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English prof’s essay ‘bears’ and preserves story of uncle’s death

October 28th, 2010 Posted in Arts and Life

Story & Photo by Mark Vuong

LOGAN—Who “bears” stories and who’s responsible for doing so?

Those are the two questions USU English associate professor Jennifer Sinor asked while writing “Confluence,” which will be published in the next edition of The Norton Reader next Fall.

“I see this essay as bearing a story my uncle can no longer bear because he’s dead, as well as a story that my dad bears but bears with so much pain that it’s almost impossible for him to talk about it,” Sinor said. “And so, I have an obligation to that story.”

The Norton Reader, a prestigious nonfiction anthology of thematic essays, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, is often the text in English 1010 and creative nonfiction classes. Sinor’s entry, “Confluence,” joins those the ranks in the November 2011 edition. Her essay is the story of a trip to Alaska’s Alatna River by Sinor’s father and his brother. The two spent their time hiking, rafting, fishing, camping and talking, enjoying the outdoors as they usually do. The 14-day trip ended early for both men. For Jerry, Sinor’s uncle, it ended early in the morning on day five.

By using her dad’s journal, her own personal journal and information about the river and vegetation from rangers, Sinor weaves a story about one man’s failing health due to prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease, another man’s obligation and lone responsibility to paddle for miles in search of help while his older brother’s body lay lifeless next to him in the canoe, a pregnant woman writing journal entries about ordinary occurrences in life—one being about how pens seem to quickly run out of ink, several about her puppy that won’t behave.

“Confluence” is a tragic story, Sinor acknowledges, although she sees it as hopeful, in that future generations will be able to partake in Jerry’s story and pass it on, keeping it in the world, and that she bears some of her father’s pain.

“[The event] undid my father in a lot of ways,” she said. “He’s a different man now because of what happened. And the hope, I think, is that if I can bear some of that pain, then that lessens some of his somehow.”

Because the story of Uncle Jerry’s final days has been written, that particular time of his life has been marked, Sinor says. She says one reason she writes is that so many people have unmarked stories, stories that no one knows, and that may be lost as time wears on. Once a story has been written, she said, it is saved for others to participate in.

The English professor, who sees writing as art, writes not only creative nonfiction but dabbles in fiction as well, though she says she publishes only her nonfiction. She says she has been writing for as long as she can remember, including her first self-proclaimed novel at age 8, a 10-page story with a protagonist named Carrie and which featured a lot of knives and blood.

Sinor says that the assumption that writing cannot be taught, that a person is either a writer or not, is untrue. Some people have an innate ability for writing, as some have for music, she said, and though it helps, it isn’t crucial. The writing craft can be taught, she says.

“I do think you can learn to be a better writer, and learning, just like any other kind of art, is very much about practice,” she said, mentioning journalist and author Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule. Gladwell argues in his book Outliers that the key to any success is practicing a skills for 10,000 hours.

In her introductory workshops, Sinor teaches students about the basic elements of a short story or essay. Students spend the first few weeks looking at and talking about the writing form’s building blocks, such as scene, research, structure and form, and how authors negotiate them.

The remaining two-thirds of the semester is workshop, in which students bring their own writing to be critiqued by fellow students and the professor.

Malinda Fowler, who is majoring in American Studies and enrolled in Sinor’s first intro fiction workshop, said one thing that Sinor has taught her is that a writer must write. Even if the first draft is horrible, she said, at least the idea has been written down.

“You just have to start writing,” Fowler said. “You can’t just wait for a show of genius. You have to put yourself out there.”

Creative writing major Anne Baines says Sinor’s workshop critiques are a kind of therapy session.

The senior, who has taken both Sinor’s creative nonfiction workshop 101 and advanced workshop, said the English professor is adept at pointing out the writer’s emotional trauma. Baines said it takes a gentle hand to criticize someone’s piece of creative nonfiction , which largely draws on real-life events, typically having occurred to the writer herself, and Sinor possesses it.

“She’s in tune with her students’ feelings and knows what’s going on deeper in the work,” Baines said. “I’m sure it’s a skill she’s worked hard to acquire.”

She said one of Sinor’s qualities is a soft, calming voice. When Sinor reads a piece out loud, she said, her voice is poetic, taking on cadence and rhythm.

“It reminds me of an ocean coming in and out,” Baines said.


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