Example #9 Writing About Others

What if students could learn love and self-control through writing?

Writers often get their ideas for character and plot from real life events. There have been a number of cases where journalists have tracked down the people written about in famous songs or books. Ruth decided to use one such case in her English class to help her students think about integrity when writing.

“I told the story of Asne Seierstad who stayed with a bookseller called Shah Mohammed Rais and his family in Afghanistan for four months and wrote a book about it called 'The Bookseller of Kabul.' The book was very detailed, and Seierstad chose to portray Rais as a respectable academic in public, but a tyrant at home with his family. Rais sent his wife of 16 years away to Pakistan when he took a second wife, a 16 year old woman. He forced his 12 year old son to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week selling candy in a hotel lobby. Rais was tortured and jailed under the Communists, Mujahedeen and the Taliban because he was so committed to the preservation of literary culture. Although Seierstad changed the names in an attempt to protect the family they were easily recognised and Rais was found. When Rais received a copy of Asne’s book he accused her of betraying his hospitality and threatened to sue.

“I gave students two statements, asking them to say whether they agreed or disagreed with each one:

  • Asne Seierstad was a guest in someone’s home, therefore, she should at the very least have shown Rais a draft of her book before she published it, she did not show the family respect.
  • Asne Seierstad was highlighting a legitimate social issue, she changed the names and the family knew she was writing a book about them so she has not abused their hospitality.

“Asne Seierstad wrote about Rais and his family in a particular way because of her own views and background. We talked about ways in which her beliefs and thinking about the world and people would have to change to write differently. Could she have written about Rais and his family in a way that showed them love without compromising on the detail? We went on to talk about when we exercise self-censure and self-control when writing about others using email, social networks as well as more formal writing.”

What’s going on here?

Ruth saw her English lesson on writing as a way of discussing key issues that relate to student lives as well as the lives of authors. She focused on the ends to which students were putting their skills, rather than just giving them writing skills, and on the kinds of responsibility and self-control involved in writing about others.
Ruth engaged students in locating writing skills in the context of a provocative story that would face them with moral questions and emphasised activities in which students could apply the issues discussed to their own lives (the statements, discussion).
Ruth reshaped her practice by choosing a novel by a living author to focus on the author's choices and connect more closely with students' writing, and using story and moral questions to frame discussion of writing skills.
How do I do this myself?

What does this have to do with faith, hope and love?

Responding to Jesus’ call to love God and to love our neighbour means that other people should be treated with dignity and respect. This involves the exercise of self-control. Seeing people as neighbours, as someone for whom we have a responsibility, will change the way we use information belonging to them and the way we present them in our writing. We are not required to turn a blind eye to the mistakes of others, or condone evil, but we should not think less of people than Jesus does.

What difference does it make?

Self-censure or self-control is a quality fast going out of fashion in some forms of writing. Anonymity is too often used as an excuse to write irresponsibly about real people and places, especially online; new technology makes it much easier to track them down and expose them. Reputations are made and ruined this way. Highlighting the issue may help some students see things differently and reflect on the need for restraint.

Where could we go from here?

The issues discussed here arise in music as well as literature, and the question of how others get represented in music could be raised. Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan both wrote songs based on real people. In the case of the Beatles song ‘She’s Leaving Home’, McCartney was inspired by the story of Melanie Coe (http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=123). Bob Dylan’s ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll’ was also based on a real incident though its accuracy has since been questioned (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcmusic/2010/05/hattie_carroll.html). Integrity in writing is also relevant, for instance, to historical writing and journalistic reporting.

