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About the Author
Lori A. May is a writing mentor at University of King’s College, Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is Founding Editor of Poets’ Quarterly (www.poetsquarterly.com), and her other books include The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship & the Writing Life (Bloomsbury, 2014) and The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students (Continuum, 2011). www.loriamay.com
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Inspiration and Techniques for Writing Instruction
By Danita Berg, Lori A. May
Multilingual MattersCopyright © 2015 Danita Berg, Lori A. May and the authors of individual chapters
All rights reserved.
In The Oxford English Dictionary, 'essay' has two entries – one a noun and the other a verb. The noun definition is one often associated with academic writing: 'A composition of moderate length on any particular subject, or branch of subject ... said of a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range.' I am more interested in the verb entry: 'to essay' is '[t]o put to the proof, try (a person or thing); to test the nature, excellence, fitness, etc. of; to practice (an art, etc.) by way of trial; To try by tasting; to try to do, effect, accomplish, or make (anything difficult).' In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, David Shields (2011: 9) points out the Latin antecedent to the term 'essay': 'experior, meaning "to try, test, experience, prove."' The verb definition of essay is an active process, one that values experimenting and working through ideas without necessarily arriving at a definitive conclusion. The emphasis is on doing, trying – testing – even if the attempt fails or leads down an unintended path. What would happen in our writing classrooms if we treated the word 'essay' as a verb instead of a noun? What if we encouraged student essaying?
I walk to and from campus almost every day, barring bad weather (which is common on the wide open plains of Oklahoma) or the necessary toting of heavy objects. As I walk the three blocks to my office, my mind often turns to teaching: on the way to campus, I think about lesson plans for the day, revising them in my mind as my iPod pumps music into my ears. On my way home at the end of the day, I reflect: what went well? What not-so-much? How will this experience feed into the next class period I have with these students? The act of walking allows me to catch my breath and work through my thoughts. I am essaying about teaching – journeying, trying, reflecting – each day. And it is that act of essaying I hope to pass on to my students, in first-year composition, creative nonfiction, peer tutoring, fundamentals of English (our basic writing course) ... really, any class they have, with me or someone else. I want my students to essay, even as they frown when they are told to create an essay.
The essay is a bit of a lost genre: it seems to fall somewhere between creative writing and academic writing, what Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres (1993: 152) calls a 'boundary form;' put another way, essays inhabit a space between literary and rhetorical genres, yet most of the writing assigned in college courses is labeled an 'essay' (Devitt, 2004). The word 'essay' has been co-opted by the educational establishment to describe school-based genres, most of which do not reflect the characteristics associated with essay writing outside of school walls: what most teachers call essays in the classroom are more accurately labeled as articles or themes, or at the very least a specific essay subgenre – the academic essay. But the classroom is not where essays developed as a genre; the essay is a genre that has evolved in the writing world as writers have used it for various reasons since at least the 16th century. David Shields (2011: 8) goes so far as to trace the essay's lineage from aphorisms:
When read together, these collections of sayings could be said to make a general argument on their common themes, or at least shed some light somewhere, or maybe simply obsess about a topic until a little dent has been made in the huge idea they all pondered ... Via editing and collage, the form germinated into longer, more complex, more sustained, and more sophisticated essayings.
If the genre's tradition is traced through Michel de Montaigne, who is often touted as the father of the genre, it becomes easy to see the fluidness of the form: essays often seem to incorporate aspects of other genres while they move along, focusing in particular on working through a writer's thought processes as opposed to offering the neat and tidy linear arguments often valued in academic writing (D'Agata, 2009). That being said, I realize that the Francis Bacon essay tradition, a more formal and rigid subgenre more closely akin to conventional academic writing, arose around the same time as Montaigne's Essais: according to O.B. Hardison's (1989) essay 'Binding Proteus: An essay on the essay,' Montaigne first used the word 'essai' between 1572 and 1580, while Bacon became the second person to use the term in 1597. Both Montaignian and Baconian essays have a similar interest in tracing experimental ideas; as Shields (2011: 138) puts it, 'Maybe every essay automatically is in some way experimental – not an outline traveling toward a foregone conclusion but an unmapped quest that has sprung from the word question.' The difference lies in the presentation of those ideas: Bacon's essays follow a specific, formal structure for the presentation of ideas, while Montaigne's informal and meditative musings are known for the seeming absence of structure (Lopate, 1995). Bacon composed essays; Montaigne essayed.
