Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Topic Introduction
Judith Ortiz Cofer Reads...
Write On Your Own
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"Okay. One of the things that I deal with in my creative writing classes-because they're unfortunately called creative writing, people assume that it has to do with exaggeration and it has to do with fantasy, and it's not. The seriousness of the writing is always in question especially with very young students. And so, at some point in the semester, I always take time to talk about factual truth versus poetic truth.

And one of the exercises that I give them is this truth and lie exercise, which is [that] there are definite lines between telling the truth and not telling the truth. However, when you're studying literature, if you read a poem and it moves you and it has to do with experiencing the death of a parent, very few people would say, you know, yeah, that-was this true that the poet really lose a parent? If the poem moved them and it was honest, then the poem stands as literature because it's . . . the goal of literature is to move people and to change them, not necessarily to tell the factual truth.

"Now the goal of newspapers and the goals of Time Magazine and Newsweek and whatever is to tell the factual truth, and so those things have to be dealt with. And in dealing with the factual truth versus the poetic truth, there's also another aspect of writing that I'd like to bring up and that is that, yes, fiction involves telling a lot of untruths if not lies and you'd better be really good at it, you know, because in reading a book the last [thing] that you want in reading a story is to have the reader pull back and say, "Wait a minute. I don't think so. I don't believe this."

"And so in training them to write specifically and with sensory details, one of the things that I have them do is to practice making the lies that they tell, (and I tried not to use the word "lies" but rather the imaginative things that they come up with, the creative elaborations that they come up with) as detailed as possible so that the reader is not always questioning.

"The third thing I would like to cover is the contract with the reader. If the reader doesn't know that what he or she is reading is supposed to be fictional, that's a violation, and so one of the things that I make clear to the students is that-even though I go from genre to genre, creative nonfiction, fiction of poetry-at some point in the writing there has to be a clue that indicates that imagination is at work. We don't have time to go into all that now, but I wanted to clarify that these are matters that are important to make clear in beginning a creative writing class, mainly because other students in the class will feel betrayed, you know, if they think that what they're reading is a factual account and it turns out to be a total fabrication.

"And so, I usually begin with a little exercise, which . . . the two truths and one lie . . .that will bring up these questions and allow us to discuss them. And what I would like to do right now is to tell you two truth and a lie about myself and ask you to guess which one is the lie. Okay?

"The first is I'm a passionate cook. I particularly love cooking Puerto Rican dishes, and I have my relatives mailing me condiments from the island all the time so that I can make pasteles and arroz y habichuelas and asopao that I love to eat and to cook for my family.

"Two, I'm going to be joining President and Mrs. Bush for dinner at the White House on October 2nd and it has to be at six o'clock because President Bush likes to go to bed early.

"And three, when I'm on my regular teaching and writing schedule, I get up at five o'clock in the morning every day to write, and I have done this for about twenty-three years.

"So, Charles, you seem very self confident. Which one is the lie?"

. . .

Charles: You don't seem like a morning person. I'm not buying number three.

Judith: Okay.

Kelly: With number one, I think that you do enjoy cooking, but I think you could probably get all those ingredients in your hometown.

Judith: Athens, Georgia? Yes. Okay.

Lori: I have to say number two.

Judith: That that's the lie?

Lori: Yeah.

Judith: Okay.

Susie: That's the one I would go with also because I was wondering why you were having dinner with the President. I mean, I can see you having dinner with the President, but I was thinking you would say also that it was because the Ambassador was in town or there was a reason why he was...(people talking over each other)...a state dinner or private dinner.

Judith: Well, I am shocked. I'm so surprised. You don't think the President would...I'm joking.

Lori: Yeah, I think he would want you to come.

Judith: No. Actually the lie is the cooking part. Anyone who hears this will roll on the floor who knows me because I am such a non-cook, such a total non-cook that my family worries about me. My daughter actually calls me and says, "What's in your refrigerator?" and she makes me tell her, and I usually say, well, two Lean Cuisines™, you know, and...

Susie: I mean, we're excited about scrambled eggs. [the group had just eaten breakfast]

Judith: Yeah. Well, yeah, I was. And so that's the lie. I'm actually going to have dinner with the President and Mrs. Bush on October 2nd and it has to be early, because he does go to bed.

But I am, actually, and it's only because I have a book coming out and the First Lady is inviting a few writers to celebrate the National Book Festival, and so. . . and I do get up at five o'clock in the morning to write. Charles, I don't know what you were thinking. I'm usually in bed by nine o'clock and I get up at five o'clock to write and that's because I'm a mother and a teacher and everything else. That's the only time I have to write.

. . . "And so anyway, the purpose of this exercise is many fold. Obviously, you can teach, you know, the idea of being specific, like the fact that I added the condiments, you know, or that the President goes to bed early, and that sort of thing, but also it reveals something about people - - that although they want to reveal actually. So it's a great community- building exercise because they get to choose what they reveal about themselves. There might be somebody who doesn't look anything like a musician in the classroom. Just like I don't look like a morning person, and I'm not. It takes two alarm clocks. But they might wish the class to know that, and it might give them a reason to pursue it as a writing exercise, you know, so it is a great community-building exercise."

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