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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Current Issue > Writing in Practice - Vol. 2 > Fictionalizing the Stories of Others: Reflections on Teaching Collaborative Life Writing and Fictionalization in the Creative Writing Classroom
Fictionalizing the Stories of Others: Reflections on Teaching Collaborative Life Writing and Fictionalization in the Creative Writing Classroom
Author: Tresa LeClerc
Tresa LeClerc reflects on teaching a group of people seeking asylum at Melbourne Free University, the collaborative texts produced by native and non-native speakers, and the construction of fictional stories based on the lives of others.


The following is a reflection upon my teaching a creative writing workshop to a group of refugees as part of the Melbourne Free University in Melbourne, Australia. This article explores research into collaborative texts produced with a writer and person from a refugee background and discusses how teachers may inspire students to use biographical content when writing fictional stories. It posits that fictionalizing the stories of others must be done with an awareness of process and offers suggestions for lesson planning and implications for future practice. This paper is the result of a workshop presented at the NAWE Conference in Bristol in November 2014.


Keywords: English as an additional language, collaboration, life writing, fictionalization, education, creative writing, new literacies, technology, migrancy, refugee


"The thing is not to write what no one else could have written, but to write what only you could have written."

Nam Le, The Boat (2008)


Writing does not have to be a solitary act. The popularity of creative writing workshops may speak to their ability to offset the isolation of writing, to mitigate the self-doubt that plagues the burgeoning writer. But is there more we can do to encourage collaboration within the writing workshop?

From November 2014 to April 2014, I ran a series of university-style workshops for people seeking asylum in Melbourne, Australia. The workshops were run through the Melbourne Free University (MFU), a volunteer-lead grassroots organization. The MFU courses for Asylum Seekers aim to offset the difficulties caused by Australian visa restrictions which limit asylum seekers’ ability to undertake formal study or work (MFU 2015). The creative writing workshop has many incarnations, but for these, a creative writing practitioner presented a process, and then initiated activities to encourage student writing. The teachers were often lecturers at local universities.

The first workshop in the series was based on my current PhD Creative Writing research into collaborative writing with people from migrant backgrounds, which I am completing at RMIT University in Australia. The workshop consisted of five students, ages 18-50, four males and one female, who spoke English as an additional language at a high level. At the time of the study, they possessed "asylum seeker status", meaning that they had claimed refugee status (UNHCR 2015) and were currently living in the community while awaiting a decision on their resettlement into Australia. They had varying levels of education, but were mostly at or beyond tertiary level in a foreign language.

To explore this theme, I employed the action research method within my series of creative writing workshops at the MFU, which involved implementing my lesson plan and reflecting upon my creative teaching practice. In the workshops, the aim was to get students to work collaboratively, taking autobiographical elements and weaving them into a story that could be fictionalized, either by writing the story of their partner or by writing their own story after a partner had initially written it down for them. This paper will focus on the latter technique, but will offer advice for those wishing to proceed with the former. It suggests that an awareness of the process of collaboration and fictionalization is instrumental in encouraging students to write stories with biographical content creatively and with less hesitation.



Teaching weighs heavily in reflective practice. In everyday practice, we try out lessons, determine from class outputs whether they were successful or not, reflect, and revise our lessons accordingly. For this workshop, I have employed the action research method, which is a reflection upon the action of my teaching fictionalizing collaborative life writing to a group of students from refugee backgrounds.

Denscombe (2010: 125-9) writes that action research (see Lewin 1958) should set out to identify problems with engaging in everyday practice, and to adapt the lesson accordingly. It is part of a cycle of research that begins with professional practice and moves to critical reflection. Essentially it is “planning, acting, observing and reflecting” (Carr and Kemmis 1986: 165). Reflection is enriched with research and "systematic and rigorous enquiry" (Denscombe 2010: 129), after which the planning stage can occur. The "action" becomes the act of teaching itself. Once the lesson is completed, it is reflected upon once again, and the cycle continues.

