Of snowflakes and teaching writing

Snowflakes, it seems, are not only alike, they usually start out more or less the same. But if this notion threatens to be depressing – it was only the happy eye of the nineteenth century optimism that saw radical individuality there – one can in the end put a brighter spin on things. It turns out that, while it’s true that snowflakes often start out alike, it is their descent from the clouds into the world that makes them alter. (“As a snowflake falls, it tumbles through many different environments. So the snowflake that you see on the ground is deeply affected by the different temperatures, humidities, velocities, turbulences, etc., that it has experienced on the way,” Australian science writer Karl Kruszelnicki writes.) Their different shapes are all owed to the different paths downwards. So snowflakes actually start off all alike; it is experience that makes each one just different enough to be noticed.

This morning at the breakfast table I read this passage from Adam Gopnik’s book, Winter: Five Windows on the Season, the 2011 Massy Lectures published by Anansi in Fall 2011, in an article titled, “Snowflakes and Icebergs”, located in my Spring 2012 Geist magazine.

Over our slow breakfast of eggs, and toast, and lush grapefruit, I am heady with the prospect of a Saturday with no work, with the weight of the report card period lifted, with the sun shining outside the window and with the poignant, sometimes painfully poignant, writing in the articles and stories I was reading.

One piece, Wheels, by Stephen Henighan, prompted a discussion about Greyhound bus trips. I relate a story about a trip I made as a teenager to San Francisco with a good friend and his girlfriend. We went the the summer before I turned 18, in Mike’s truck. We wrote Frankie Goes to Hollywood on the side in masking tape, because that’s  where we were headed and we were blasting the song, Relax a lot of the time. I don’t remember the other tracks.

I don’t remember why, but I stayed with my Aunt in San Francisco to take a temporary job with her, and Mike and his girlfriend went… home, I guess. So much of the trip is lost to the intervening (almost) thirty years.

This is why my trip back to the Central Interior of British Columbia was via Greyhound. All the way from San Francisco.

It must have been a trip that shaped me, somehow. Me, the snowflake, on my journey.

It would have been a terrible trip if I had died on that California beach.

I explain this to my students. A good narrative starts with a hook that grabs the reader. Now they will want to know how I almost died.

Or, was it a beach in Washington? Oregon?

I have also been talking to my students about how every story has to have a so what. This is something that has shaped the writer somehow. There must be some significance to the writer.

I don’t know what my so what is as I relate the fragments of memory to my son and husband.  But I have also told my students that the so what becomes clear sometimes as you writeWe learn who we are, I have written over and over on student essays and responses, when we write. I should learn who you are when I read your writing, but more importantly, you should learn who you are, and what you believe, and what your values are, and what has shaped you. 

This wasn’t a terrible trip, but there is a heaviness to it that I can’t explain. So.

I have quit my summer job in August for this trip. I don’t have enough money to return to university for the second year, and I can’t get a student loan, and I don’t know what to do next. Mike convinces me to live dangerously, for once. My parents are away on a trip with my younger siblings, so I don’t have anyone telling me what to do. I choose for myself. I take (steal) a box of canned food from their pantry, and steal a fist full of American coins from the jar on the fridge to add to my stash of money, throw caution to the wind. This is so incredibly out of character. The guilt of that theft stays with me.

The summer is hot. I experience a nasty bout of sun stroke. We have driven all night to get to the water slides somewhere in the Okanagan. After a day of running up the hill and sliding down the chutes, we head to a parking lot… somewhere. I take an nap in the front seat of the truck, my bed for the trip. When I awake, I realize I am standing outside, trying to get into someone else’s canopied truck. I have a bottle of pop in my hand. I have no memory of leaving our vehicle, of buying the pop, of returning to the parking lot where I had been sleeping. It’s a terrifying lesson about sun stroke.

Our truck breaks down in the Kootenays. Now, we can’t shut the engine off while on a hill. This gets tricky, later, when we reach San Francisco.

I remember sitting in the cab of the truck as we drove down the highway somewhere in Southern BC. I was smoking. The wind snatched my cigarette, and flung it toward the dry forest. I listened to the news all day, terribly anxious that I had started a forest fire.

We visit my dad in Washington. He builds us a shelf in the back of the truck to help us stay organized. We head for the coast and start to follow it to Los Angeles.

