Parallel Lives:

Writing the Story Behind the Surface

Discover a powerful writing technique for understanding ourselves and our experiences.

Teaching English to middle school students during the peak of Covid last year often rendered me daydreaming for a lobotomy. It wasn’t the students. It was the eggshell-like-fear the teachers and students felt each day, not knowing how close to sit or converse, not knowing when to remove our masks to eat.

The inconsistent hybrid learning didn’t make teaching or learning any easier. Students’ WIFI would cause them to freeze mid-sentence, someone’s volume in the classroom would cause a deafening high pitch, or a student would choose not to show their face in our Microsoft Team’s meeting.

Staff was still expected to meet progress report and report card deadlines, attend 504 accommodation meetings, create curriculum, monitor students’ progress, discipline, nurture—you name it, teachers were meant to do it. 

English teachers are the ones who receive poetry and stories and personal essays bleeding with pain. We are most commonly the ones who notify the guidance counselor and make that call to CPS. 

Even though I’m no longer in the classroom, I am still a teacher. I’m still the person students share their creative stories with, fiction and nonfiction. It is a gift to be on the receiving end of their writing.

The teenagers I work with instinctively know that writing is a process. It helps them connect the dots in their lives, helps them to understand the world around them and their place in it.

Here’s the truth: we are all students. We are all trying to make sense of this topsy-turvy world on a macro and micro level. 

The gifted writer, Anna Quindlen, addresses this need for writing as a means of processing our very lives. We write to know ourselves, and in many ways, to heal ourselves. Writing as self-reflection is therapeutic.

Dr. Charon and Parallel Charts

Dr. Rita Charon founded a writing technique at Columbia University’s medical school called Parallel Charts. In Quindlen’s book, Write for Your Life, Quindlen quotes a summary of Dr. Charon’s Parallel Chart technique assigned to 3rd year medical students:

“If your patient dying of prostate cancer reminds you of your grandfather, who died of that disease last summer, and each time you go into the patient’s room, you weep for your grandfather, you cannot write that in the hospital chart. We will not let you. And yet it has to be written somewhere.  You write it in the Parallel Chart.”

Students and Adults Alike: The Need for Parallel Charts

Whether we are a student grappling with a tough home life, or an adult challenged by a difficult boss, we all experience stressors that can’t always be handled head on. Parallel Charts allows us to process and work through difficult emotions and situations.

Quindlen offers us an opportunity to do Parallel Charts in any circumstance:

“Take a look at your calendar, or your class schedule. Dates, numbers, times, and yet, for each, there is an observation, or a sentiment, behind it, whether of that specific event or course or of how you were feeling that day. There is a story behind our to-do lists.”

The Magic of Parallel Charts:

There’s an alchemy that occurs when we write the underbelly of our thoughts, when we connect with the surface of the day’s experiences and take time to digest them. When we write that we have a doctor’s appointment at noon, there’s the feel of the plastic chairs in your mind, the kind man behind the desk who has a picture of his daughter and wife next to a block calendar. When we write what we are experiencing behind the scenes, we boost our connection to the world around us and our place in it.

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