My interest in essaying began as an undergraduate student. I enrolled in a creative nonfiction workshop with a special focus on personal essays. Though I was afraid of sharing my work with my classmates, the act of writing in this genre thrilled me. I didn't have to know the answers as I wrote. Writing was an answer. It wasn't that I would find the answers to my questions when I was finished, though. The importance was the act of writing. As bell hooks (1999: 13) suggests in Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work, 'Writing is a way to clarify, to interpret, to reinvent ... we write because language is the way we keep a hold on life.' Writing was a way of thinking through, though I rarely (never?) found answers while I essayed along. Personal essays gave me perspective on my experiences without requiring me to compose a tidy explanatory narrative. I wrote conventional academic texts, too, and I learned something as I wrote them. The difference, though, was the focus: I learned about Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, feminism, and sonnets when I wrote those academic texts. When I essayed, I learned about process, struggle – learning. Things got messy – and uncomfortable – and it was okay. I was holding on to see where I was going. I just needed to push along, to essay my way: 'The essay consists of double translation: memory translates experience; essay translates memory' (Shields, 2011: 61).
Essays often vary in the characteristics they hold, which can make it difficult to create a comprehensive definition. As G. Douglas Atkins (1990: 12) points out in 'The return of/to the essay,' '[t]he essay is a genre that flirts with all other genres,' and it is the bagginess of the genre that sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish between essays and other genres and, therefore, makes it easy for someone to label a text an essay, whether the designation is accurate or not (Devitt, 2004: 10). But I believe there are some consistent qualities in the genre that make it especially useful in writing classrooms: essays tend to be inquiry-driven even as they are digressive – to essay requires writers to come at a subject from as many angles as possible, even when those viewpoints are contradictory. It is the contradictions that make the journeying – the essaying – worthwhile, and the genre provides a space in which writers are encouraged to admit and work through contradictions, which is often discouraged in conventional academic writing. Most academic writing is structured in such a way that students must reach a conclusion/decision/ agreement before they begin writing, so that it is easier to compose a thesis and refute counterarguments. Essaying, on the other hand, focuses on the process of finding those arguments, counterarguments, and positions, and putting them into conversation in one space. As Phillip Lopate (2013) points out, 'Argumentation is a good skill to have, but the real argument should be with oneself.'
I double-majored in both English and French as an undergraduate student, and I was struck by how often I heard the word 'essay' or some variation in both English and French. In English classes, I was often tasked with creating something called an 'essay,' while in French classes, I was often told 'Tuessaie de parler en Francais. You must try to speak (in) French.' In one language, I created a polished object, while in the other language, I made an attempt, which sometimes succeeded and sometimes did not. Object and action. Or was it action and reaction?
Essays are conversational: the genre invites dialogue between writers and readers, asking both parties to consider and reconsider their positions as they move through the text. Even more important than the potential for conversation between writer and readers, though, are the dialogic elements of essays that occur within the text as the writer converses with him or herself. Essays encourage writers to gather as much information as possible while the writer works her way through her ever-shifting opinions on a topic, allowing writers to take their time in unfolding a topic and examining it as closely as possible (Atkins, 1990; Boetcher Joeres, 1993; Lopate, 1995). As Montaigne (2012a) points out, 'we are, I know not how, double in ourselves, which is the cause that what we believe we do not believe, and cannot disengage ourselves from what we condemn.' We must acknowledge and work through the contradictions in essays. The nature of essay writing encourages an emphasis on thinking through, of asking Montaigne's (2012b) question, 'Que saisje? What do I know?' – it is an emphasis on the act rather than the final product.
