Emulation 201: Crafting a Narrative

Thanks to Beth’s (cough, Penny’s) fantastic teaching strategy known as emulation, I’ve officially become hooked on the idea of guiding my students to actively apply best practices in writing so that their own writing can be enhanced.

My personal choice book right now is the beautiful written Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. The dynamic and lyrical narrator, Cal, shares with us her unique life story in a way that I’ve never seen before. Below is a quotation:

“And so now, having been born, I’m going to rewind the film, so that my pink blanket flies off, my crib scoots across the floor as my umbilical cord reattaches, and I cry out as I’m sucked back between my mother’s legs. She gets really fat again. Then back some more as a spoon stops swinging and a thermometer goes back into its velvet case. Sputnik chases its rocket trail back to the launching pad and polio stalks the land. There’s a quick shot of my father as a twenty-year-old clarinetist, playing an Artie Shaw number into the phone, and then he’s in church, age eight, being scandalized by the price of candles; and next my grandfather is untaping his first U.S. dollar bill over a cash register in 1931. Then we’re out of America completely; we’re in the middle of the ocean, the sound track sounding funny in reverse. A steamship appears, and up on a deck a lifeboat is curiously rocking; but then the boat docks, stern first, and we’re up on dry land again, where the film unspools, back at the beginning…”

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

A little background info: right now, students are writing a narrative piece about their childhood. We’ve emulated Lee’s writing in To Kill a Mockingbird a few times, and it has helped the students uncover the “lyrical” (second time I’ve used that word!) nature of a well-constructed personal memoir/narrative piece. They are in the drafting phase of the writing assignment now.

Back to Middlesex.

I took this passage and shared it with my students, and asked for them first to create a timeline on the board. It looked like this:


Then, we had a discussion about whether or not the passage would have been more effective if Eugenides had written it in chronological order. (At this point, one could engage the students in a sidebar on authorial intention/”what does ‘effective’ really mean?” type conversation here, but we only had forty-five minutes left. Too bad, so sad.)

At this point in the lesson, students started to figure out what Eugenides is doing in the passage and why it is so effective: the use of the film spool as a metaphor for the narrator’s recalling of her complex past/family history, resulting in a reverse timeline summary of the events of the first thirty-five pages of the text.

I challenged the students to write out a few events (three to five) from their own personal narrative in bullet form, and then we emulated! As expected, most students borrowed the film spool references to get started, but some creatively shifted the metaphor to an audio tape and even a Facebook feed (“scrolling down from the top, you see the first post…”)

It was a fun way to start a Monday morning!


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