Workshops

 

Thursday April 5 Writing Workshop

The remarkable thing about personal essays, which openly mimic this exploratory process, is that they can be so quirky in their “shape.” No diagram matches the exact form that evolves, and that is because the best essayists resist predictable approaches. They refuse to limit themselves to generic forms that, like mannequins, can be tricked out in personal clothing. Nevertheless, recognizing a few basic underlying structures may help an essay writer invent a more-personal, more-unique form. Here, then, are several main options.

-Tim Bascom, Picturing the Perfect Essay: A Visual Guide

Today we are going to continue to talk about structures and how writers put parts of a piece of writing together. Here is some language to describe and recognize some structural patterns:

  • “narrative with a lift” (twist in chronology, beginning at the end, breaking to a moment in the past, weaving together several time-lines, use of tension—a plot)
  • “the whorl of reflection” (reflective essayists circling a subject, “wheeling and diving like a hawk,” in the words of Philip Lopate)
  • “the formal limits of focus” (too much information, delete and delete, framing event or combination of framed moments, not narrative but thematic threads weave segments into whole)
  • “dipping into a well” (stop and start, pause in forward motion by dipping into a thematic well, “loops of reflective commentary)”
  • braided and layered structures” (lyrical patterns, images accumulate, layer upon layer, creating mood)
  • “coming full circle” (“The ending both closes and opens at the same time!”)

We will use as our example David Gessner’s essay “Learning To Surf” that appeared in Orion magazine and in the anthology of essays Animals and People.

  • Observing (“watching”)
  • Surfing (is it 2 paragraphs?)
  • Reading (about Pelicans)
  • Reflection
  • Boat Ride with friend of new friend: visit to Mouth of Cape Fear River and Islands (Observing birds)

Watching Pelicans and Surfers

Move to Southern Island Town in North Carolina (Writer took a job as professor and chair of creative writing at UNC Wilmington)

Admiration for Pelicans (and, surfers)

On place: The truth (1): move has unsettled him. Shaky. At times “started to fall apart.” Less sure of self. Disoriented (by heat). Bad credit report. Loan rejected. “You have weak stability.”

On Place: The truth (2) Not such a bad place. Not always summer, fewer surfers and more pelicans. Time with daughter. Fatherhood (joy)

Reading about Pelicans (being polite to his neighbors, developing a crush)

Attempting to surf (but still watching, and admiring, Pelicans)

Reading (and reporting on his reading) about Pelicans

Perceptions and descriptions of Pelicans

Pelicans as pathway to insight: human beings and self:

When not seeing pelicans as comic or grotesque, human beings often describe them as sedate and sagelike. Perhaps this springs from a dormant human need to see in animals the qualities we wish we had. Compared to our own harried, erratic lives, the lives of the pelicans appear consistent, reliable, even ritualistic, as befits a bird that has been doing what it’s been doing for thirty million years. And compared to their deep consistent lives, my own feels constantly reinvented, improvised. But before I get too down on myself, I need to remember that that’s the kind of animal I am, built for change, for adaptation. Long before we became dull practitioners of agriculture, human beings were nomads, wanderers, capable of surviving in dozens of different environments.

Pelicans and people (daughter). “at the the risk of romanticizing” and benefits and costs of adapting beyond ritual

We humans face a different set of problems. Our bodies still run on rhythms we only half understand (and often ignore), and we have adapted ourselves beyond ritual. To a certain extent all rules are off. The life of a hunter or farmer, the life that all humans lived until recently, directly connected us to the worlds of animals and plants, and to the cycles of the seasons. Without these primal guidelines, we are left facing a kind of uncertainty that on good days offers a multifarious delight of options, and on bad days offers chaos. Ungrounded in this new place, I am acutely sensitive to both possibilities. And while it isn’t comfortable building a foundation on uncertainty, it has the advantage of being consistent with reality. Maybe in this world the best we can do is to not make false claims for certainty, and try to ride as gracefully as we can on the uncertain.

We need nature

THE HUMAN BRAIN IS NO MATCH for depression, for the chaos of uprootedness. To try to turn our brains on ourselves, to think we can solve our own problems within ourselves, is to get lost in a hall of mirrors. But there is a world beyond the human world and that is a reason for hope. From a very selfish human perspective, we need more than the human.

Pelicans as inspiration. Learning to surf

Story continues (self awareness) and pattern of familiarity : Getting used to things

I COULD END ON THAT NOTE OF GRACE, but it wouldn’t be entirely accurate. The year doesn’t conclude triumphantly with me astride the board, trumpets blaring, as I ride that great wave to shore. Instead it moves forward in the quotidian way years do, extending deep into winter and then once again opening up into spring. As the days pass, my new place becomes less new, and the sight of the squadrons of pelicans loses some of its thrill. This too is perfectly natural, a process known in biology as habituation. Among both birds and humans, habituation is, according to my books, the “gradual reduction in the strength of a response due to repetitive stimulation.” This is a fancy way of saying we get used to things.

Pelicans and people

While I acknowledge these vast differences between bird and human, there is something fundamentally unifying in the two experiences of watching the pelicans and watching my daughter. There is a sense that both experiences help me fulfill Emerson’s still-vital dictum: “First, be a good animal.” For me fatherhood has intensified the possibility of loss, the sense that we live in a world of weak stability. But it has also given me a more direct connection to my animal self, and so, in the face of the world’s chaos, I try to be a good animal. I get out on the water in an attempt to live closer to what the nature writer Henry Beston called “an elemental life.”