I'm really good at starting things: I've started many writing, knitting, gardening, home improvement, and service projects. I find, though, that I hate the thought of coming to an end of most of these attempts (dissertation writing notwithstanding); I suspect that this desire to start without ending is a large reason why I am so attracted to essays, and it is also why I rely on essaying as a pedagogical strategy in my classes. It involves all the joy of starting without the mourning that comes when something has ended, because we can never really stop essaying on a topic once we've started. 'Show me what you are thinking, why you are thinking it, and how you got here,' I often say in conferences with students. 'Help me essay alongside you in this text; remember, though, that there is no such thing as a finished text, only a text with a deadline.'
If we focus on the act of 'essaying' – of exploring a topic and journeying through the composing process – rather than focusing on the resulting object known as 'the essay,' I believe the essay can become a useful genre to teach in a variety of writing courses. Essaying allows instructors and students to reconsider how and why they compose texts. Focusing on essaying as a verb provides a venue through which student writers can not only explore unfamiliar topics but also become more aware of how they function as writers: the resulting discussions of process can be especially useful when discussing multimodal texts and the multiple literacies our students bring to the classroom. If writing assignments focused on the act of essaying, though, students could then 'show their work,' as they are often asked to do in mathclasses, because 'What happened to the writer isn't what matters; what matters is the larger sense that the writer is able to make of what happened' (Shields, 2011: 41–42). What's more, using essays as a space to work through contradictions also provides instructors a site from which to encourage discussions of invention, process, and the chaotic nature of writing, which can help students better understand how they create texts in a variety of rhetorical situations, for a variety of forms. As one of my students said after taking an essay writing class with me:
[W]riting is a process: you learn that biking. You learn how to ride a bike. You learn how, you know? And you learn how to bake a cake. But I never really saw writing as a process. Yeah, I saw it as drafts and editing, that sort of thing, but it's a lot more than just drafting. From start to finish, it's a process. And it's a constant process ... and just recently, I learned that reading is a process, comprehension is a process. I HAD NO IDEA. And so, you know, the entire world's a process. (Landrum-Geyer, 2010: 135–136)
Recently, I read David Shields' (2011) Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which is a nonfiction text that's been generating a lot of buzz in the creative nonfiction/essay/literary communities since it came out in 2011. The gist of Shields' (2011) argument is this: we are desperate for reality primarily because the lines between reality and fiction have become so blurred in literature and television – almost every medium, genre, or form – that we've become accustomed to accepting a poor copy of reality as reality itself. Of course, reality is contextual and ephemeral; my reality is not your reality, and each or our realities is influenced by what we read/watch/listen to/play/talk about/etc. This fact leads into another aspect of Shields' (2011: 209) text: he is loath to cite where the quotations in the text come from because, as he puts it, 'reality cannot be copyrighted.' In other words, there are so many influences that shape us (and which we shape right back), and those influences have influences, that we cannot always remember where the inspiration came from -what's important, though, is that it did inspire us, and we shouldn't be afraid to follow the inspiration – in writing, music, film, life. This is why plagiarism becomes a more complicated cultural construct that we like to admit in school settings. What's more, Shields (2011) repeatedly admits to preferring shorter nonfiction texts instead of novels, especially essays (in the Montaignian 'attempt' or 'journey' vein) to novels because, in his estimation, it is the grappling with our personal realities – the meditations, reflections, philosophical meanderings – that matter, not the faithfulness to rendering details exactly as they happened. I wouldn't go so far as to say the novel is dead or that we no longer need fiction (and I'm struggling to decide where exactly Shields lands in this discussion), but I think this text speaks to the importance of essaying.
In a February 2013 opinion column for The New York Times, Phillip Lopate explores the benefits of essay writing as a mode of thinking through the world around us. The column, titled 'The essay, an exercise in doubt,' is short but clear: 'At bottom,' writes Lopate (2013), 'we are deeply unsure and divided, and the essay feasts on doubt.' Lopate (2013) goes on to explain, while channeling Theodor Adorno, 'The essay's job is to track consciousness; if you are fully aware of your mind you will find your thoughts doubling back, registering little peeps of ambivalence or disbelief.' It's the awareness of process that I find most important as a teacher: historically, the essay has been seen as a genre that invites writers to write about writing. The power of essay writing goes beyond writing about writing, though. Essaying is a process in and of itself. It's a way of thinking that allows the writer to see his or her progress/process, which can be, as a student once told me, a 'critical epiphany' (Landrum-Geyer, 2010: 150) for writers who have not thought about their processes before.
