Testimonials: A Classroom Exercise Based On

Tillie Olsen Interview

Based on a Re-Creation Exercise
Inspired by Gabriele Rico Workshops

 Dr. Joanne E. Gates
English 420 / 420G Women's Literature
Fall 1999 Semester

Overview of Exercise

Students enrolled in the upper level / graduate sections of Women's Literature are exposed to the gender issue in women's lives and women as writers in a number of ways.  There are numerous autobiographical and poetic statements in the course anthology, Gilbert and Gubar's The Norton Anthology of Literature By Women, 2nd edition.  In addition, I offer an introduction to on-line resources and announce the required reading from on-line sources we use to supplement the anthology.  In the Fall 1999 Semester, the reading included one essay by Elizabeth Robins that I consider a prototype for Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own,  Adrienne Rich's "When We Dead Awaken," and other manifestos which expose the cultural biases that marginalize women who write from a woman's point of view. 

I am project director of The Elizabeth Robins Web, a site which, with modest startup funding from a JSU Faculty Research Grant, makes available hyptertext versions of Robins's previously published works. Over the summer of 1999, I added Robins's collection of suffrage speeches and essays collected as Way Stations (1913) to my on-line offerings.  Thus, in addition to Robins' influential play Votes for Women, the clas was encouraged to read either this pamphlet, "Woman's Secret," available on line at http://www.jsu.edu/depart/english/robins/waysta/way01wos.htm, and intednded as preface for the novel version of the play, or another essay by Robins, preferably one she addressed to other women writers at their suffrage association meetings in 1909 and 1910.  Each of these essays provide the historical context for the themes and tone of the social issues drama that so vitalized Robins' reputation. 

In the same manner,  I wanted to convey the context for Tillie Olsen's minor masterpiece, Tell Me a Riddle,  which students read from the anthology. Even though I also made available the optional viewing of the film adaptation ot the text, students who work with me know that the viwing never takes the place of their engagement with the text. Indeed, it was useful for this class to hear from those who could make careful critiques of the filmmaker's choices as they argued for the strengths in the text. 

In order to better integrate Olsen's imaginative text with themes in the course, I elected to convey some of the original impact that Tillie Olsen had on my generation of scholars by relating the importance, when it first was published, of her book Silences, and telling of her appearance at one or two events in the Five-College Area (in and near Amherst, Massachusetts).  I also had a taped interview which was broadcast as a Humanities Foundation event from North Carolina's National Public Radio.  I carefully selected a segment that I thought best characterized the life forces which Olsen delineates as both hindrances to the time she felt she could devote to her writing and those which characterize the vital energy of a woman's caring-- for children, for political organizations, for working to help support a family.  Many of the students are already familiar with Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing," and Olsen, I explained, was asked to give a brief preface to explain the story's genesis.  I was particularly interested in conveying what Olsen expresses as the necessity for a "compressed" style, as I felt the flow (and leaps) in  Tell Me A Riddle made it challenging to appreciate without such a disclaimer. 

I have drafted the procedure for conducting the exercise in a longer version of this document. What is important to stress in this on-line class page is that the initial impulse to personalize and project back an autobiographical statement that students had heard, under somewhat spontaneous circumstances, turned into a major turning point for the class.  The exercise was one of many, variously formatted, non-graded response exercises. (Students also wrote paragraphed essays, discussed in small groups and reported to the class, took factual quizzes, and gave me lists of their previous encounters with titles in the anthology).  Only one or two students read their pieces on the spot, but I collected all work. 

The responses meant more because of the way I elected to return them.  I held them until the last class (announcing I was keeping a xeroxed copy), then passed them back.  Just after coaching them on best ways to deal with some provocative and synthesizing issues that they were to write up for the final exam, then, I gave the class the opportunity for a "read-around."  Students left the class with the impressions left by hearing aloud each spontaneous effort to turn Olsen's outburst into a personalized  poetic statement.  The re-creations were elevated into a format more appropriately classified as a testimonial, a confirmation that indeed, they felt and comprehended Olsen's burdens and joys of needing to write under less than perfect circumstances.  (In Olsen's original, of course, she names Henry James as representative of the leisured male writer who has world enough and time.) 

Sample Student Responses
(I am only printing those of students who signed a disclaimer
giving me permission to use their work for Teacher Research)



No matter what, writing will be hard work. 
I will always be the same race, 
I will always have the same color skin, 
I will forever be a full-time mother. 
No matter what obstacle I face each day, 
No matter how much I want to stop, 
I continue. 
Maybe I did not start my writing career sooner. 
Maybe I am not as famous as Henry James, and 
Maybe I have not had the same opportunity, 
But, I have achieved my writing goals. 
No matter if I was female or a male, I completed something
because I believed in myself. 
Response A

Triumph . . . regardless
Profound ecstasy of determination.
Discovery . . . over and over and over.
Excited rambling, rambling on.

Good ironing makes good poetry. 
First the collars . . . next the cuffs . . . 
then the body of the shirt. 
You're not done.  You iron it all again. 
It's late.  You're tired.  But you 
iron on. 
Today's luxury does not 
extend to tomorrow. 

Response B

Henry James didn't have to
worry about daily tasks.

What's for breakfast?
You're late for work. 
Don't forget your lunch. 
Do good at school. 

Magically the work is finished.
I'll hide down in my room like other men do.

