Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fiction as a Springboard for Expository Writing

“Literature offers feeling for which we do not have to pay. It allows us to love, condemn, condone, hope, dread, and hate without any of the risks those feelings ordinarily involve, for even good feelings—intimacy, power, speed, drunkenness, passion—have consequences, and powerful feelings may risk powerful consequences.” (Burroway, Writing Fiction) For many readers this is the draw of fiction—the vicarious emotional experience. Yet fiction does more than allow a reader to feel; it allows the reader to connect with others and to search for an understanding of life and life’s events. In John Gardner’s classic, The Art of Fiction, he states that "the value of great fiction…is not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.” The key to filling the human need to explore life and connect with others is by tapping into reader emotion and then in turn to the intellect.

That meeting place of creativity and intellect is unique to fiction. It is the creative nature of fiction that makes reading novels evoke an “afferent” process—meaning students put themselves in the work. (Rosenblatt, Theoretical Models and Processes, pp. 1057-1092, 1994) Once the student is immersed in the story, fiction’s distinct capacity to illuminate the human condition by fostering the interconnection of mind and spirit provides the opportunity to pull readers through explorations of universal themes while also speaking culturally, offering glimpses into different values, traditions, and life issues. This combination of characteristics invites discussion and critical thinking, two elements essential for successful expository writing.

Using fiction in expository writing courses gives students a way to reflect on previous perceptions and gain new perspectives. Josh Boyd, in his article, A Different Kind of [Text]Book: Using Fiction in the Classroom, notes,“ Novels…provide a different reading experience than do typical textbooks, a reading experience that can lead to student critical engagement with high-order questions.” (Communication Education v. 53 n. 4). Many social issues can be explored through novels. For example, works like THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz and THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker touch on the universal themes of struggling for personal identity and self acceptance while dealing with external conflicts such as racism and political. Such works provide a springboard for reflection, discussion, analysis, and writing.

Fiction related course assignments can include ongoing reflective journals, identifying universal themes and issues within the novel and using them to analyze current events, and student-led discussions exploring “what ifs” in regard to character decisions.

The benefits of assigning novels in expository writing courses are many. They include not only more lively course discussions, accompanied by deeper thinking, but also the fostering of student writers who are emotionally connected to their topics and intellectually invested in their writing.

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