Through this method of inquiry, Kemmis (2009: 468) contends that practitioners can be seen as theorists and theorists as practitioners. However, Clark (2001) argues that reflective practice, and specifically action research, have become dominant methodologies within the educational context, and criticizes Carr and Kemmis’ lack of analysis of reflection. Although a single notion of reflection is difficult to define, Clark points to Dewey’s idea that it is “controlled, directed thinking toward some conclusion” (1933, cited in Clark 2001: 86). “Reflection”, Clark (2001: 85) argues, “must not be conflated with ‘observation’, then, since it is not a kind of empirical enquiry”. Yet Davies embraces the incorporation of reflexivity and the subjective into ethnographic research methods, citing the assertion by Powdermaker (1996, cited in Davies 1998: 5) that the ethnographer must step in and out of society. To Davies (1998: 5), ethnographers “help to construct the observations that become their data”.

In my workshop, I set out to teach my students about fictionalizing collaborative life writing, with the premise that learning more about the collaborative process would enable them to better understand this creative practice. To do this, I first looked at my research into collaborative life writing, incorporated it into my planning and put it into practice. The "research" was based on my doctoral work into collaborative life writing.


Collaborative Life Writing

As part of my PhD thesis, I examine novels that are produced in collaboration between a writer and person who has undergone forced relocation to a new country. Farkas (1991, cited in Miller 2003) attempts to offer a four part definition of collaboration: two or more people jointly composing a text, contributing components to a document, editing a document and/or working with another person to draft a document based on the idea of a person or persons. These stories may fall within the spectrum of Farkas’ definition. Furthermore, they are often told from a first-person perspective, with the writer appropriating the voice of the subject (Couser 1998: 334).

As a literary genre, life writing is often referred to as, or grouped within, Auto/biography (Auto/biography first used by Olney, cited in Moore-Gilbert 2009: xi). Smith and Watson (2010: 1-3) claim that terms such as autobiography, memoir, life writing, self-life writing and self-biography are terms for self-referential works that were used at different points throughout history. They do, however, attempt to delineate the terms by pointing out that autobiography “privileges the autonomous individual and the universalising life story as the definitive achievement of life writing”, while the memoir involves more “density of language and self reflexivity”, and at times focus on “unacknowledged aspects of people’s lives”. They define "life writing" as writing that takes a person’s life as the subject (one’s own or another’s). In this paper, I use "life writing" as a general term to refer to works that are in some way autobiographical.

Collaborative life writing refers to works in which an author tells the story of another person or "subject". Couser (1998) attempts to place collaborative life writing in context with the autobiography. He describes the collaborative autobiography as paradoxical, in that there is both a biographer and an autobiographer combining to create life writing.

In her article "Refugee Life Narratives – The Disturbing Potential of a Genre and the Case of Mende Nazer", Helff (2009: 333-334) posits that autobiographical projects with refugees usually require two authors: one to tell the story and one to write it and thus challenge the idea of the autobiography. Novels within the genre of what Helff refers to as "refugee life narratives" recount stories derived from collaborations with people who have fled their country of origin (see Menchú 1983, Eggers 2005, Nazer and Lewis 2004). Helff (2009: 334) suggests that these stories may bring up “painful experiences and memories over and over again until the story is completed” and that there is a risk of the subject becoming “visible in the eyes of the authorities”. Furthermore, these traumatic events may overshadow the more "ordinary" events, which may better emphasize individuality and identity (Marlowe 2009). Thus, when planning to teach writing to a class of people from refugee backgrounds, it is imperative that there is an awareness not only of the politics of collaborative writing, but of the risks involved in writing the story of the other as well.


Collaborative Creative Writing and Fictionalization

Collaborative life writing has a distinctive voice, which is a combination of writer and subject. The subject communicates the story to the writer, who then transcribes and even translates what the subject has said into the written word.

Couser (1998: 344) notes that collaborative life writing is "inherently ventriloquistic" as the writer writes in the voice that is attributed to the subject, yet the voice can also be seen as a combination of writer and subject. Furthermore, the collaborative autobiography is often told in a simulated narrative voice by the author, though the subject’s voice can be present in the preface or epilogue, as a sort of testimonial to the authenticity of the story. However, this is not always the case. In the texts I examined, this was at times replaced with the methodology the author used to create the text.