Middle age / fatherhood / limits

So that is enough, you see. One of the new territories I am entering is that of middle age, and the world doesn’t need too many middle-aged surfers. I feared fatherhood, but most of the results of procreation have been delightful ones. One exception, however, is the way that disaster seems to loom around every corner — disaster that might befall my daughter, my wife, myself. No sense adding “death by surfing” to the list.

Pelicans as constant, human change (walking now with daughter)

Coming to terms with feelings of mushiness and sentimentality (again, reading and research on Pelicans)

pelicans have long served humans as myth and symbol. “I am like a pelican of the wilderness,” reads Psalm 102. At some point early Christians got it into their heads that pelicans fed their young with the blood from their own breasts, a mistake perhaps based on the red at the tip of some pelican bills, or, less plausibly, on their habit of regurgitating their fishy meals for their young. Whatever the roots of this misapprehension, the birds became a symbol of both parental sacrifice and, on a grander scale, of Christ’s own sacrifice. The images of pelicans as self-stabbing birds, turning on their own chests with their bills, were carved in stone and wood and still adorn churches all over Europe. Later, the parental symbol was sometimes reversed, so that Lear, railing against his famous ingrate offspring, calls them “those pelican daughters.”

Visit to Mouth of Cape Fear River. Islands, Ibis, Terns, Pelicans

Pelicans and People (“I’m not sure exactly what I gain from intertwining my own life with the lives of the animals I live near, but I enjoy it on purely physical level.”)

While the birds remain quiet and calm, there is a sense of urgency here. This marsh island, like most of the islands that pelicans breed on, is very close to sea level. One moon-tide storm could wash over it and drown the season out. It is a time of year marked by both wild hope and wild precariousness, danger and growth going hand in hand. The birds are never more vulnerable, and as a father, I know the feeling.

Watching Pelicans (again)

Tuesday April 3 Writing Workshop

Context

Over the weekend I read all of the writing each of you have produced in the course. I have also reread the material below in the Writing Workshops–including the observations that you have made on your own and others’ essays as well as my observations and recommendations about the challenges of writing an essay.

My general conclusion is that many, if not most, of you are still grappling with the conventions that align with the dichotomy between the so-called personal and the so-called critical essay. This is a wicked problem (the problem of genre) and so there is no need for despair. However, the problem is the problem of the theory and practice of the essay.

The essays you have written track in two directions. On the one hand, there is the temporal narrative. This, then this, then this. Such an essay can construct a series of events, whether fortunate or unfortunate, into a story. On the other hand, there is the analysis of an idea, often arising out of a way of reading a text of some kind, whether literary or cultural.

About two months ago I transcribed the following list of what essays do, and what essayists are doing when they make essays:

  • modulate self-expression and social commentary
  • situate themselves historically, intellectually, and culturally
  • engage rigorously and ethically with ideas, data, and texts by others
  • reflect on and revise their ideas, values, and sense of self
  • develop discursive, aesthetic, and rhetorical awarness
  • document shifts in their thinking, commitments, and modes of expression

In her discussion of essays in which “historical thinking” is at work Nicole Wallack writes how these essays

demonstrate how it is possible for an individual writer to engage with sociological, cultural, and historical questions without making a false choice between two undesirable ends: to see social issues solely as simply a larger version of one’s autobiography or to believe that one must mask one’s presence in order to create a sense of authority or objectivity about issues that are shared by others (73)

The conventions for the kinds of essays not subject to this false choice are not universal. And this is why I have encouraged you to read essays by your classmates and also by other writers. It is also the case that the relationship between an idea and a convincing writerly presence is constitutive and so the form the essay will take most often only comes into view as the essay is made.

What to Do

Work in pairs. (See list of pairs below.) Read your workshop partner’s essay. Select from the essay one sentence that signals the idea of the essay. Last week we isolated a sentence in Sam’s essay,  exempli gratia,

“What we are comprised of is a tapestry of experience. We are a weave of one moment to the next.” (Sam)

Another fine example comes from an essay by David Gessner that we will look at on Thursday this week, Learning to Surf. Gessner has just moved to a “southern island town.” He begins the essay watching pelicans and surfers bobbing beyond the breakers. His essay is about learning to surf and it is about Pelicans. He starts it this way:

OUT JUST BEYOND the breaking waves they sit there bobbing, two groups of animals, avian and human, pelicans and surfers. As they rise and fall on humps of water, the pelicans look entirely unperturbed, their foot-long bills pulled like blades into scabbards, fitting like puzzle pieces into the curves of their throats. The surfers, mostly kids, look equally casual. A girl lies supine on her board, looking up at the sky, one leg crossed over the other in an almost exaggerated posture of relaxation. For the most part the birds and surfers ignore each other, rising up and dropping down together as the whole ocean heaves and then sighs.

He sticks with these two animals out there in the water:

“I HAVE NOW BEEN PRACTICING my new art for three days. The pelicans have been practicing theirs for thirty million years. It turns out that the reason they look prehistoric is simple: they are. Fossils indicate that something very close to the same bird we see today was among the very first birds to take flight. They were performing their rituals — diving, feeding, courting, mating, nesting — while the world froze and thawed, froze and thawed again, and while man, adaptable and relatively frenetic, came down from the trees and started messing with fire and farming and guns.”

