|How to Live With a Host Family and How to Survive in the Jungle
By Sarah Ropp
From the faculty nominator, Kathy Flann
The semester that Sarah Ropp enrolled in ENG 226 Creative Nonfiction I, the course met once a week on Mondays. Classes began on a Tuesday. The following week, Monday classes were cancelled for Labor Day. So, as it turned out, I never met the class until three weeks into the semester. Not ideal circumstances! We communicated via email and discussion board for those three weeks - students completing their first reading assignments in spite of the fact that they hadn't yet received classroom instruction. I was worried about how they would handle it. But it was an interesting experiment in a way, too. How would I perceive the writing of people I had never met? Could I distinguish their personalities? Would they already have their own voices on the page? Voice is everything in creative nonfiction. If a creative nonfiction writer can create and maintain a unique voice on the page, we will hang on every word - even if the subject is cardboard boxes or the best techniques for flossing.
Within the first week, I was asking myself, "Who is this Sarah Ropp person?" She was asking insightful questions about the things we'd read. Her analysis was plain-spoken and yet sophisticated in its content. There was a hunger in her work for MORE. She almost demanded to know why these writers were doing these things in these particular ways. I became nervous. She was clearly smart. What would she be like in class? I've sometimes had experiences in which smart, perceptive students have been defensive and scared - totally understandable in workshops, where we make ourselves vulnerable by sharing work with a group. But even though it's understandable, it makes my job a lot harder - especially if the fear manifests itself as hostility, which also sometimes happens.
When we finally met, maybe we were both nervous. As we got to know each other better, though, we worked outside of class more and more. And what a delight it was. I'll remember those one-to-one sessions for the rest of my career. I wish I felt like I could take credit for Sarah's pitch-perfect skill with voice. We can hear her talking to us, the inflection of jokes and sarcasm, as well as the softness of sincerity and the breathlessness of bewilderment. I think maybe what I did was to call attention to things that she was already doing in her work. What was hard for her was to revise for purpose and unity, probably because her writing was so strong that no one had ever asked her to redraft anything the way a professional would. But she tackled the process with same drive and curiosity as she had the reading assignments.
Typically, the more work a writer puts into crafting a piece, the more effortless the piece feels to read. If you keep this in mind as you read the two brilliant pieces by Sarah Ropp, maybe you, like me, will find that by the end, you've dropped your jaw, the way you might when you've watched a gymnast flip and twist and land. It looks so easy that you almost believe you could do it yourself.
Read: How to Live With a Host Family
Read: How to Survive in the Jungle: A Bilingual Glossary and Guide
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