The blue walls of Prof. John Rubadeau’s office are covered with faces.
Overlaid on every spare space of the room, pirouetting from the ceilings like plastic pinwheels, they’re the smiling faces of students from long past and present-day — students in graduation hats, in party clothes, sitting, standing – all with stories to tell of their time as an undergraduate in Rubadeau’s class.
“I tease him — it reminds me of one of those crime dramas, except in a sweet way, of course,” said LSA senior Laura Hlebasko, who took Rubadeau’s highly popular class, Advanced Essay Writing, last semester.
Rubadeau, a tall, Santa Claus-bearded man in jeans and glasses, strides into his office and takes a seat. He pulls out a Tupperware container to reveal a lunch of celery and yogurt. Surrounded by all the glossy photographs of his past students, he looks as if he belongs.
Animatedly gesticulating to each of the hundreds of pictures on his walls, Rubadeau connects the stories written by the individuals behind the smiling visages — the worries and doubts of a breast reduction patient, a gay student’s first sexual experience in Prague, a boy’s complicated relationship with his brother, a student’s simple reflection about co-ed dorms at the University.
In Rubadeau’s class, each of these remarkable personal stories has been given a second life, indelibly crystallized on the page. Each story, when taken alone, forms an isolated tale, like the uniquely individual features on each face. When gathered together like this, dangling from the ceilings and plastered on the walls, the students and their stories make up something larger, communicating themes of love, lust and loss to the world beyond.
Such is the power of a personal essay. And this is the story of a class that makes it all happen.
I write, therefore I am
In an age when students take refuge in the fantasy lives of shiny vampires and Swedish girls with dragon tattoos, the self — or the ego, as Freud would say — can start to feel a little neglected. This is clearly manifested in the places that we frequent: In some libraries, the nonfiction section is relegated to the back of the dusty tomes, an amalgam of travelogues, biographies and memoirs thrown haphazardly together, while fiction gets neatly subdivided into its own genres of mystery, romance, horror, classics.
In the Hopwood Room, a small wood-paneled space in Angell Hall where literary awards totaling $120,000 are doled out every year, the lonely little stack of “Nonfiction” submissions is towered over by each of the “Fiction: Short Story” and “Poetry” piles. Since the Hopwood Awards’ inception in 1931, submissions to the “Nonfiction” category have consistently taken last place — their number reaching a mere average of 40 per semester. At times, the category receives so few submissions that the judges can fail to award a recipient for that year altogether, according to Hopwood Assistant Director Andrea Beauchamp.
Why do people shy away from formally revealing their interior lives to the public sphere? Though we live in a culture where the reality show is king and confessional Tweets and Facebook statuses get updated at the punch of a button, the popularity of the personal memoir has somehow fallen by the wayside for University students so used to informal methods of communication and soul-sharing.
But nonfiction possesses an element that fiction only provides a pale imitation of: authenticity. Rubadeau said that a personal essay gives the writing more authority.
“Oftentimes, reality is so much more interesting, so much more captivating, so much more edifying than fictional stories are,” he said.
But the fear of writing such a piece perhaps derives from a hesitance to look at an individual life through the lens of a bystander.
“The biggest problem people have is that they realize, ‘Oh my god, I’m writing about real people — they might read this,’ ” said Prof. Eileen Pollack, director of the MFA in Creative Writing Program. “There’s a certain shyness about what you’re revealing or not revealing about yourself. People are very, very squeamish about writing about other people.”
A personal memoir is as much a release and an adventure for the author as it is for the person reading it, and the self that takes center stage in such a work is a self that is often laid barer and more candidly than it ever has been before. To get to this point, it takes confidence. It takes honesty. It takes a mediator, someone to coax that hidden ego out of its protective shell, to break it down into its component parts only to build it back up again. That someone is John Rubadeau.
Rubadeau began teaching sections of English 325 (Art of the Essay) and English 425 (Advanced Essay Writing) at the University 24 years ago after a brief stint as a writing instructor at Purdue.
“I wish I could say it was by design, but it was more by accident,” Rubadeau said of becoming a professor. “I had been a social worker in Europe as a field worker for the Red Cross, and then I got into teaching by accident, and I just fell in love with it.”
To facilitate the labor that goes into producing these miniature memoirs, Rubadeau said the first three weeks of his classes are devoted to personal introductions. A considerable amount of time is spent on classroom bonding — the students chat freely during class periods, finding out about each other’s lives and their professor.
“The pedagogic reason behind this is to develop a sense of community before we discuss essays that are often extraordinarily personal and intimate,” he said.
As he likes to call it, it’s a process of “making the public private.”
This camaraderie is further facilitated by an unexpected visitor: Rubadeau’s facial hair. On Halloween, he dyes his fully grown beard orange to resemble a grinning jack-o-lantern. During Christmas, he comes into class bedecked with twinkling Christmas lights and a few spinning dreidels. On the rest of the days, he has been known to wiggle the whiskers in question in front of unassuming girls’ faces.