What is interesting about the essay, is that it is about something else:

We humans face a different set of problems. Our bodies still run on rhythms we only half understand (and often ignore), and we have adapted ourselves beyond ritual. To a certain extent all rules are off. The life of a hunter or farmer, the life that all humans lived until recently, directly connected us to the worlds of animals and plants, and to the cycles of the seasons. Without these primal guidelines, we are left facing a kind of uncertainty that on good days offers a multifarious delight of options, and on bad days offers chaos. Ungrounded in this new place, I am acutely sensitive to both possibilities. And while it isn’t comfortable building a foundation on uncertainty, it has the advantage of being consistent with reality. Maybe in this world the best we can do is to not make false claims for certainty, and try to ride as gracefully as we can on the uncertain.

THE HUMAN BRAIN IS NO MATCH for depression, for the chaos of uprootedness. To try to turn our brains on ourselves, to think we can solve our own problems within ourselves, is to get lost in a hall of mirrors. But there is a world beyond the human world and that is a reason for hope. From a very selfish human perspective, we need more than the human.

What you are looking for in your examples of presence that are the result of particular conceptual dilemmas, possible resolutions to a problem, the surfacing of the idea around which the essay is organized and the writer’s presence becomes audible or visible. If you are unable to find such a sentence (or sentences) that is extremely useful information for a writer. No idea, no essay. But the corollary is that one can have an idea and not have an essay.

Anna “Dogs”
Kate “Technology Turmoil”

Meaghan “Solidarity”
Matt “Clueless Tourists”

Luke “When a Tree Falls in the Forest”
Fletcher “Expectations on Aspirations”

Sam” The Mosaic that is Me”
Ben “Writing Therapy”

Julia “Draft (no title)”
Savannah “A Letter I will Never Write”

Dylan “Getting Good: A Poor Attempt to Become a Tetris Grandmaster”
Courtney “Storytelling Though Social Media”

Joey “#Whose Lives Matter?”
Chelsea “Debunking the Stigma”
Luke “Ralph Waldo Emerson”

No essays group. Your work is to talk about writing your essay.

Patrick
Devon
Nick

Week 12 Thursday March 29

We are reading essayists writing about the essay in this course to develop a historical perspective on the essay-what it has been, what it is, and what it might be. At the same time, each of you is a writer who is by definition also a reader. Reading essays is important for writers of the essay: for the poetics of the essay is exemplified in essays themselves.

What have you learned from reading David Madden’s short essay On Laughing: notes on the funniest sound there is and William Carlos Williams’ longer essay Against the Weather: A Portrait of the Artist?

Week 7 Tuesday February 27 and Thursday March 1

Mark

  • The challenge this week will be subtraction and addition. At least this is what I am thinking after reading the eight essays that are up this morning. These essays need to be rethought as wholly and singularly dedicated to the essay or essays under discussion.
  1. Subtraction: in most of these essays there is a substantial number of words that are about the author, or contextual information. While these sentences (and paragraphs) are potentially useful there is little evidence that this information is necessary given the purpose of the essays
  2. Addition: After moving all of the discursive commentary on the author and the context(s) you will be left with what will in most cases be 50% fewer words. My suggestion is to make a list of salient qualities that exemplify the essays you are discussing.  

The work of these essays is the work of generating a vocabulary to describe how the writer is writing. The focus is on the writing, and the challenge is generating a descriptive vocabulary for this purpose. The essays together will help an interested reader learn something about the essay as a literary form.

A summary of the notes from the editorial team

1. Purpose

Avoid “biographizing” and let the style do more of the talking

Some of the essays are trying to describe style (paragraph structure, sentence structure, grammar, vocabulary, poetics, hermeneutics), through either the writer’s life or the writer’s history. While knowing this does help contextualize why the writer uses this type of style, it doesn’t have enough focus on how exactly a writer might go about defining their distinct style. It is difficult to describe style by doing anything than going to the micro-level of writing. Because style is more complex than just the reason why someone writes, it is important to look very closely at what the writer is doing.

2. Presence

Matt’s individual voice is also a constant in his writing.  Like Courtney, he shares how he, himself, relates to this essay and the author it is written about.

3. Sentences

“What we are comprised of is a tapestry of experience. We are a weave of one moment to the next.” (Sam)

“Leslie is never just Leslie, and I am never just Sam.” (Sam)

4. Beginnings

Meghan starts with a quotation, Courtney starts with a personal experience, and Chelsea jumps right into biographical information about her author

Individual Comments

Courtney

 

“Essay On David Foster Wallace Or Something” by Dylan Ryan

  • The title is very interesting because it gives an impression of what the author’s tone will be like throughout the essay. It is very sarcastic, nonchalant, and fits well with Dylan’s writing style. This also directly correlated to match Wallace’s writing style – very clever!
  • I really like how Dylan starts the essay by giving a personal narrative and recollection of a memory. For me, this was engaging and I was interested to see how he was going to connect this to his essayist – it was controlled chaos which kept me interested and on my toes
  • It seems like Dylan has a very similar style to David Foster Wallace – it seems like neither of them sugar coat their words and they are very honest. I like that Dylan chose to match his tone to Wallace’s because the reader was already in the right mentality for understanding Wallace’s essay and tone

