A Roundtable Discussion with David Ebenbach, Kathy Flann, West Moss, and Joselyn Lewis

Self-Authorship in the Writing Classroom: Helping Our Students Find Themselves

The world after college graduation—jobs, relationships, citizenship—demands a lot more from graduates than just knowledge and skills. Our students, if they’re going to thrive, are going to need some real self-awareness and the ability to make their own decisions. In order to get there, they’ll have to engage in a process of what psychologist Robert Kagan calls “self-authorship.” This means developing (in the words of education scholar Marcia Baxter Magolda) “the internal capacity to define one’s beliefs, identity, and social relations.” In other words, our students need to let go of the way that they’ve been defined by others and decide for themselves who they’re going to be in the world. Luckily, writing classes can be the perfect place for people to work toward becoming the authors of their lives, and teachers are in a great position to help.

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West Moss

When you were a student, did you have any academic experiences that were significant in your own process of self-authorship, by either hindering or spurring your efforts to define yourself?

David Ebenbach: In high school I took a creative writing class taught by a wonderful woman named Carole Nehez, and she did one of the most important things you can do for a person: she helped me find my voice. She helped her students in a number of different ways. First of all, she didn’t line us up in rows facing her at the front of the room; she put the chairs in a circle and we all sat in the circle together, which told us we all had important things to say, that we all could teach. Then, class conversations were free-wheeling and open and spontaneous, and she followed our lead when it was productive. One day, for example, it was raining outside and I asked her at the beginning of class if some of us could run around in the rain for a few minutes before settling into our chairs, and she let us do it. About half the class went, and we came back soaked and energized. But the most important thing was the writing, and particularly the journal writing. Mrs. Nehez required us to keep a journal, and encouraged us to write about anything and everything. She mandated a space for self-exploration. She said we had to do it, so we did.

Kathy Flann: The first experience I remember vividly related to writing and self-awareness is when I wrote a paper in high school about Julius Caesar, and the teacher accused me of plagiarizing it because it was so good. I was both insulted and flattered. I’d been going to Shakespeare plays with my parents since I was a child, and I’d had a lot of time to develop my own thoughts about them. I knew, from that accusation of being beyond my years, that I had come up with my own ideas. They weren’t canned. Even though it was a terrible experience, it was also an important moment. I often think of it when I teach. I remember how much one comment can affect someone.

West Moss: In one of my college lit classes, we were told to keep a journal of our thoughts about what we were reading. I met with my professor one day and he sat and read through my journal, quietly turning the pages. He hesitated and read something out loud to me that I had written. He said, “Is this YOUR idea?” I was confused and said that yes, it was. He got a tear in his eye and a big smile on his face. He sat forward and said, “West, what a brilliant insight.” I was eighteen and I burst into tears. It was as though someone had finally seen what I had suspected but had been unable to confirm until then: namely, that I had ideas that were worthwhile. This was a turning point in my sense of myself as a student and thinker, with ideas of my own to contribute to the larger discussion.

Joselyn Lewis: During the last semester of my senior year in college, I was writing a thesis as part of the graduation requirements in my major. The professor leading the thesis capstone seminar was a very established and respected faculty member in the department, someone I admired greatly and found to be an engaged and supportive educator, but also someone who intimidated me. I disagreed with his opinions at times, but struggled with confidence as to whether or not I had something of value to say and how to express my perspective to him. One day during a whole class discussion, while we were workshopping my classmate’s paper, I suggested that the main premise of her thesis was based on some mistaken cultural assumptions. When my professor supported my classmate’s position, the discussion turned into a direct debate with him and I realized I was very passionate about my take on the issues. I stood my ground and while he did not come around to my perspective, I left class shaking from having tried, but still convinced that I was right.

That afternoon, I had a scheduled check-in with my advisor where I relayed the events from class earlier in the day. He could hear the emotion in my voice and the importance of this argument to me. He did not tell me that he agreed with me or that he thought I was right, but for me, he did something even better. After he heard me out, the first thing he said was “Have you ever considered going to graduate school? I think you should.” Graduate school was actually not on my radar prior to that exchange, but my advisor’s reaction to me at that moment changed everything. I started seeing myself as someone who was capable of that level of academic work and as someone who had something to contribute. It was very significant.

