e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


winter wheat

On Saturday, a group from our writing program made the trek down to Bowling Green for Winter Wheat, an annual festival of writing sponsored by Mid-American Review. Individual sessions seemed uneven in quality, but I attribute that in part to the fact that I'm on the outside of most festival-goers (a lot of recent MFAs). But, as I still write poetry regularly and short stories occasionally and teach creative writing nearly every term, I figured the event would be appealing. My literary tastes diverge greatly from "MFA fiction," work that has a deliberate, self-consciously "good" quality. I like some literary fiction (Jonathan Franzen, say, or Wendell Mayo, who did a reading at WW), but I also love pulpy stuff like Detroit's own Elmore Leonard and of course the adolescent lit genre. And the party line at Winter Wheat certainly supported the "literary" stuff.

One session that stood out in quality and usefulness: 'Writing and Researching Your Family.' A lot of my poetry tells familial stories and the piece I wrote on my great-grandfather taught me more (about class, about Burke, about my family, about how to write an article) than I've learned from a writing project in a long time, so I was very interested in this workshop.

One presenter used genograms to describe the ways that she made sense of various family traumas. The presenter was researching her mother, who spent a long time in prison, and most relatives were unwilling to talk about the subject. She borrowed the concept of genograms from pyschotherapy and, literally, mapped familial relationships using the symbolism of the genogram. Genograms lay out genealogies in ways that articulate emotional relationships between family members. Using different kinds of connecting lines and different colors, genograms account for harmony and love as well as various types of abuse, neglect, and hostility. They are a tool of therapy, but also can be a tool of invention. Has anyone in rhet/comp written about this?

I plan to use genograms in my advanced creative writing course next term. I've never taught the advanced course before and I hoped to find ways to go beyond the tired "character profile" assignment (useful in the intro course, but a bit, well, cheesy). As my students begin to work on fiction projects, the genogram might allow them to create round characters but, more importantly, to think through ways that those round characters interact with others. You can map out non-familial relationships, too, after all.

From Wikipedia,
A genogram can contain a wealth of information on the families represented. It will not only show you the names of people who belong to your family lineage, but how these relatives relate to each other. For example, a genogram will not only tell you that your uncle Paul and his wife Lily have three children, but that their eldest child was sent to boarding school, that their middle child is always in conflict with her mother, that their youngest has juvenile diabetes, that Uncle Paul suffered from depression, was an alcoholic, and a philosopher, while Aunt Lily has not spoken to her brother for years, has breast cancer and has a history of quitting her jobs.

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