“I’ve gotten a couple good beard rubs from John Rubadeau,” Hlebasko said of her time as his student.
The beard is only one example of what Rubadeau considers to be the secret to being a good teacher: enthusiasm.
“If you aren’t enthusiastic, feign enthusiasm,” he said. “But here’s the thing: I’ve never had to feign enthusiasm. I’m always so enthusiastic because I’m teaching kids what they need to know, what they need to know for the real world.
“It sounds so strange, but I look forward every day to going to class,” he added. “If I could design my life, I couldn’t design a better life. I’m never going to retire. I want to die when I’m about 100 writing on the chalkboard, talking about dangling participles.”
Tell the truth, but tell it slant
Once the community and level of comfort have been established, how does one begin the essay?
“First you start out with a statement,” Rubadeau said. “How do you integrate it into the story that you’re trying to tell? And then you give details — I mean, it’s so simple. The writer who writes doesn’t even know his intention, he just writes because it’s a therapeutic process.”
Then comes the main argument, the thing the essay will signify.
“Pursue the answer to a question that you genuinely want to know the answer to,” Pollack said.
This is a guiding principle in Pollack’s book “Creative Nonfiction,” which was published two years ago for classroom use. Through she currently presides over graduate-level work, Pollack sustains an interest in the field of personal memoir, and instated the creative nonfiction writing program at the undergraduate level several years ago.
“Scratch your itch,” Rubadeau explained. “What interests you? What bothers you? What do you have questions about? Write about that, but dispassionately.”
But issues will start to arise a few paragraphs into the essay. For instance, how much faith can a writer put in his own hazy memories of an event long past? How much creative liberty to take in describing a scene that one barely has a memory of? There’s a certain ambiguity associated with the work of a nonfiction writer, a struggle with fitting a messy, fractured life neatly into a confines of a few blank pages.
Pollack puts it in simpler terms: If you feel instinctively that whatever you are saying is dishonest, you shouldn’t write it down.
“There are some people that say, ‘Oh, memory is faulty’ or ‘We’re always making things up’ — they see nonfiction as just as much an act of memory and imagination as fiction,” Pollack said. “I don’t really buy that. I think that we all know when we’re telling the truth to the best of our abilities and we know when we’re not quite sure of something.”
Pollack went on to mention the extent of the truthfulness that readers expect from a writer.
“If you said, ‘I climbed Mt. Everest’ and you didn’t, they would feel cheated,” Pollack said. “If you said that you were breaking up with your girlfriend in a bar one night and Linda Ronstadt was singing ‘Blue Bayou’ on whatever goes for a jukebox today, and we found it really was Lucinda Williams singing ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,’ nobody’s going to feel cheated, right?”
Entering into conversation
But the writing doesn’t stop after the first draft is handed in.
“I have a whole big lecture — I say, you know, your brothers and sisters said I was a good teacher and all that shit, but it’s because I have high expectations,” Rubadeau said.
Each session after the first three weeks of his courses is devoted to critiquing and praising all of the 20 essays produced by the 20 students in the class — one student and one essay per day. To prepare, every student is expected to write at least five to six pages about that session’s essay, leading to an individual collection of papers that often surpasses the 200-page mark by the end of the semester.
“Oh, man, every Monday and Wednesday night I would be on my laptop all night long,” said Engineering junior Jacob Flood. “Your grade is dependent mostly on what you write about other people’s papers. (Rubadeau) says, the more you critique somebody else, the more you’ll learn about your own writing.”
“I know that sounds like an ungodly amount of work, but you definitely knock those out way quicker than a traditional analytical English paper,” Hlesbasko added. “It’s just kind of you in dialogue with the paper and this person that created it.”
After all, you never write in a vacuum — a large part of crafting a personal essay is sharing it with others. In writing peer critiques, the writer creates the discourse space needed to discuss remarkably intimate subjects in a more objective manner.
“Revising your essay wasn’t just about mechanics you worked on,” Flood said. “It had more to do with substance – what you wanted to know more about.”
By extension, this collaboration leads to greater classroom bonding.
“We were incredibly close,” Flood said. “I feel like more so than comma splices and misplaced modifiers, we were in a class to articulate and express profound things that we had in our lives. And that would connect us as friends more so than in any other class.
“The one class period that really stood out for me when this guy talked about this abusive relationship he had with his father, and it was just so … it just seemed to transcend any normal classroom experience,” he added. “And we weren’t talking about trite mechanics at that point, we were talking about something that was clearly still affecting him, it was something he was looking for and in that class I think he finally found it.”
In having students pen these evocative, raw experiences, the ultimate objective of English 325 and 425 is to bring light to these encounters, to reiterate themes about the world that fiction writers couldn’t have articulated any better — just by nature of the essayists’ proximity to real life.
Rubadeau distilled the goals that he wanted to leave in his students in a few brief sentences.
“I want them to fall in love with the language and the etymology of words, make them aware that the things I’m trying to teach them can’t be put to memory,” he said. “I want to them to get at the human condition.”