in it. I now look back on those three years with all the grace that a decade of distance can bring to wilderness moments.

Another Michener Fellow, Jesse Donaldson, has recently published a book of essays, an extended argument to convince his wife to move from Portland where they presently live to Kentucky where he grew up.  Each essay is titled as one of the 120 counties in Kentucky. On October 22, Donaldson launched an ambitious book tour to read his book in every county in the Commonwealth. Yesterday he came to my classroom to read a portion of his book and to talk to my students about writing. He brought with him another Michener Fellow, Greg Koehler, a Texas poet, who was along for a portion of the tour.  

I teach writing in a creative and performing arts program at a large urban high school.  Students who audition and are accepted into the program stay with me for four years, so I am exceptionally close to the juniors and seniors, who were the audience for Greg and Jesse’s reading.  

Tuesday morning: my classroom was dim, lit by festival lights strung across the room.  Fifteen juniors and seniors sat in a semi-circle. Jesse read from his book and talked about writing with such wisdom and generosity.  My students listened intently.  I was aware of how proud I was of them, so smart, that they understood what good stuff Jesse was dishing out and were honoring it with their attention, their interest.

After Jesse talked, Greg took over and read a poem called “Kentucky River Dirge,” a poem he had written during our time in Austin, based on many of the conversations he and I had had about my longing for home, my own nostalgia for the land of my birth, and our mutual love for soil and all the metaphorical power of the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years. (Thank you, Wendell Berry.)

As he read the poem, I heard lines I had forgotten I uttered, emanating from a time and place I no longer visit, in a voice I no longer use.  In a moment, I was both 50 and 40 years old, both graduate student and high school teacher. Both the wrung-out, strung-out Austin Liz, and the contented, comfortable Kentucky Liz.

Of course, to my students, these lines were merely poetry. As if.

To me, they were sodden afternoons at the Crown and Anchor, so many cigarettes, so many Texas backyard midnight parties, so much reeling from the lost tethers of church and family, a reminder of my struggle to find footing by telling those stories of tobacco and smokehouses. Greg transported me, not only a decade back into my life, but to my childhood as I followed my father to the field, burning tobacco beds to receive the seeds, to my mother’s own stories of sleepwalking along the roof of the smokehouse.

And there I sat, in all my respectability, in my lanyard and my ring of keys, listening to an anthem of a person I once was, rolled out in language. Hanging in the air, among the lights, among my students. Actual words. Hung on lines of poetry, tied together in an activity we call writing. An activity that I ask my students to engage in daily.

I wanted to pitch myself headlong out of my chair and roll around on the floor. The revelation of this moment, the wrecking juxtaposition.  Worlds colliding. My precious students, my old friends, my memories, all occupying some metaphysical space in Room 303.

But even more profound was my wish to impress upon my charges that writing had the power to do all this, to transcend time and resurrect people we once were and allow us to live in both present time and at any time in the chronicled history or in history that has yet to exist.