One example is that of an indigenous Quiché woman, Rigoberta Menchú. Menchú’s name appears in the title of her book, I Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (2008), and as the author, yet the book was the result of a collaboration with writer and ethnographer Elisabeth Burgos-Debray and a week of interviews in Paris (Elisabeth Burgos-Debray 1984: xv). Burgos-Debray details in the Introduction how she was approached through a friend to write for Menchú, who wanted her story and the struggles of her people, persecuted by the Guatemalan government, to be told. Burgos-Debray describes reflecting upon how best to tell Menchú’s story, and eventually decides to use the form of a monologue, thus excluding her interview questions from the text. She insists that the majority of the book consists of Menchú’s words, though linking passages were inserted in order to help it read more like a narrative, and information was re-ordered and grouped together to form the chapters (Elisabeth Burgos-Debray 1984: xx). This gives the reader the impression that he or she is listening to a story as told by Rigoberta herself, with the words translated and transcribed by Burgos-Debray.

The book Slave: My True Story (2003), a collaboration between journalist Damien Lewis and subject Mende Nazer, also advocates that little in the original testimonial was changed. In the epilogue entitled "A Note from Damien Lewis", Lewis describes his method of collaboration with Nazer, who lived as a guest in his home during his revisions. In the epilogue, he writes that he worked with Nazer through interviews, casual conversations recounted in a notebook and even roleplaying. He concedes that “no story is complete” and that it has been through a “creative process of selection and condensation” in order to make the form of the novel more compelling and accessible (Lewis 2003: 340). He describes Nazer’s English language as limited, though Nazer read through the drafts to ensure that “every word and nuance of the story was as intended” (Lewis 2003: 340). Although some of his methods can be seen as unconventional, the fact that Nazer has read and approved the text is enough to affirm for the audience that Lewis has represented her story accurately.

What is the What (2006), written by Dave Eggers has a similar method to that of Burgos-Debray in that it is written over three years of interviews with the subject, a Sudanese "lost boy" named Valentino Achak Deng. As Yost (2011: 150) points out when comparing the texts, “Eggers actively forces the recognition that he and Deng worked together collaboratively”. Aside from being referred to as fiction, the text is labelled as the "autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng", giving the reader the impression that it is based in reality. The preface, written by Deng himself, states that he approves of the finished work, further adding to the authenticity of this fictional tale.

Unlike What is the What, I Rigoberta Menchú faced difficulty on its release as nonfiction. As Couser (1998) points out, the main problem with fictionalized ethnography is that audiences want to know just how much of the text is true and how much is fiction. After Rigoberta Menchú’s account was published, Stroll (2011) argued that some of the events she described were inconsistent, namely how her brother was murdered in Chajul. This called into question the validity of her testimony.

Yet in the Prologue of What is the What, Deng concedes that Eggers fictionalized his story but maintained “the essential truthfulness of the storytelling” (Deng 2005). Admitting that while some of the events of may not have taken place, he explains that many could have, and that the world Eggers created was not that different from the one in which he lived. This clarity about the process used to create the narrative may have aided in the book’s positive reception.

As such, ethnographic writing can offer varying degrees of fictionalization, and sometimes the fictional elements are difficult to separate from the nonfictional. When Humphreys and Watson examined ethnographic writings, they placed them on a continuum of textual manipulation – from minimally manipulated written accounts to highly manipulated.


             Plain            Enhanced            Semi-Fictionalized           Fictionalized           Fiction