“Rachel Carson” by Meghan Hayman

  • I really like how Meghan chose to open her piece with a quote! I believe this is a great way to set the tone for the essay and to get the reader a good mindset for this essay. It quickly immerses the reader into the world of this essay
  • I find it helpful that Meghan chose to begin her essay with background information. For me it is helpful to have a bit of understanding of an essayist’s life and their history before beginning to analyze their style
  • It was also nice to have a picture of Rachel Carson at the top of the essay and another picture of her book for a pop of color. I found it helpful to have a tangible image to connect to

“The Satirical Reality of the World” by Kate Reed

  • Again, in a similar style of Meghan’s essay I like having the background information on Huxley before dissecting his works and style
  • There is a really strong use of quotes – I especially found helpful how the block quotes are put in a different color and size. The quotes do a great job of moving the essay along and connecting to the point Kate is talking about
  • This essay is very logical and easy to follow along with – she breaks the essay up in to sections just as Huxley has pillars which makes it clear, concise, and interesting to see what is next

“From Rill or Rapids: On Mary Oliver’s “Upstream” by Luke Bartlett

  • I love the title – it is so intriguing and sets the tone well
  • I really like how Luke states his admiration for Mary Oliver in the very first paragraph. As a reader this captivated me and it made me want to understand why he likes her and it made me want to like her too. I really like the personal connection to the essayist
  • I love how Luke chose to format his quote from Mary Oliver because immediately I connected it to poetry which was great because directly after the quote Luke touches on how poetic this quote (as well as the majority of Oliver’s work). The formatting of this quote in this way made it stand on its own and forces the reader to see how important it is

“Every One of These Was a World” by Sam Whittaker

  • I like that Sam chose to open his essay with a quote by his essayist
  • I think Sam’s tactic for how he shared when and how he was introduced to Leslie Jamison was very smart and intriguing – it made me want to read Jamison myself
  • I love the picture – it is nice to have a picture to examine especially in longer pieces. As a reader it intrigues me to see how it connects to the piece
  • Sam has a very strong use of language and distinct style which has been portrayed now in all three of his pieces. He has beautiful sentence structure and many paradoxical sentences that read like poetry to me. This makes me not only interested in Sam’s words but also excited to read them!

“Inside a Woman’s Psyche” by Devon Sacca

  • Right off the bat I love the title because it is just mysterious and intriguing enough to perk my interest.I also immediate notice that this is an unusual font and there is an unexpected picture which matches the theme of her blog – I’m already interested! I am curious about the dolphin photo though – is this photo of dolphins relevant or is it at the start of every post? I couldn’t find the connection other than the H20 theme of the blog
  • I like how the paragraphs are split up into short sections – as a layout this is appealing to the eye and as a reader it is not too intimidating to read
  • I think Devon does a great job of comparing and contrasting her own opinions against Nfah-Abbenyi (“I agree that women should have a choice about how they want to live their lives”)
  • I really love the last paragraph where Devon is speaking straight to the audience. This is a great way of summing of the most important boiled down points of the essay and it is written in an engaging tone with just a touch of humor.
  • I Would be interested to read why Devon chose this essayist or her opinions on Nfah-Abbenyi’s writing

“What I Learned From Zadie Smith’s “Feel Free” Essay Anthology” by Chelsea Birchmore

  • I love how Chelsea chose to include a stunning photo of Zadie Smith to the left of her essay – This is eye catching and beautifully formatted on her blog
  • I think it is really interesting how Chelsea included a miniature biography of Smith, however, I think it could be stronger if Chelsea connects this to Smith’s writing. Did her upbringing impact her writing? Why is it vital to share this information? How does this connect to Smith as an essayist? For example, Chelsea says “Smith grew up in North-West London as a part of a multicultural family, her Mom being Jamaican and her Father being English, which, more than likely, served as a kind of inspiration for the subject matter than can be found within some of her written work. With that being said, much of her writing tackles the concepts and dynamics of diversity, multiculturalism, and racial inequality in the UK.” I think this is awesome and it is directly showing why this is important to example. Is there a way to connect the first paragraph back?
  • I am reading Chelsea’s essay while it is “under construction” but she clearly states her planes and hopes for the essay. It sounds like she has a very clear path for the essay and it sounds really interesting!

“Bust a Gut” by Matt Beaty

  • I love the picture – it is so fun! However, on my computer the top of the picture is cut off, making the monkey’s face not shown. Is there a way to fix this?
  • The title works so well! It really sets the tone of what David Sedaris’s style will be like and it matches the picture perfectly
  • I think maybe splitting this essay into smaller paragraphs would be beneficial. Or possibly putting a space in between paragraphs. As a reader it is slightly overwhelming for formatting and I kept losing my place as I read
  • Matt does a fantastic job of connecting Sedaris’s essays back to himself and connecting it to his experiences and sharing his opinions
  • I really enjoy Matt’s tone – I think it is a great balance of informative and personal. It is as if Matt is just leading a discussion of Sedaris’s work instead of lecturing us which I find extremely engaging
  • I think Matt seamlessly shares examples of Sedaris’s work, painting a clear image for his readers
  • Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls has been sitting on my bookshelf unread for months but after reading Matt’s essay I actually really want to pick it up and start reading it this weekend! To me, this is a sign that this is a really well written and organized essay

“Connections” by Anna Leclere

  • I appreciate Anna’s honesty with her first impressions of Gary Snyder (“At first, it confused me” and “Honestly, it was a little shocking”)
  • Anna includes quotes well, using them to her advantage to move the essay along and make connections
  • I don’t really see the correlation between the title and the essay. I understand that as Anna says “If we are less connected, it is much easier to destroy the ‘wild’” but I wish this was expanded more to connect to the title or that the title was longer in order to connect to this quote.
  • It seems like Anna focuses more on the poem than Snyder’s essays. His poetry is clearly very bizarre and abnormal which is intriguing – I am interested to know if his essays are written in a similar style
  • I am excited to read more of this essay once it is complete because Snyder sounds like a very intriguing essayist!

