Friday, May 10, 2019

Literature is Filled with Misfits


I work with college students, more specifically, emerging college students, so they are constantly on the cusp of things that are coming to them. We develop skills, we tell them that they need to improve just to cut it in college. We also tell them about what it means to have a traditional college experience. In reality, a traditional college experience is a myth. We aren't going to live in some kind of strange 1950's vision of academics. 

Our emerging students are not traditional at all. They have had to fight, push, and work much harder than the people around them. In fact, in most cases the students are satisfied just blending in, just being around a higher education experience. They can be self-defeating, battered, wounded learners. 


I've read The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch and I admired her unabashed honesty and the focus of her writing. It was one of the first memoirs that changed the way I think about the form. More important, her writing has connections to failures and finding the most unlikely paths to success. Having followed Lidia Yuknavitch on Twitter, I received a message from her that we all should post our misfit manifesto out to the world and diminish the voice of abusive people. What a great idea. They need to do this. They need to tell me more than what could be gleaned in college writing. They need to write a Misfit Manifesto. They need to write about how improbable success is to them, and how terrifically they have failed. 


 

When I wrote the assignment sheet for the students, I felt like I had to give them some really good examples of this idea. I used samples from The Mistfit's Manifesto, and I also spoke about specific stories where people feel different and why they may feel this way. Not only was I asking them for specific misfit moments in their lives, I was also asking them to be introspective and thoughtful about their place in the world. 


It was really interesting to hear the reactions to this concept. Some students really didn't understand how this idea would fit into their lives. They had spent so much time assimilating that to think about those misfit moments or times was really part of their lives they didn't want to reveal. But my favorite response was, "Shit, this is going be the easiest assignment you've given us. I've been a screw up all my life." I couldn't wait for that essay. 


One thing I really wanted from them was a personal statement. Not a college application essay, but something unique to their own experience. I told them it is easy to find collective success, but mistakes and other missteps in life are uniquely their own. It reminded me of the Tolstoy quote at the beginning of Anna Karenina when he says, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." 


We also discussed what misfits look like in literature, what they felt like in words. We discussed movie characters, and experiences they saw in the world. We talked about Holden Caulfield, Of Mice and Men, and superheroes. We also discussed time and space for misfits. "Literature is the land of  the misfitted." (The Misfit Manifesto).


Most of the essays were simple. They were small things that made them different. For some, it was a bully story or a changing school story. But the story I liked the most was the story from the student who said this is will be easy. And he wrote about being with a group of friends who all got along, and slowly they all turned on him. And for years he was picked on, beat up, and told that he was worthless. And through it all - he somehow, kept it together and waited out his time until he was able to prove himself to the world. That is what he is doing now. It was one of the deeper stories where something held him on a path that (amazingly) wasn't beaten out of him. He never turned. 


As we got through the assignment, I asked that he had a few minutes, I wanted to discuss his paper. He came to the office and was nervous. He asked if there was anything wrong. I showed him the grade. He smiled and said thank you. I told him earned it, from year and years of not giving in. He didn't say anything for a minute -- he flipped the paper over and said, "all that shit's behind me now." 


As I mentioned, some writers played it safe, some played it with some uncertainty, but they all considered their lives with a different slant. In one student paper, it was clear that it might've put to bed some ghosts. Yuknavitch says, "If you are one of those people who has the ability to make it down to the bottom of the ocean, the ability to swim the dark waters without fear, the astonishing ability to move through life's worst crucibles and not die, then you also have the ability to bring something back to the surface that helps others in a way that they cannot achieve themselves." This assignment is difficult because you are asking people to look at their darker side, their past, their missteps, and wrong fits. The other paper that I really admired was a letter that a student wrote to his future grandchildren - explaining how screwed up the world is and how - if they are reading this - they should be in a better place. And that he was a good person who cared and wanted to right the wrongs of the world. I thought that was a noble approach to his life. 

My students did a good job thinking about this idea. And when you read Lidia Yuknavitch explain her life in The Chronology of Water, you can get a sense of how we have all lived our own misfit lives and why they are so important. It reminds me that we need to be brave, creative, and take risks with our students. Some will feel challenged and frustrated but think of those who needed it most. They've been waiting for a long time to say these things. 


Try it in the class, try it in your writing groups, write your own manifesto. It will change the way you see the world. 




Note: Another writing prompt that taps into some significant reflections is Letter to Humanity or this project I worked on awhile back. It is a great tool for reflective nonfiction. Letters to Humanity