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David Ebenbach

How can writing—and particularly creative writing—help people on their journey toward self-authorship?

Kathy Flann: I think a creative writing workshop is the one place where students really do make their own decisions about the work they produce. Typically, faculty are most sincere in those classes about the carte blanche to make the work what they want it to be, and students sense that sincerity. They know the work is “real” in the sense that it could potentially be read by people just like them—fans of fiction. So they take the work of craft very seriously. They think of themselves as “real” writers in ways they may not in other disciplines.

Joselyn Lewis: I think writing can be supportive of our process of identity development and self-authorship in a number of ways. Writing can create space to slow down. That change in pace between writing and other ways we might communicate about ourselves and interact with others allows for a space that is more conducive to self-reflection and self-analysis. Also, writing, and perhaps creative writing in particular, requires an attention to voice in a way that often encourages the writer to work on finding their voice, recognizing and owning what kind of voice one has and how one wants to use it.

David Ebenbach: Some writing is direct self-authorship. For example, memoir and poetry can be places where you try to get a grip on your own story and make sense of it, and come to conclusions about it. It’s almost the same case with fiction and playwriting if it’s thinly veiled autobiography. But that’s just the obvious stuff. Even fiction that has no direct correspondence to your own life can spur the process of self-authorship. Maybe you drop a character into a moral conundrum and work them through it and, in so doing, discover how you feel about that situation; maybe you just can’t stop writing about loss (or connection, or faith, or struggle, or whatever it is); maybe you let characters do things you would never dare to do (or think you would never dare to do). In each case you learn something about what matters to you. Writing allows you to talk about the world, or a world, anyway, and then you learn—by comparison, by contrast—about your own world.

West Moss: I think I answer this below.

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Kathy Flann

How can a teacher support the process of self-authorship?

Joselyn Lewis: From my experience, educators who are able to create intentional ways for students to connect academic material to their own lived experiences provide students with both powerful opportunities to further develop their own self-authorship and powerful learning experiences. Some faculty I work with do this by assigning writing assignments that explicitly ask students to bring themselves into conversation with course material—a faith autobiography for a religion class, or a weekly reflection journal, for example. The writing process is a supportive element as well as the sharing between student and teacher and what that sharing sets up in terms of the student feeling “seen” by the teacher. Another way to support the process of students’ self-authorship is to model or share experiences from our own trajectory toward self-authorship. It’s particularly helpful if teachers are willing to share some of the obstacles or difficulties in the process, so students can see the complexity, potential messiness, and non-linear nature of identity development and movement toward self-authorship.

Kathy Flann: What I do is spend the first 3-6 weeks, depending on the level of the student, assigning ungraded work. Every time the student says, “Did you like it? Did I do well on it?” I say “Do YOU like it?” I explain as many times as it takes that they’re not writing for me. I say, “If you don’t like your work, probably no one else will like it, either.” I use my own writing experiences as examples in class, so that they will understand that we are all writers. We are just at different points on our journeys. I love it the most when I sit side-by-side with students who’ve come to my office and I ask them questions, “What does this guy want? Does he have a job? What does he do? Who is his family? What did he do yesterday? Why?” etc. It’s fun to see the student grasp that the answers are there in the mind. I think they also see that they, the students, are the only ones with the answers to these questions. I can guide, but I can’t provide the answers.

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Joselyn Lewis

David Ebenbach: I think teachers can help students grow into themselves in two ways: by making space for the process and by challenging them to engage. Like Carole Nehez, my high school creative writing teacher, you can set up the classroom and in-class time to bring out voices—sitting in a circle, using first names, letting students do a lot of the talking—and you can use exercises that invite exploration: discussions based around student perspectives and experiences, journal-writing, reflection papers, writing assignments that ask them to tell childhood stories. In terms of writing exercises, I like to start with emotionally easy stuff (e.g., write a detailed physical description of a place you associate with your childhood) and then move to more fraught prompts (e.g., write a scene in which someone you really don’t like does something unexpectedly nice).