“Joan Didion: The New Journalist” By Lucas Thors

  • Again, I love that Lucas also chose to open with a quote! I especially enjoy this Joan Didion quote because it gives a great sense of the essayist’s tone. It is also paradoxical and automatically peaks the reader’s interest because they want to learn how Didion was able to write again
  • Lucas does a great job of organizing this essay – his ideas are concise, easy to follow, interesting to read, and the essay flows very naturally
  • Lucas has a strong informative tone in which he is able to share lots of information on Didion. I would love to hear at some point in the essay some of Lucas’s genuine opinions on Didion’s writing and style. Also, how did he come to find her work? (if this is able to fit naturally within the essay and connect to the rest of the piece of course)

 

Meghan

  • The introduction paragraph is the most important part of these essays I believe. Coming from one whose intro is not the best, I read through the essays that were posted so far and really enjoyed Kate’s beginning. It states, “One of the most notable essayists of the past century is Aldous Huxley. Huxley, wrote numerous collections of essays on top of over 50 works, including the famous Brave New World and The Doors of Perception, the book where the rock band The Doors got their name.” It is short yet to the point while also including a fun fact about the authors titles and the band The Doors. This intro is intriguing and makes me want to continue reading more about her author and his collections of essays.
    • Others made their intros into their personal connection piece (Courtney).
  • The essay’s mostly seem to go in chronological order.
  • Specifically with Matt’s essays he takes fun examples from his author and places them into his own essay to prove a point. “​Some of the things he writes about really takes the reader by surprise, which is what a good comedian does. He will start a sentence using his own voice to describe a situation that occurred to him at some point in his life, then pull the rug from under you by making an unexpected comment. For example, in an essay titled “Attaboy”, he talks about this incident where a man is shouting in a crowded street, “Citizens arrest!” and that a teenage boy he took the shoulder of is using a marker to draw graffiti on a mailbox. The parents of this boy are outraged by the man and basically accuse the man of sexual assault.” By doing this he allows for his readers who most likely have not read David Sedaris’ work. This paragraph with the more specific examples is towards the beginning of Matt’s essay and just like the intro it is important to draw your reader in.
  • Luke’s essay takes on the same sort of mentality in the beginning like Courtney’s. He adds a personal feeling into the essay rather than just starting off about his author and what she does as a writer.

Luke

  • I’ll agree with Meghan that the opening 1-2 paragraphs of these essays in particular are pretty vital; I’m pretty sure we’ve all been having fun with the more personal side of the essay, but as we’re now writing about another text we’re fading back (at least a little bit) into a more structured format because that’s what we’re used to, including a strong introduction and a strong conclusion. These have taken a few forms between us all: Meghan starts with a quotation, Courtney starts with a personal experience, and Chelsea jumps right into biographical information about her author. As of right now I’m totally clueless as to which one is most effective for the purpose of this essay, but it definitely makes it clear that there are many ways to go about it.
  • Of the essays that have been posted so far, I’m liking the creativity in the titles! The one that drew my attention most effectively was Sam’s titled Every One of These Was a World.
  • I think many of us (and definitely including myself) are guilty of having beaten around the bush with these essays. It seems like we’re all only using about half of our words to describe the presence of our writers– we’re used to the openness of the personal essay and maybe are losing track of what we’re meant to be focusing on?
  • In regard to Mark’s mention of it above, I feel like many of us are lacking in the vocabulary to describe others’ essays, and that perhaps could be a contributing factor as to why we’re including so much “filler.”
  • I’m seeing a lot of variation in the use of citations between essays. I wonder if there’s a standard for this?

Anna

  • As we write this essay, we move back into the kind of “formal” writing in which we have been trained.  It is interesting to see which of the authors maintain the individual voice that has been established in the first two–more personal–essays. Both Courtney and Matt do a very good job of keeping that personal voice present in their writing.  By still using “I”, and not just hopping back into the formal voice, to which we are so accustomed to using, they stay in the gray area of the spectrum between informal and formal essaying.  
  • Courtney describes her personal relationship to Virginia Woolf and her writing.  In her essay she says, “It was this professor who introduced me to my now hero, Virginia Woolf. It was in this class where I learned about the innovation, bravery, and world changing actions of Virginia Woolf.”  She approaches the subject of Woolf’s writing style, while maintaining her own presence as the author of the essay.  
  • Matt’s individual voice is also a constant in his writing.  Like Courtney, he shares how he, himself, relates to this essay and the author it is written about.
  • In writing this essay on another essayist, some people connected their author’s ideas with their own.  In Sam’s essay, he works through Leslie Jamison’s ideas in his own words.  He concludes, “Leslie is never just Leslie, and I am never just Sam.”
  • It seems that most people approached this essay with the question, “how does this relate to me?”  This is great because writing with yourself in mind allows you to bring your voice to the page.  This assignment challenged us to maintain our presence in the essay, while having us write about a more formal subject.  I think most people’s voices carried over well into this post

