Last year, my colleague and life inspiration Kim led a PLC in which five of us examined how to better teach narrative writing to students. We focused on the snapshot moment, a term/style coined by Penny Kittle: a short, “one-inch” picture frame moment that attempts to immerse the reader in the experience of the writer’s memory.
I’ve had some great luck using this technique to far in my creative writing classes (for both narrative nonfiction and short stories) and in my junior-level English classes when students write a draft of their college essay.
Last week, my Creative Writing students wrote one, and this weekend, I asked them to write a second one which is emotionally or thematically connected to the first. In an attempt to be a better teacher-writer and model, I’m doing this assignment too. Here goes.
Snapshot Moment #1: Fifth Grade (model for my class, written earlier this year)
The sound of Brian’s hee-hawing laughter carries across the playground. I can hear it from behind the slide, even though I can’t see his face.
A chorus of cheers:
“Kick it again!”
Where are the teachers? I almost think “where the hell” but I am ten and I worry that thinking a swear is as bad as saying it out loud.
Every “thunk” of the thick leather tetherball against the side of Brian’s cheap sneaker hits me like a punch in the stomach.
I don’t even know what I did. Friday I slept over Kelly’s house, and today she is goading Brian into pretending the tetherball is my head. I glance panic-stricken around the side of the metal slide. Her back is to me, but I can see her blonde bowl cut.
“Kick it again!” she squeaks. Brian’s face is red with the effort of raising his leg again and again. Ten of my classmates huddle around them.
An ocean of dirt and woodchips stretches between us.
My eyes fill with tears as I slump down against the railing of the slide. It digs into my back but I don’t care, because it takes every muscle in my face to hold my mouth shut so they can’t hear me cry. Someday I’m going to go far, far away from here, I think. I pinch my eyes shut, and tears slide into my mouth. Someday.
Snapshot Moment #2: Twelfth Grade — written today
“And this is the bathroom,” Alex says, pointing at the door. “That’s the suite.”
“Okay…” I stand there in the hallway with my overnight bag tucked under my arm. “Um, where am I going to sleep?”
“Oh!” he blushed. “Right. Um, I’ll give up my bed and sleep on the couch. You can have my room.”
I am seventeen years old, a senior in high school, standing in my friend Alex’s freshman suite at NYU, where I will be auditioning tomorrow to attend. I know Alex well, having spent the entire summer together in an accelerated pre-college program for rising seniors, but that ended a few months ago; the fact that I am here, on a Sunday in November, in his dorm with his roommates, is a little awkward. Still, we tuck the strangeness away without words and decide to make the most of my “New York experience” this weekend.
For the last five years of my life, I have lived and breathed theatre. (In fact, I’m such a snob that I insist on the British spelling.) My middle and high school years have revolved around whatever play I’m currently doing – on stage or behind the scenes – and I want to pursue acting as a career. This has led me to New York, to NYU specifically, to attend the Tisch School of the Arts. Hopefully, after tomorrow morning’s audition, I will be on my way.
That night we go to see a student production that one of Alex’s friends is in. We sit in a darkened theater; I feel the electricity of my future dreams buzzing just beneath my skin. Then we go for Mexican food on Bleecker Street with some of Alex’s friends, an eclectic group of actors and designers and artists, and walk around Greenwich Village.
Beneath the twinkle lights strung from tree to tree, I can hear the sounds of jazz and samba wafting from restaurants and apartment windows open in the mild fall evening; the pavement under my feet shudders in the slightest rumble from the subway trains. People of all ages and colors and styles surround me. I may only be 300 miles from home, but I am worlds away from anything I have known or lived. This is it, I think as we slowly make our way back to the dorm. This is what I’ve been waiting for.