How Reading Contemporary Short Stories Creates Good and Empathetic Writers

This piece previously appeared in the spring 2020 volume of Expose: The Journal of Expository Writing at Purchase College.

By Emily Sausen

Image by Emma Reid, Purchase College ’20.

At the end of each semester, I share a New York Times op-ed titled “Don’t Turn Away From the Art of Life” with my College Writing students. In his plea for all of us to maintain a connection to the arts, Brown University Professor Arnold Weinstein references President Obama’s remark following the death of Trayvon Martin, noting that Martin “‘could have been my son.’” Weinstein observes that Obama was doing something that literature, and the arts more generally, do routinely—create a recognition of the similarities between us as people, or, as Weinstein says, “they show us the human record.”

The self-identification that happens in the humanities cracks students open and leaves them raw in important ways. It is merely one step from “that could have been my son” to “that could be me”— that character reminds me of myself, or my friend, or my cousin. This self-recognition stirs deep thinking, and with deep thinking comes worthwhile writing. Improving expository writing skills may be the primary objective of College Writing, but the way that we get there in my class is by reading and discussing the themes in contemporary short fiction. By the end of the semester, I hope that my students will not only have learned to construct a killer thesis statement, but that they will have built a greater sense of empathy and understanding for the human condition that we all share. Analyzing short fiction helps us to accomplish both goals, because it enables students to make the types of personal connections that foster authentic insights and to cultivate thinking on issues that matter to them.

Each summer I read as many new short stories as I can get my hands on, in search of contemporary authors of different genders, ethnicities, nationalities and socioeconomic backgrounds. My students have read stories by Jhumpa Lahiri, Dinaw Mengestu, Carmen Maria Machado, Junot Diaz, Jamel Brinkley, Alexia Arthurs, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Elizabeth Strout, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Alexander Weinstein, among others. I want each of my students to be able to relate to at least one of the readings during the course of the semester, and finding a variety of voices is the best way to ensure that I attain that goal. I also want the stories that I’ve chosen to be a first encounter for my students, for it is in that freshness that our most interesting observations emerge. Finally, I want the topics and themes raised by my readings to feel relevant and important to a group of freshmen. Our use of technology and social media, conceptions of race, family dynamics, platonic and romantic relationships, climate change, and pandemics are just some of the many topics in the stories we read together. Such topics touch students’ lives, and inspire them to write.

I find that short stories are also, on a practical level, convenient to use in College Writing classes because they give you a bite-sized glimpse into the lives of their characters. Skillful writers can develop rich and identifiable characters in a small number of pages by imbuing each sentence with great detail, purpose, and meaning. Compared to novels, short stories do not require students to read and analyze many pages before beginning to practice the essential skills we teach in College Writing: gathering and organizing textual evidence, developing arguments, drafting, revising, and reviewing our own and our classmates’ work. The themes jump out at you, and the payoff can be big, once students begin exploring their ideas on the page.

My students read the short stories that I assign as homework, marking them up in as many ways as possible in order to increase retention and engagement, and they come to class prepared to share their thoughts. We spend large portions of class time engaged in discussions about the thorniest issues. We talk as an entire class. We talk in smaller groups. We recognize the difficulties that the characters face, challenges having to do with racial discrimination, economic inequality, entrenched gender roles, immigrant families feeling stuck between two worlds, the problems inherent in social media and the feelings of jealousy, isolation and loneliness we all face in today’s world. We acknowledge the pain and the struggle inherent in the characters’ lives, and in life itself. We celebrate their joys, understanding the happiness that comes from new friendships, from accomplishing goals, and from overcoming obstacles, and we recognize in these joys the wonders of living.

When the writing assignments come, the students are provided with choices as to which of several topics, raised in the readings, they would like to address. I encourage them to choose the topic to which they feel the deepest connection, so that the time that they spend on the assignment will be more enjoyable. They go back into the stories to find material that relates to their chosen topic, and they isolate that material in order to start to see the possible categories of textual evidence relating to that topic. Through categorizing the evidence, students begin to see patterns in the text that can be turned into arguments. We discuss how we are using an “inside out” approach to getting to a thesis statement. Once we’ve found the smaller arguments, we think of larger arguments that could contain them. This is how we arrive at a thesis statement that is grounded in the texts. Because the students start with topics that they care about, they end up building arguments that matter to them. Expository writing is less of a chore when it concerns a topic that you care about. Sometimes, my students admit, they even enjoy it.

I’m not sure which moment is more exciting: the moment when I can see that a student has connected to a character or an incident in a story, or the moment when I find the story that I think will make this connection happen. Both moments are quite meaningful to me as their teacher. And it doesn’t really matter in the end. Both are part of the cycle of learning. We read to connect. We write to express the connection, and to better express ourselves. We find more stories, and the cycle continues.

When I share Weinstein’s Op-Ed with my students, I tell them it’s my final pitch for the Humanities, my last chance to persuade them to continue to enjoy the arts, in whatever form that suits them. I’m aware that I am preaching to the choir; these are mostly students for whom the arts will remain central to their studies, or an important part of their lives otherwise. But I encourage all of my students, even those who don’t intend to pursue careers in the arts, to keep the Humanities in their lives, whether that means appreciating a painting in a museum, frequenting the theater, attending concerts, or simply reading good fiction.

We’ve had considerable practice in that last one by the time I circulate Weinstein’s plea.


Emily Sausen teaches College Writing and the Advanced Critical Writing Workshop at Purchase College.





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