Digging deeper

Self-control is listed as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 1:6-8). Self- control is positive; it is the right use of our power to direct our will with God’s help. The Holy Spirit works within us as individuals and as a Christian community to develop self-restraint, self-discipline and self-control in what we think, feel and do. Self-control restricts some things in order to let other things flourish. Self-control is ‘taking the reins’. A person without self-control is viewed as vulnerable in the Bible – like a city with a hole in its walls (Proverbs 25:28).
Self-control is the exercise of inner strength under the direction of sound judgement that enables us to do, think, and say the things that are pleasing to God. Jerry Bridges

Explore similar examples:

What if a literature class helped students to think about choices?
What if competitive sports developed restraint?
What if design were about humility and thinking of others?
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1From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus. God himself chose me to be an apostle, and he gave me the promised life that Jesus Christ makes possible. 2Timothy, you are like a dear child to me. I pray that God our Father and our Lord Christ Jesus will be kind and merciful to you and will bless you with peace! 3Night and day I mention you in my prayers. I am always grateful for you, as I pray to the God my ancestors and I have served with a clear conscience. 4I remember how you cried, and I want to see you, because that will make me truly happy. 5I also remember the genuine faith of your mother Eunice. Your grandmother Lois had the same sort of faith, and I am sure that you have it as well. 6So I ask you to make full use of the gift that God gave you when I placed my hands on you. Use it well. 7God's Spirit doesn't make cowards out of us. The Spirit gives us power, love, and self-control. 8Don't be ashamed to speak for our Lord. And don't be ashamed of me, just because I am in jail for serving him. Use the power that comes from God and join with me in suffering for telling the good news. 9God saved us and chose us to be his holy people. We did nothing to deserve this, but God planned it because he is so kind. Even before time began God planned for Christ Jesus to show kindness to us. 10Now Christ Jesus has come to show us the kindness of God. Christ our Saviour defeated death and brought us the good news. It shines like a light and offers life that never ends. 11My work is to be a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher. 12That's why I am suffering now. But I am not ashamed! I know the one I have faith in, and I am sure that he can guard until the last day what he has trusted me with. 13Now follow the example of the correct teaching I gave you, and let the faith and love of Christ Jesus be your model. 14You have been trusted with a wonderful treasure. Guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit, who lives within you. 15You know that everyone in Asia has turned against me, especially Phygelus and Hermogenes. 16I pray that the Lord will be kind to the family of Onesiphorus. He often cheered me up and wasn't ashamed of me when I was put in jail. 17Then after he arrived in Rome, he searched everywhere until he found me. 18I pray that the Lord Jesus will ask God to show mercy to Onesiphorus on the day of judgment. You know how much he helped me in Ephesus.
1Here are more of Solomon's proverbs. They were copied by the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah. 2God is praised for being mysterious; rulers are praised for explaining mysteries. 3Who can fully understand the thoughts of a ruler? They reach beyond the sky and go deep in the earth. 4Silver must be purified before it can be used to make something of value. 5Evil people must be removed before anyone can rule with justice. 6Don't try to seem important in the court of a ruler. 7It's better for the ruler to give you a high position than for you to be embarrassed in front of royal officials. Be sure you are right 8before you sue someone, or you might lose your case and be embarrassed. 9When you and someone else can't get along, don't gossip about it. 10Others will find out, and your reputation will then be ruined. 11The right word at the right time is like precious gold set in silver. 12Listening to good advice is worth much more than jewellery made of gold. 13A messenger you can trust is just as refreshing as cool water in summer. 14Broken promises are worse than rain clouds that don't bring rain. 15Patience and gentle talk can convince a ruler and overcome any problem. 16Eating too much honey can make you sick. 17Don't visit friends too often, or they will get tired of it and start hating you. 18Telling lies about friends is like attacking them with clubs and swords and sharp arrows. 19A friend you can't trust in times of trouble is like having a toothache or a sore foot. 20Singing to someone in deep sorrow is like pouring vinegar in an open cut. 21If your enemies are hungry, give them something to eat. And if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. 22This will be the same as piling burning coals on their heads. And the Lord will reward you. 23As surely as rain blows in from the north, anger is caused by cruel words. 24It's better to stay outside on the roof of your house than to live inside with a nagging wife. 25Good news from far away refreshes like cold water when you are thirsty. 26When a good person gives in to the wicked, it's like dumping rubbish in a stream of clear water. 27Don't eat too much honey or always want praise. 28Losing self-control leaves you as helpless as a city without a wall. Don't be a fool