That year I taught at the Kennedy School yielded the most unusual student I ever taught, the hardest nut to crack, and, in the end, one of the most rewarding. Anurada came to the essay-writing class after a tour in the Marines in Iraq, where she served as the lone woman in a hand-to-hand combat unit.
She stood about five-four, and weighed no more than 110 pounds. And except for the standard-issue student outfit of a T-shirt and jeans, she looked quite feminine, with a touch of the tomboy.
When she was seeking a subject for her essay, naturally I urged her to write about her Marines experience, but she refused. I asked again.
She continued to say no. “Play to your strength, Anu. You have a unique story.” She said no. “You’re squandering once-in-a-lifetime material.” She said no.
This fruitless exchange went on deep into the semester, until it occurred to me that I should treat her the way her other recent superiors had treated her, and simply give her an order to write the essay.
I became her CO. She came through with a stunning piece that was framed by her antiwar work after her tour of duty.
Know thyself. The Greeks didn’t restrict that piece of advice to writers, but writers cannot do without it. In embracing what she had most strongly resisted, Anurada did not merely find her subject in her life in the Marines, she found who she was.
That is what I want for all my students. Eventually, they will discover that their writing validates their lives. Somewhere in Inur’s exotic family history is an authentic self with an authentic story and an authentic way of telling it.
The same is true for Ana’s rarefied upbringing, and for Veronique’s work photographing street crimes, and for Jasmine, who “has never experienced anything,” and for Donna, Kristie, and Robert, who have spent most of their lives on Long Island, and for Diana on her parallel bars, Nina in her library, Suzanne and her Quonset huts, George in his limousine, and Sven in his warplanes.
The stories they discover in themselves will not depend on their adventures or the lack of them, but on more hidden things, like the fear of loud noises and their capacities for viciousness and betrayal and yearnings for nobility and feelings about justice—all the generally human things that define us.
They may not make their self-discoveries during the time they work with me, but it is my business to spot the revelatory moments in their writing, and to pause and say “Here you are.”
When I find something essential in their work, I am helping them get a glimpse of themselves. And when they learn to spot these things on their own, they will string the moments together sentence after sentence, and will begin to feel the shaky exhilaration of being a writer.
In the fourth week of classes we turn to their stories with such questions as the nature of beginnings hanging in the air. I tend to conduct my courses like a juggler with a dozen dinner plates spinning on sticks at once. When one plate wobbles and threatens to fall, spin it some more. Keep them all going. No topic in writing is independent of any other, and nothing is ever done with.
Excerpt From: Roger Rosenblatt. “Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing.”