           I, Rigoberta Menchú      Slave: My True Story    What is the What    The Boat      



           adapted from Humphreys and Watson 2009: 43


On this line, the texts mentioned have been placed below the estimated level of manipulation. What is the What, highly fictionalized, still offers its readers a glimpse into what elements might have been fictionalized by providing a prologue. However, it is not uncommon for authors of fictional texts to incorporate factual elements from their personal experience or their family’s experience. Yet, the processes used to do this are not always explicitly documented. For example, Australian author Nam Le’s short story, entitled "The Boat" (2008), the title piece of his book, is based on Le’s father’s experiences travelling from Vietnam to a Malaysian refugee camp. Reading the stories, it is almost impossible to tell the fictional elements from the factual without prior knowledge of the author’s life, and Le offers no explanation in the text. We only learn glimpses of this through subsequent interviews. For example, in the New York Times (Cohen 2008) Le describes creating the fictional character named Nam Le in "Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice" who drinks Johnny Walker Red and is struggling with the genre of “ethnic literature”. Le says in the interview that “One of the chief ambitions of the story was to play with that idea of what we consider to be authentic, how much autobiography is implied or assumed, how we read something differently if we think it’s been drawn from the author’s life”. Le says in the interviews that he still received bottles of Johnny Walker Red as gifts, though he doesn't drink it. Although the text is fiction, the audience assumes the character "Nam Le" is autobiographical because he has the same name as the author. As a result, the audience becomes confused.

What can be drawn from these examples is that, when fictionalizing true accounts, an awareness of the process of fictionalization is necessary. The issue with Menchú’s account shows that when an audience believes a story to be true, but this is proven wrong, it could adversely affect the way a text is viewed – the audience feels misled or confused. As Lewis posits, creative writing does require some reordering of events and condensation in order to make the story more readable and appealing to the audience. If the story has been changed too much, however, difficulties will arise with referring to it as nonfiction. Thus, if elements are changed, writers need to be aware of how they are changed and to what extent. It is with this theory that I began my workshop.


The Workshop

The focus of the first creative writing workshop was to encourage collaborative creative writing amongst the class. The lesson modelled in the creative writing workshop was broken up into the following five interactive stages: textual analysis, prompting, fictionalization, writing and reflection.


Textual Analysis

I began by discussing the ways in which authors have gone about fictionalizing life stories. The examples that I used in my class were excerpts from "Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice". "Love and Honour…" is a snapshot of Le’s turbulent relationship with his identity and his father, as he struggles to finish a draft of a story based on his father’s life. Students in small groups were encouraged to read the extracts and guess which elements were drawn from real-life experiences and which were fabricated, in order to give them an idea of what elements authors might fictionalize. During a class discussion conducted afterwards, I revealed which elements were most likely true, based on the background of the author and interviews, citing the Johnny Walker anecdote. From this example, the class could see the author fictionalizing an element of his story and that fictionalization’s impact upon the audience. I then highlighted the importance of the awareness of process when writing.



In the prompting phase, students were encouraged to form groups of two and were subsequently given a prompt. Each group received a different prompt, which was printed in large letters on a piece of paper and placed around the table. Examples of prompts were: 

Describe an interesting person you met. Why was he/she interesting?

Discuss a strange conversation you once had.

Given the refugee background of my students and Helff’s suggestions, I was careful not to choose topics that may trigger a negative emotional response or may unintentionally cause them to remember something unpleasant from their past. I did this by choosing ambiguous topics, and allowing them more agency in negotiating which prompt they used.

Students were then instructed to talk, based on the prompt, while the partner took notes. This formed the basis of the collaboration. The students then changed roles. After speaking, the pairs exchanged papers, resulting in each speaker possessing the notes to his/her own story. A new prompt was given and these steps were repeated. This was to give students agency in which story they ultimately chose to write about. As the students in the workshop were prompted twice, each retained two sets of notes. The pairings remained the same.



In the "fictionalization stage", students used the notes to discuss what aspects of the story could be fictionalized in order to make the plot more interesting or to aid the flow of the narrative. In my experience, students often have difficulty imagining how the audience reads the story. It is only after the student is aware that the writing is to be shared with a group, that he or she may be inclined to consider the audience. This conversation, while the story is being planned, helps the student to consider the perspective and gain feedback during the planning stage rather than after the draft has been produced.


Writing and Reflection

After the discussion, students entered the "writing stage" in which they were encouraged to write their stories individually using the notes. In the final stage, the "reflection stage", students met with their partner again to swap stories. They were asked to discuss the development of the voice of the story and the difference between stories that are told and stories that were written. They were then encouraged to reflect upon what elements of the draft came from the notes and what elements came from conversations with their partner. This was intended to give the students greater awareness of the collaborative process and its impact on the voice of the story.