Somewhere along that coast I almost drown.

I am a kid from a farming town. I have never really spent any time on the ocean and I am ignorant of its mysteries. I am perching on a big rock on the beach, watching the sun set and soaking in the romantic atmosphere. Mike and his girlfriend (what was her name; Sandy, I think) are down the beach enjoying this romance together, but I am alone. Still, I am soppy with the emotion and power of the ocean. It is speaking in some way to my heart, my self. A reality check in the form of a massive wave hits me square on the chest. Romance is bullshit, it argues as I sit there dripping, and you are a fool.

Shaking my head and laughing and still not aware of just how foolish this ocean thinks I am, I head off down the beach for a walk. I am going in the opposite direction from my friends, who are engaged in that cliche of a kiss, sillhouetted against the sky. Another wave knocks me on my ignorant ass, and drags me out to sea.

The wave drops me, and I struggle to my feet, choking on sea water and sand. Before I gain my legs, the ocean returns to teach me whatever it is trying to teach me about its power, about my insignificance. (Is that my so what? Perhaps I am just learning that the tide comes in hard on some beaches?) The returning wave pushes my rag-doll body back up the beach; sand is digging into every orifice and stuffing my bathing suit. I struggle to my feet once more but again I don’t have enough time to escape the surf. The ocean knocks me flat, and drags me out to sea. I begin to realize I am going to die.

This is another strategy I teach my students. Show, don’t tell. Show your reader what it is like, don’t tell them. Use sensory imagery, figurative language, your thoughts and feelings and dialogue.

“Mike, help!” I scream at him when I have my breath back and just before the ocean sucks me out further. I don’t know how many times I scream, but I can see them in their travel-advertisement kiss down the beach, a mocking still-life.

At some point, of course, they do realize I am dying and rescue me.

We arrive in San Francisco and pull off the freeway to call my Aunt, who is expecting us. Later I learn that she called my mother to tell her we were hanging out in a ‘druggie neighbourhood’. She sets us up for a few weeks in a vacant apartment she owns. We smoke Camel cigarettes (aren’t we all that?) and see the sights.

Later, my friends leave, and I stay and work for her in her advertisement agency. Or, maybe it’s the ad department of a radio station.

I learn a few more lessons a farm girl had had no cause to learn. (Maybe that’s my so what.)

Nylons are expensive, and cost you one hour of labour every day because they get holes easily. My Aunt calls my mother to tell her how stupid it is that I always remove my shoes at the door and this is why I have to buy so many nylons. Well, that’s a Canadian compulsion. How am I to know?

I start to look for a job; perhaps I will stay. I learn that when you want to get a bus back to a destination, you need to make sure you get on the bus on the correct side of the street.

I decided not to get a job in San Francisco. I buy a bus ticket home with my wages.

I was not brave enough to meet all the strange and quirky people that there were to meet on that long trip home on the Greyhound, so I have no stories to tell on that front, no song to sing. This is something I accept about myself – I am not brave in every situation, and it costs me experiences. I got an extra seat for awhile somewhere in Oregon, stretched out and claimed the whole thing for as long as I could. It was a frightening trip in some ways, but I was very proud of myself that I did it, being a farm girl and all.

I haven’t told you everything I now remember about this trip, or the dark events that really precipitated it, or what the consequences were that flowed from it. I tell my students that as well; don’t feel that you need to lay bare all the secrets of your life. Share what you are comfortable sharing, and no more. Not all stories are for all audiences. 

But in the writing, I can better see how the events of my life are connected. I can see better how all the velocities, the humidities, the temperatures, the turbulences shaped me.

2 thoughts on “Of snowflakes and teaching writing

  1. I love this very grounded identity-work: “I can see better how all the velocities, the humidities, the temperatures, the turbulences shaped me.” I’m sharing your post w/ our English teachers, so much to learn from in your words. The identity-story-context arc reminded me of a project my friend is working on… check out some of the story submissions at http://www.myplacebook.ca/ Her project is open, e.g. you or your students are welcome to contribute.

    • Thanks, Glen. I appreciate your feedback very much. Writing (in public) is a new phenomenon for me, and I am grateful you took the time provide some further insight. Thanks for the link – I’ll check it out.

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