Sometimes I worry that I am falling into the long-denigrated navel gazing that is often associated with personal essay writing, and I grow concerned that I am encouraging that same potential for narcissism in my students. So what if my student can create an engaging essay about his final football game? What does that matter when it comes to living life as an engaged, responsible citizen? These questions, concerns, worries, are my essays as I journey along, reconsidering my pedagogical choices. I can only hope that my essaying about my teaching will model a framework for thinking to my students. Because a final football game can have larger significance if investigated from as many angles as possible – if, that is, the writer essays while composing his essay.
I don't mean to suggest that 'the essay' is the only thing we should be teaching in a composition classroom. There are many genres that students should experience in academic settings, and the number of genres grows daily as our ways of communicating with each other morph and change. I do believe that essays should be a genre that we re-consider in the classroom. Often, when a teacher tells a student to write an essay, he or she is really asking for a specialized subgenre – the academic essay. Occasionally, the teacher is asking for that age-old classroom genre, the theme. Very rarely do instructors ask students to create essays of the sort that actually live and breathe outside of classroom walls. The essay is, in fact, an organic genre -one that sprang from a need centuries ago, and one that has managed to stick around by adapting and evolving alongside its surroundings. When we misname the genre we ask students to create, we risk cutting off the natural progress of that form; despite the misuse of the word 'essays' in classrooms since the 19th century, though, actual essays – in all their wandering glory -have managed to continue on, pushing their way through, often under the radar of writers and educators. Essays haven't gone anywhere, despite our best efforts (and despite news to the contrary), because the life of an essay depends on the act of essaying. And we need to embrace that act in the classroom in order to help our students better understand the who/what/when/where/why/how of their writing(s).
Excerpted from Creative Composition by Danita Berg, Lori A. May. Copyright © 2015 Danita Berg, Lori A. May and the authors of individual chapters. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
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Table of Contents
1 On Essaying Denise Landrum-Geyer 1
2 Eat Your Spinach! Why a Blend of Personal and Academic Discourses Matter Sara Burnett 10
3 Writing by Creation, with Response, in Experience Graeme Harper 16
4 Give it a Taste: Serving Creative Writing in Small Doses Abigail G. Scheg 24
5 Wiggling Between the Forms: A Cross-Genre Approach to Writing Dustin Michael 30
6 Writing to Discover: Creative Nonfiction and Writing Across the Curriculum Andrew Bourelle 35
7 Creative Writing's Five Stages of Development: The Mind of the Creative Writer in the Composition Classroom Jonathan Bradley Sarah Gray-Panesi 47
8 Sought-After Sophistications: Crafting a Curatorial Stance in the Creative Writing and Composition Classrooms Rochelle L. Harris Christine Stewart-Nuñez 59
9 Audience Resurrected: Restoring Motive and Purpose to Creative Writing Michael Kula 77
10 Lending the Muse a Hand: Expanding the Role of Social Constructivism and Collaborative Writing in Creative Writing Pedagogies Rod Zink 87
11 Grammar and Creativity in Composition: An Unexpected Nexus Shawn Kerivan 109
12 Invention in Creative Writing: Explorations of the Self and the Social in Creative Genres Danita Berg 114
13 Teaching the Exploratory Essay as Pedagogy Process and Project Sonya Ruber Ioanna Opidee 129
14 Beyond Argumentation: Toulmin's Model as a Dialogic, Processual Heuristic Debra Jacobs 138
15 Leave it to the Imagination: Service Learning as Part of an Undergraduate Creative Writing Curriculum Scott J. O'Callaghan 148
16 Show, Don't Tell: Using Graphic Narratives to Teach Descriptive Writing Tammie M. Kennedy Tracey D. Menten 154
17 A First-Timer's Approach to Teaching in a Non-Traditional Setting Connie Langhorst 169
18 In It for the Long Haul: The Pedagogy of Perseverance Anna Leahy 174