Luke Thors

  • As always, I greatly enjoyed reading Sam’s writing. He has a strong control of vocabulary and his voice is clearly distinct. I think one of the main issues that I, Sam, and most everyone else had was difficulty in having the focal point of the essay be the style in connection with every other aspect. Sam says “What we are comprised of is a tapestry of experience. We are a weave of one moment to the next.” I believe this is a brilliant statement and it is very characteristic of Sams writing style. It teaches me a lot about the type of writing that Leslie Jamison does and the type of person that she is. However, to hone in on the exact stylistic choices and use direct quotations would provide a better primary understanding of the text.
  • Mind Flowers gives a good background and contextual setting to talk about Zadie Smith and her writing. I feel like similarly to some other essays, the first paragraph starts with a description of the writers history. While this is very useful in developing understanding of the writer, it does not do as much to develop understanding of style. It does help to know that she usually writes about diversity in postmodern text, but I want to hear some examples of how her voice and style shine through no matter the background or context.
  • I learned a lot about Nfah-Abbenyi from reading Aphrodite’s essay. However I do believe that similarly to mine and a lot of other essays, there is too much work done on describing the writer instead of the writing. The comment on the quote that she used was helpful, regarding the goddess and the prostitute. “In both their life story is not told.” I want to hear more about this observation and how Nfah-Abbenyi describes the disparity between the prominence of men’s lives and women’s lives. Some of the essays are trying to describe style (paragraph structure, sentence structure, grammar, vocabulary, poetics, hermeneutics), through either the writer’s life or the writer’s history. While knowing this does help contextualize why the writer uses this type of style, it doesn’t have enough focus on how exactly a writer might go about defining their distinct style. It is difficult to describe style by doing anything than going to the micro-level of writing. Because style is more complex than just the reason why someone writes, it is important to look very closely at what the writer is doing.
  • After reading Meghan’s piece on Rachel Carson, I want to read more Rachel Carson! I think she explained beautifully how Carson uses descriptors to create a clear image.  “The words that Carson uses throughout her texts are considered to be describing words in my mind. She has the ability to fill a readers head with the perfect picture of her discussion. No matter what the topic seems to be sad or happy, dreary or bright she finds the needed words to imagine the moments.” After this she shows us a direct quote about a fish being killed by squid. “Now in the darkness these spots glowed with a strong phosphorescence as the shrimp darted about in the waters of the cove, mingling their fires with the steely green flashes of the ctenophores- creatures that held no further terrors for the young Scomber.” This is a great example of Rachel Carson’s style. Meghan describes how she is brilliant at describing things because of her keen perception and her vast knowledge on organisms and life in general.
  • Katherine’s piece on Aldous Huxley is very clear and well informed. She describes his history and background. However the trend of over-describing the person and historical context seems to reoccur here. I’m not saying it isn’t good and useful to describe the person that has the style, but maybe instead it would be more fruitful to have the style describe the person. Now I understand this is easier said than done, but each writer has a distinct style. If we can find ways to first mention style and then mention the readers life, I think there will be a more consistent focus.
  • People including myself have a tendency to biographize in these essays, since it is easier and more sturdy to refer to hard and fast facts about someone’s life. For instance some essays mention the books or essays that an author writes, but they do not mention the distinct styles seen in each one of those pieces of writing. Avoid biographizing and let the style do more of the talking. Aldous Huxley experienced many traumas in his life, so how does his writing style allude to that? Let the style be your guide when trying to describe the authors, so as not to be too lost in the person’s life or what they did during their writing careers.

*

Exercise for class: write a first sentence to your essay that describes the literary structure(s) your essay will be about.

Sentence

In her 2012 collection of essays When I was a Child I Read Books Marilynne Robinson weaves into her prose references, quotations, allusions, anecdotes, and echoes of the books and the writers with whom she has spent her life. Her choice, and control, of a vast body of writing enacts a way of thinking against the grain of contemporary intellectual discourse.

Examples (evidence)

Writing in 1870, Walt Whitman said, “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without; for I see clearly that the combined foreign world could not beat her down. But these savage, wolfish parties alarm me. Owning no law but their own will, more and more combative, less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood, the perfect equality of these states, the overarching American Ideas, it behooves you to convey yourself implicitly to no party, nor submit blindly to their dictators, but stealthily hold yourself judge and master over all of them.” And he said. . . .

Over the Years I have collected so many books that, in aggregate, they can fairly be called a library. I don’t know what percentage of them I have read. Increasingly I wonder how many of them I will ever read. This has done nothing to dampen my pleasure in acquiring more books. But it has caused me to ponder the meaning they have for me, and the fact that to me they epitomize one great aspect of the goodness of life. Recently I bought a book called On What Cannot be Said: Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature, and the Arts, Volume One: Classic Formulations. The title itself is worth far more than the price of the book. So far I have read only the last and latest selection, from The Wandering Cherub, by Silesius Angeles, who wrote in the seventeenth century.