Reflections and Conclusion

Stories that are spoken are different to stories that are written. Perhaps the voice is stronger. This strength is often maintained after the text has been translated into the written word. The voices in Burgos-Debray's, Eggers' and Lewis’ work are a unique collaboration of both author and subject. While in these novels the text is written by a writer, in this workshop the story is written by the subject as writer, with elements contributed to the draft by a collaborative partner through note-taking and discussion.

Furthermore, this process places more emphasis on the conversation rather than the interview. Lewis, as mentioned previously, favoured the conversation over the interview. However, it was not Lewis’ life that was being written. In the workshop, the writer/subject and the note-taker occupy both roles. Though in Lewis', Eggers' and Burgos-Debray’s work the subject helps the writer to produce the final version, and approves the work, the subject still does not occupy the role of writer, nor is the subject likely to have an understanding of what it is like to be the writer.

Teaching writing may seem an innocuous act, but it carries with it enormous risks for those telling stories based on biographical content. Through the use of ambiguous topics, workshop participants were able to choose what they spoke about, whether that story involved "painful experiences" or not. As they chose from two prompts, they were also given another choice of story to commit to writing about. When working with people from refugee backgrounds, it is important to consider which prompts are used and how to give ultimate control of the story to the storyteller. Though it may not be possible to avoid bringing up painful memories, the storyteller must be the one to choose whether to engage with these memories, which they will have to revisit when revising their story. 

I acknowledge that a comparison between longer works of life writing and these shorter stories may be unfair. First of all, the novels referenced were biographical and focused on – or were drawn from – a large portion of the writers’ lives. Because the time was limited, the workshop focused on a memory or a single event in one’s life. Rather than a biography, it was a biographical story. Nevertheless, there is nothing to say that the process I have executed in my workshop could not be applied to novel writing, though it would be significantly less pragmatic.

In getting students to work collaboratively, the students have been taught a process of collaboration and fictionalization. Students were more comfortable telling a story verbally than they were writing a story and became more aware of the difference and its effect on the voice of the story. The combination of both of these forms of storytelling seemed to aid the writing process, as I observed students writing much more quickly than they have in past workshops. Overall, I believe lessons of this kind can help students from other backgrounds to become more aware of collaborative processes, which may prove useful in the future should they choose to work collaboratively with a native speaker of English.


Implications for future practice

As Rish and Caton (2011) point out, collaboration must be taught – students need to learn how to work together since they will undoubtedly be doing this in general schoolwork and in the workplace in the future. Peer-to-peer learning, for example, is embedded in the undergraduate creative writing context (Batty and Sinclair 2014) and is often an integral part of a workshop. One alternative method of collaboration that is gaining popularity in educational contexts is to use the wiki to create shared environments where multiple authors can contribute to a single story or multiple storylines (Forte and Bruckman 2007). This also has the added advantage of engaging students with new literacies, though if resources are limited this may not be an option.

It was suggested at the NAWE Conference in November 2014 that students could be encouraged to discuss the elements of the story (setting, plot, characters, etc.) when deciding upon what to fictionalize in their writing. The benefit of this alternative is that it allows focus to be put on other aspects of story building, rather than just fictionalization. As such, there are many ways in which the lesson itself can be modified. Therefore, the needs and level of students should be taken into consideration when planning, and the lesson adjusted accordingly. 

A possible limitation can be the number of students, particularly if there is an uneven number, and time constraints. Additionally, the lesson will always need to be adapted to the level of the students. If students have a lower level of writing or English, the extent to which note-taking is done may vary. 

A final suggestion at the conference was to let students write their partner’s story. I think this would be a fun activity, but it is important to consider how relinquishing control of one’s story may invoke a feeling of powerlessness. The workshop enabled them to have final control over the finished product, though the initial stages were conducted collaboratively with a partner. I recommend that, if the lesson plan is adjusted to include giving the writer control of their partner’s story, the storyteller should be involved in the revision processes as well.



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Tresa LeClerc is writer and PhD candidate in Media and Communication (Creative Writing) at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. She holds an MA TESOL (University of Melbourne) and is a member of RMIT's HELP group, Digital Ethnography Research Centre and non/fictionLab. She is currently working on her first novel on the topic of migrancy in Australia.