The story will be finished in an 
hour or two. 



 Response C

In that more triumphant time
In regardless of the body we were born into
                 female, male, 
regardless of the color of our skin

In all of us
                 unless we were so damaged already

That human ecstasy of achievement 
Electric excitement of discovery

This was as I've written 
literally late at night

It's called I sand here writing

It took me two years

Motherhood -- otherhood -- unpaid jobs

More than a fourth of a century ago. 

 Response D

"I stand here IRONING" 
Two years took to write
'Tween cooking, and cleaning, 
and being a wife.
My life as a mother, comes 
foremost, yes first
But the lives of male writers
I quench for, I thirst. 
I write for my children
their worlds to make better, 
for peace in the world, 
is my great endeavor. 
 Response E

Years of silence.
Forced to withhold the thoughts
which breathe life into the fire 
that is your soul. 
Thoughts which run wildly 
throughout your mind--
night and day. 
But night--
the night is yours--
Stolen moments for your own
living within your mind. 
Simple, short sketches
and notes
that become your life--
your soul, 
in written form 
until the years of silence 
have ceased 
to leave you released
and alive. 
Response F

In all writing, we must remember that race
sex, and station of life is irrelevant, whether 
that of the reader or the writer. 
We are all damaged in some way, some more, 
some less.  This is also irrelevant.
We, as writers, should all reap satisfaction
from all of our accomplishments, no matter
what the size. 

As we take the time to pick up a pen and write 
intelligible, honest prose, we should 
experience the electric excitement of trying 
over and over again, in fierce will, to 
relay not only damage, but what repairs us.
That is relevant.

Response G

        Flattening out my 
                woes, my 
                     pains my 
Steaming away
        painful memories, 
                broken hearts, 
                      never-ending dialogue that 
Cutting corners -- heaven forbid!
        Must complete my task, must leave it all behind. 

Finished -- almost.
        I have one more shirt, 
                                      out of sorts. 

This one I have fun with.  It's the joy of my life -- 
        My children, my successes, my happiness --
                my wife. 

Who could think that ironing 
        could bring such 

I'm done. 

Response H

          that fierce will in the electric 

          excitement of discovery!

          Regardless of color, Walk of life

          No matter who you are!

Satisfaction!  Give your all to all facets

          of your life--bring peace!

Response I

"Thoughts Inspired by Tillie Olsen"

Awesome.  Admiration for a woman 
with a dream.  A dream she held
so dear and personal that other 
things (life) stepped between 
her and her need. 

Stepping side to side.  Undecided 
in a world with so many opportunities. 
Want to be everything, but can't 
put my finger on one thing at
a time.  Undecided and weighing 
options all the time. 

Awesome.  Admiration for the
woman with dedication; that didn't 
let hindrances keep her from
her dream.

Response J

Please remember me when I was Fresh and new 
And excited by possibilities and challenges. 
Remember the twinkle of ecstasy 
that lit my eyes because of an "A"

Remember the delight I saw in 
a child blowing dandelions in the breeze 
Remember me when I still felt compassion
for poverty and oppression

Please remember me as vibrant and fully awake
Remember me in love with you, in love with life, 
in love with me 
Remember me laughing in the sunshine 
and holding hands with the world. 

 Response K

I don't have the leisure 
to sit here at my pleasure 
and write the Corrected* thoughts
that some people call my faults. 

You, Mr. James, scholar-master
descend your stairs a little faster. 
Hide from the world above 
in your study and its tiny alcove.

You have no worries, cares or concerns, 
As I stand here Ironing, it burns
In my soul the desire to spout
forth the essence of my drought.

Sooner or later, I will find the time
to pencil a snatch or a rhyme.
It may be a morning, a noon, or a night, 
but that is the time in my soul, I delight. 

Response L

Born damaged --
triumphant time. 
Regardless male or female.
The Electric excitement
of discovery.
Henry James!  Who 
needs the morning to 
find you -- And it moves
Response M

Unlike Mr. James, I struggle to write, 
Battling the kids, the job, finding time only at night.
Life for some is simple and as a result, a bore.
As for me, I write, I participate for my kids and neighbors and I work 
for peace in the world. 
Response N

Regardless of who we are born into
There is life in all of us.
Life is?
      --human ecstasy of achievement
      --strong will
Excitement of discovery?
Discovery of life?
Response O

loves labours 
duty and feel good
all in one 
never ending 
sleepless and exhaustion 
no time 
give and give 
no end will come 
rewards unseen 
thanks unspoken 
woman's work
Response P
Resources and Influences:

Guth, Hans P. and Gabriele Rico, ed. Discovering Literature: Fiction Poetry, and Drama. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Olsen, Tillie.  Silences. New York: Delacorte, 1978.

Rico, Gabriele.  Keynote Address and Workshop on Recreations.  Gulf Shores Conference on the Teaching of Writing. Point Clear, AL.  August 1993.

To cite this page:

Gates, Joanne E.  "Testimonials: A Classroom Exercise Based On Tillie Olsen Interview." Based on a Re-Creation Exercise Inspired by Gabriele Rico Workshops. July 2000 [DATE OF ACESS] <http://www.jsu.edu/depart/english/gates/teachpro/olsentes.html>

If quoting only from a partuclar Response by letter, cite the full information as above.  and list the Student Reponse [letter] before the date.
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