Dispatches | December 07, 2009

When the choreographer Twyla Tharp is developing a new work, she keeps what she calls a scratching box. She buys a simple cardboard file holder from an office supply store and fills it with bits and pieces that relate to the dance she is working on. All sorts of artifacts go into the box: video and cassette tapes, photographs, magazine and newspaper articles, pieces of clothing. Her box is an important part of her process.

In Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” she combs through various notebooks that she’s compiled over the years and remembers what inspired her to jot down fragments of overheard dialogue, odd facts, and place details. Unlike Tharp, the material in Didion’s notebooks seldom feeds her art. Rather it provides insight into her former selves. She writes, “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive or not.”

With these artists’ habits in mind, this semester I asked my nonfiction students to fill their own scratching boxes or notebooks with mementoes that pertain to both the essays they’ve been working on and their writing process. Over the years, I’ve learned that simple assignments like this one are often the most successful.

Last week they brought their baroquely decorated boxes and notebooks to class and like kindergarteners squirmed in their seats until it was their turn to share. They passed around pictures of themselves, boyfriends, best friends, family. They read poems and quotes from their favorite books, burned their favorite candles, played their favorite mood music and passed around their favorite pens. Many held up T-shirts and concert tickets and fake IDs and peacock feathers. By the end of show and tell, the classroom looked like a small bazaar, exotic stuff scattered everywhere. The students continued passing around pictures as they walked out the door, leaving me envious that I had not put together a scratching box of my own.

Often called Generation Me for their attachment to Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube, I shouldn’t have been surprised that they enjoyed talking about themselves. Yet, they had an openness and innocence as they explained their inventories that that nixed any air of narcissism. The exercise tapped into the primitive desire we all have to say “look at me; this is who I am.”