A Writer’s Notebook: “This I Believe”

This week I’ve been introducing the writing process to my college writing students through a multi-draft assignment based on NPR’s “This I Believe” project. In class on Wednesday, I had them begin a quick 250-word “credo” to get the ball rolling on the series of drafts, and, like a good teacher, I sat down and wrote with them. Both the drafts I started are pretty awful (which is okay — these are still a rough drafts, after all), but I’ll go ahead and share one of them anyway. And after the bad writing, I’ll explain the exercise.

I believe in the power of the smiley face. It’s such a simple icon that represents such a simple human emotion, but it’s one of the few human emotions we all share, if not in reality then always in aspiration. As the Dalai Lama likes to say, everyone wants a happy life. And, if I remember the science right, the smile is one of the few universal facial expressions, transcending culture. It might mean slightly different things in different cultures and contexts — there is a famous example Alfred Hitchcock liked to use of an old man smiling at a cute puppy and then the same man — not even a separate image, but the exact shot we’d seen previously — smiling at a teenage girl, and how much of a difference context makes in how we respond to the smile. But generally speaking, we can intuit genuine smiles as expressions of happiness, and that emotion — visually stimulated — is, in fact, contagious. Seeing others smile makes us smile, which, by extension, means that seeing others happy makes us happy. The smiley face, then, is the purest expression of basic human compassion and the universality of empathy that I can think of. It represents hope for our future, it conveys the interconnectedness of all living beings…….

Blah blah blah blah blah — this has gotten really inflated really fast, and it’s out of hand. I need to rein it in and re-focus on the simplicity of the smiley face. Or perhaps that sentiment is too simple? No — tell a story about children, my own niece or nephew, for example. Talk about the smile project to surgically repair children’s cleft palates, perhaps? Something concrete — I, too, have strayed too far from the definite and am rambling into vague or grandiose abstractions.

For those of you unfamiliar with the “This I Believe” series, check out the website: thisibelieve.org.

There, you can also find some resources for how to write your own essay and how to use these prompts in the classroom, which is essentially what I’m up to with my own students, though I tinker with the assignment a bit.

For this first, sloppy, short draft, I have my students write a statement of belief, something small and personal and simple, something they can knock out in 250 words during a class period. A lot of them struggle with this — a lot of them reach for grander ideas or broader topics, even when they start out small and simple. And I don’t blame them for it: obviously, I have the same problem!

Still, it’s a starting place. Speaking only for myself, if I pursue this topics I’d definitely scrap everything I’ve written and begin again, which is precisely what I assigned my students to do for their second draft. Because that’s how writing goes.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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