In some classes, I build up to an assignment called “Write the story you’re not allowed to write,” which I first encountered as a sentence in a Janet Burroway textbook and which I’ve elaborated on quite a bit. Some of the options for the assignment: “Write a fictionalized version of some true events that you are not supposed to reveal to the world….Write about something that is taboo for you….Don’t pick what’s taboo for others—go for what makes you squirm….Write sympathetically from the point of view of a protagonist who makes you genuinely uncomfortable. This would be the kind of person that secretly on some level you can relate to or might even wish to be, even though officially you completely disapprove of this kind of person.” Nobody is required to do this assignment—I give them an alternative—but almost everybody chooses to do it, and usually they find that they’re discovering important things, surviving those discoveries, growing from those discoveries, and, on top of that, writing the most promising thing they’ve written all semester long.

West Moss: There are ways to make the classroom feel safe for students to share their ideas, and to discover what they think about the world. Certainly listening carefully and giving genuine supportive responses is key, but also pushing them to write about their own worlds is often fruitful. In creative writing classes, I often begin class with brief (2-3 minute) in-class writing exercises, where I ask them to write about things they’ve noticed that morning, or interactions from years ago that they still think about. When shared, these things help build a community within the classroom, but they can also show beginning CW students that their own lives provide rich material for writing.

I have an assignment called “The Lies Our Characters Tell.” We read a short story together, something very short like John Cheever’s “Reunion,” for example, and look at how a particular character is lying (often to themselves) about themselves. For instance, the father in that story says that he cares about his son, but his actions show that he doesn’t. These small moments of dishonesty in characters can be revelatory for students, and demonstrate the kinds of inner conflicts we want our characters to display.

Next, students make a list of the stories they told about themselves when they last met someone new. What clothes did they wear and what “story” were they trying to tell with those clothes? Were they trying to look sexy, athletic, wealthy? Did they want to look like they didn’t care in some way, while actually caring very deeply about what people thought of them? Could they see the inner-conflict inherent in some of their own choices? Then I ask them to write down some of the actual stories they tell about themselves. Do they lead with their summer in France, or do they lead with their most recent awful break-up? Do they find stories to tell that make it clear they come from money, or do they prefer to immediately disclose that they were adopted, and why?

Then they’re asked to reflect on what these clashes between who they really are and who they portray themselves to be tell them about themselves. Does it reveal that they want something they don’t feel they can have? Does it reveal their senses of inadequacy or mastery in some way? One’s sense of identity, and one’s own understanding of small, potent conflicts in their own world, are essential underpinnings of compelling writing, but perhaps also of being a full human being.

These kinds of insights lead to several good outcomes. First, beginning CW students often feel they have to rely on large conflicts (explosions, wars, the death of a protagonist) in order to build tension in their stories. These exercises show them the kinds of small tensions that are real and universal, and that will help them to build characters that their readers will care about. More importantly, though, they help students in their own awareness of “self,” which is a critical sense for writers to develop. These are the kinds of tools, too, that I like to think I am giving them to use in life in general…the skill of reflection, of “noticing,” and a sense that their lives, and ideas, are thrilling and complex and moving enough to be at the center of their writing, and of their consciousness.


David Ebenbach is the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved and the story collection Into the Wilderness. He is a Professor of the Practice in Creative Writing at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization and the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship.

Kathy Flann‘s short story collection, Get a Grip, won the George Garrett Award and was released by Texas Review Press. A previous collection, Smoky Ordinary, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and was published by Snake Nation Press. For five years, she taught creative writing at the University of Cumbria in England, where she created mini-courses for the BBC’s Get Writing website and served on the board of the National Association of Writers in Education. She is an associate professor at Goucher College in Maryland.

Joselyn Lewis is an Associate Director for Inclusive Teaching and Learning Initiatives at Georgetown University’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship. She leads the Engelhard Project and the Doyle Faculty Fellowship Program, which promote curricular and pedagogical innovation on issues of well-being, diversity, and inclusive pedagogy.

West Moss teaches creative writing at William Paterson University and at Gotham in New York City. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post, Salon.com, Brevity, and elsewhere. Her collection of short stories, The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, was published by Leapfrog Press.

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