Strategies (from Wallack)

  • Diagramming evidence to indicate which sections are devoted to evidence
  • Counting paragraphs devoted to evidence
  • Distinguishing among the different kind of evidence within an essay
  • Identifying how writer incorporates evidence
  • Include personal experience as evidence
  • Create “distinctive and identifiable voice”
  • Select POV toward subject
  • Create “artistic presence” through repeated formal patterns such as images, metaphors, and/or significant words/phrases
  • Diagramming essay to follow rhetorical purpose of each “I”
  • Noting frequency of “I”s in essay/ other pronoun shifts
  • Identifying reflection at sentence and paragraph levels
  • identifying linguistic patterns that mark the writer’s presence

Tuesday February 20

Reading Essays as Essays: Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies

“’No idea, no essay.’ Its corollary, however, can teach us even more about presence” ‘you can have the best idea in the world, and still not write an essay.’ The relationship between the essayist’s idea and the form is dynamic: in essays, we do not house our ideas in our formal choices, we enact them”

-Nicole Wallack, 29

Choose an Essay on From the Blogs page. Write a paragraph on each element—Idea, Presence, Evidence. Send the comments to the author and to Mark.

Idea To contribute ideas and not merely opinions. What is the intellectual, ethical, civic value?

“In essays, we do not house our ideas in our formal choices, we enact them” (29)

  • (31) places to find writer’s presence — where and how the writer (31):
    • Articulates motive for essay
    • Develops idea through proposing counter-arguments or re-defining key term
    • Chooses, incorporates, and “controls … quotation and detail”
    • Moves conceptually beyond obvious/cliche
    • Considers implications of exploration and conclusions in larger terms

Evidence 4 strategies to study evidence (58):

  • Diagramming evidence to indicate which sections are devoted to evidence
  • Counting paragraphs devoted to evidence
  • Distinguishing among the different kind of evidence within an essay
  • Identifying how writer incorporates evidence

Presence 4 ways writers create their presence:

  • Include personal experience as evidence
  • Create “distinctive and identifiable voice”
  • Select POV toward subject
  • Create “artistic presence” through repeated formal patterns such as images, metaphors, and/or significant words/phrases

4 strategies to study presence (58):

  • Diagramming essay to follow rhetorical purpose of each “I”
  • Noting frequency of “I”s in essay/ other pronoun shifts
  • Identifying reflection at sentence and paragraph levels
  • identifying linguistic patterns that mark the writer’s presence

Tuesday February 13

Week Five (Essay 2) Chelsea, Nick, Devon, Fletcher, Dylan, Patrick

General Comments

Nick

    • Not many “original” titles; almost all of them are just parodies of Montaigne’s title.
    • Multiple students attempt to follow the technique of Ross Gay where they begin their essay with a memory or personal experience as they try and connect it to whatever their primary topic is. In my opinion, a successful example of doing this can be found in Sam’s essay, “To Hell With Clarity.”
    • Due to the fact that students are often only assigned essays in order to complete a grade, I feel that not all of us have much experience utilizing our own voice in our essays. There is a large difference in writing when one decides to show their true colors as passion ignites the page. A good example of such is Courtney’s piece as it seemed to truly come from the heart, especially the bit about her stage fright when she said, “ ‘Why can’t we just dance for each other like we always do? Why does there have to be a huge audience?’ I beg her, unable to understand the complexities of my emotions and fear of making a misstep in front of such a large crowd.”
    • One or two essays were written with a chronological order in mind. Not so much an ordering of ideas, but actual time differences between segments in the story. Similar to a memoir, I feel this really helped when trying to pay attention to the piece as it prevents the writer from going on a long-winded tangent.
    • I enjoy that students mention during the reflection process what it is that they plan to improve or that they feel is lacking in their piece. As Luke put in his reflection, “This piece is lacking something fundamental, but I cannot quite put my finger on it.” Even when the writing process has concluded, we are still reflecting on how we may improve our work

Fletcher

  • Many personal anecdotes that give a look into the author’s personal lives, while also touching upon a broader topic.
  • This week a lot of the writers were able to break away from a generalized idea that struck everyone. This week each essay had much more individual ideas regarding essays.
  • Voice was much more apparent this week and I could really hear some of the writer’s voices coming out in these pieces as if they were reading them themselves.

Dylan  

  • Noticing a lot of personal anecdotes in essays this week, helping keep me engaged at the very least, if only to see how they pan out.
  • The titles, for the most part, are much more enticing than the last set of essays. I feel compelled to dig into each to see what is inside each.
  • The tone of the essays I’ve read is a lot more personal, less “academic” in a sense. There’s a lot more personality that is coming out on the page.
  • People seem to be writing on things that speak to them personally, which makes for a more enjoyable experience as a reader. Feels like a lot more introspection happened with these essays.

Chelsea

  • As has already been pointed out, there were a lot of anecdotes in this round of essays but they functioned differently than they did in our last essays. Instead of focusing the entire essay on a specific anecdote, people used their stories as a way to tackle a bigger subject which was pretty effective in most cases.
  • I really enjoyed how varied all of the essay topics were. I think that by keeping the prompt so broad, people were able offer their own unique style and voice rather than reverting back to a traditional academic essay.
  • Lastly, I noticed that people’s reflections at the end of their essays were extremely insightful so I wonder if writing in essay that moves away from academic “tradition” is affording better material for people to work and think with?

