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.

 

First Week Lesson: Demographic Grouping

During the first week of school, my goal is two-fold:  I want my students to see self-discovery through writing as their main goal, and I want to build a community based on story.  I use activities that encourage students to meet each other through the details of their lives. These stories and details eventually serve as the fodder for personal essays, arguments, and informational texts they will write later in the year. 

Demographic grouping is one activity which asks kids to group themselves by various identities and meet the other people in the room who share that characteristic.  The key to this activity — for both community building and self-discovery– is to ask kids who find themselves in a demographic group to argue for or against their own inclusion based on their life experience, hence stories. When they find themselves in a circle of Capricorns, for example, they need to tell stories and trot out evidence as they share the details of who they are or who they think they are.

For a 90-minute block class, I use three demographics: Myers-Briggs, Western astrological signs, and birth order.  I want students to share stories about what it’s like to be a part of these subsets of the larger population, and I want them to challenge or confirm their placement in these groups.  Do they agree or disagree with their “label?” What stories in their lives support or negate this assessment of who they are? Do the definitions fit?

The first demographic congress we convene is around the 16 personality types founded in Carl Jung’s theories on psychological types as listed on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  Students take a 10-15 minute quiz which will then place them in one of the sixteen possible combination of four paired personality traits: 1) Introversion or Extraversion; 2) Intuition or Sensing; 3) Thinking or Feeling; 4) Judging or Perceiving.  Based on their answers to the personality quiz, students will be given a four-letter personality, such as INFJ.  

Before class starts, I post the 16  individual personality types around the room along with a brief explanation of each type.  Once students have their types, they migrate around the room and find their Myers-Briggs compadres.  For fifteen minutes, I ask them to trade stories that confirm, negate, or qualify the personality type by which they’ve been labeled.  

In addition to being a fun, engaging activity which generates numerous narrative opportunities, I also get to see where my dreamers, my leaders, my risk takers, and my nurturers are. 

After that,  students divide themselves by their zodiac sign.  The Western astrological signs are based on which month of the year you were born. According to astrologists, planetary formations at the time of birth can determine a person’s individual character.  I’m surprised every year by how many students do not know their zodiac sign.  

Before class, I print off a generic description of each of the 12 signs and post these around the room.  Students migrate to the mini-poster that bears the symbol for their sign and join the others in the room who were born under the same sign.  As they did with the Myers-Briggs grouping, students spend about 15-minutes reading the descriptions of their sign (they especially love to read the section about relationship compatibility) and share stories in these groups as to how they are alike or unlike their sign. This is a great activity because it immediately creates kinship among disparate students in the class based on their birth month.

The last grouping I do is birth order.  All the first born, middle, youngest or only children get together in groups. I will have printed off descriptions of the characteristic of that particular birth order, and the groups discuss whether they agree or disagree with the definition of their particular rank.  Birth order is a great nugget of teacher information for me as well.  I know first and only born kids are often my natural leaders, and when I select group leaders for inquiry sessions later in the year, this information will come in handy.

Once we’ve circled through three demographic groups, I ask students to return to their seat and write a reflection of the activity, such as what surprised you about the descriptions? Did you strongly agree or disagree with any of the demographic groupings in which you found yourself? What was the best story you told today? What was the best story you heard today?   

 

When Memoirs are Terrifying, Vignettes Save the Day

While all writing draws on the imagination and memory of the writer, the personal narrative and memoir are considered by my students to be exclusively “true” stories.  Whatever. I’m from the “all stories are true” camp and try to discourage dogmatic adherence to genre rules.

However, from their self-reflections, I discovered that most of my students loath the idea of writing stories, either true or false, about themselves.

Here are some of their thoughts:

  • I do not like writing about myself in a mode that directly references myself as the person I am writing about.  – Jacob
  • I struggled with writing the memoir. I felt as if I didn’t have really anything interesting to write about. – Cynthia
  • I have always had trouble talking about my life. Perhaps this is due to my problems with actually remembering my life.  It’s an uncomfortable position to be in and quite honestly it [the memoir unit] consisted mainly of frustration and stress. – Harrison
  • The only things I can remember are hurtful, so I guess memoirs for me are just painful. – Boise

After reading these reflections, I decided to forgo the memoir and personal narrative for the vignette.  Students typically have written one or two memoirs for the “narratives, real or imagined” requirement in ELA Common Core standards, but very few of them are familiar with vignettes.

Vignettes are less about epiphany than about representation.  With vignettes, my students didn’t feel like they had to have figured out what grandma’s death meant or why their parents got a divorce.   Memoir requires the writer to have worked through all the pain of the memory and to have come out on the other side, bearing witness of the journey.  Most of the time, high school students are still in the journey and have no idea how to identify or testify about how events have impacted their lives. Vignettes allow them to remember something as visually and sensually as possible without unpacking and examing all the baggage.

Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street is a great model for this kind of writing. Her chapters are short, often plotless, slice-of-life moments which form a loose narrative about her childhood written in rich, poetic prose. The subjects range from hair to sex to violence to mothers to neighbors. Her language is lush and figurative, offering us a glimpse into her world without much editorial exposition.

First we read several of Cisnero’s vignettes from House and then wrote a few entries of our own, using Cisnero’s form as a model. After we’d written a dozen or so starts, we formed a list of characteristics that good vignettes share. Here is a list my students came up with:

v  Vignettes are short.  Some of the vignettes my students wrote were less than 100 words, but most pieces weighed in around 300-800 words.  The tighter and sharper the image, the better.  As one of my students observed, vignettes are kind of like the flash fiction of the memoir world.

v  Vignettes blend memory and poetry.  While the vignette comes from the subconscious as a memory, the prose of a vignette tends more toward image and lyricism than character, plot and setting.  Even though a story may emerge, the rich imagistic description of the memory is the key to the vignette. By employing synesthetic imageries and visual sensations, the writer transports her reader.

v  Vignettes are always about two things.  I often reference Vivian Gornick’s wonderful book The Situation and the Story in class and ask students to identify the “little S” and the “big S” of a piece or writing.  The “little S” is just the situation, the plot, what happens in the story. For example, in Cisnero’s vignette about shoes, the piece is ostensibly about shoes.  But, of course, nothing is ever just about shoes.  The “Big S” of the vignette, or the real story of the shoe chapter, is about the eroding innocence of her childhood as a lurid, sexualized world envelops her.