Patrick

Patrick

  • A lot of similar structural patterns are taking place: begin with an anecdote, and then branch off of it and find a way back to it
  • The titles are okay, a lot of, ‘‘On So and So..’’. However, the topics are of a wider variety this time around allowing for more to explore within the essays.
  • Essays felt less rigid, which I believe lead directly to more of an expression of self and a clearer voice than in the last batch

Specific Editorial Notes and Examples

Fletcher

  • I was really interested in the contrasting images of fishing and fish keeping  in Luke’s essay and I felt the transition into the broader idea of hypocrisy was very strong.
  • “On Kin” – the idea of sibling relation from the start was great, yet the inclusion of Kruger as a reference and the embedding of the video really added more to the piece.

Dylan

  • Sam’s essay To Hell With Clarity strikes me as a lot more personal than last week, with the tone of voice used much more similar to how he speaks in person than his essay last week, also fits more with the blog’s overall title.
  • Courtney’s structuring of her essay with various anecdotes, not necessarily in chronological order, is an interesting way to organize the piece and highlights her feelings of vulnerability by isolating each incident and making it pop.

Chelsea

  • First sentences were very strong in these submissions. I especially liked “No, I am not referring to the eponymous character of the Saw film franchise, but the jigsaw puzzle you might find occupying space at a retirement home or library” (The Joy of Jigsaw). This essay could easily be extremely boring but with a first sentence like this, the audience is immediately intrigued.
  • The essay Moving Forward was very relatable for me, and I think this connection between the reader and the author is so effective due to the fact that they stray away from personal anecdote and move into a wider arena much like Ross Gay did in his essay, Some Thoughts on Mercy which allows the reader to relate in their own individualized way.

Patrick

  • I genuinely enjoyed “Some Thoughts on Surfcasting”. While it was simple and straightforward, it was also very honest and open in accordance to who the author is and how they feel connected to surfcasting on a deeper level of conscious presence. This essay was able to deviate from the structure that a good amount of other essays followed this time around. There is something to be said about simplicity and honesty
  • Quotes were used wisely for the most part, especially liked the use of the one chosen in the beginning of “Moving Forward”.
  • Openings continue to be paramount in capturing the full attention of the reader, and intro sentence to “On Deceit” is a prime example of the power of a good opening.

Ideas

Fletcher

  • How else can a personal anecdote be used in an essay, this week many essays began with a personal anecdote, but what else can we do to entice a reader into finishing our essay?
  • I am really interested to see where each writer’s personal definition of the essay takes them in their final piece for this week.

Dylan

  • I enjoy the more personal tone that the essays have taken, but maybe we could find a way to bridge the gap between the impersonal and personal aspects of the essay? Something about the two essays so far feel like we’ve all written on two extreme sides of the essay spectrum.

Chelsea

  • I like that more people included visual aspects (pictures, videos) this round. It makes the essay look so much more aesthetically pleasing and well thought out. I also think that by adding in visuals, the author can actually greatly impact what the audience “takes away” after reading.

Patrick

  • There are degrees to the personal anecdotes being used, some are a platform for a topic, while others are a real glimpse into the authors. We need to encourage placing more vulnerabilities and deeper anecdotes on paper rather than wishy washy recollections.

Sites for Work

Fletcher

  • I would be interested to see in some pieces for the opening personal anecdote to be returned to at the end as a way to wrap it all up and bring the essay full circle on its journey
  • How can we expand on our personal anecdotes to reach a wider audience much like Ross Gay did in his “Thoughts on Mercy”

Dylan

  • I think that, as a whole (including myself) we should try and diversify the kinds of writing that was mentioned in Huxley’s essay, or the three pillars. There’s a lot of personal anecdotes, which make the pieces significantly more enjoyable, but perhaps we could all add some authority to our voices if we go out and do some research, etc.

Chelsea

  • Some of the essays are still missing the outside research element. I definitely don’t love when an essayists thoughts are overshadowed by the ideas found in an ebscohost academic paper, but I do think some of the ideas within the essays could be strengthened and less generalized if we were to use some outside elements to further our ideas.
  • I also agree with Fletcher when he notes how personal anecdotes can be tied back into the conclusions of the essays so that one’s ideas can come “full circle”. I think this would be great for people to practice with because it would for sure help to strengthen our conclusions.

Patrick

  • Increased research to solidify references, along with the continuation of added visuals (pictures, videos, etc.) will continue to help.
  • There has already been noticeable growth and improvement since the first essays. We should openly discuss what made things easier/smoother for the authors to express their ideas this time around.

Tuesday February 6

One of the challenges of writing is writing. And one of the challenges of writing an essay is determining what in fact you are trying to do. In the book we will be reading in a couple of weeks Nicole Wallack makes the case for essays as dependent on cultivating intellectual, ethical, and creative capacities. Her case is that writing essays can help writers to

  • modulate self-expression and social commentary
  • situate themselves historically, intellectually, and culturally
  • engage rigorously and ethically with ideas, data, and texts by others
  • reflect on and revise their ideas, values, and sense of self
  • develop discursive, aesthetic, and rhetorical awarness
  • document shifts in their thinking, commitments, and modes of expression

Thursday February 1

Week Three (Essay 1) Editorial Comments: Julia, Kate, Joey, Ben, Sam, Patrick

General commentary: Joey

  1.     Good use of quotations: in most of the essays I read through, the authors used quotations from essayists to expand on their own ideas or to further define their own understanding of essays, both in form and in process.
  2.     Some defense was presented for the use of the essay as a teaching mechanism for critical thinking, and it did make me grudgingly admit the personal truth to that idea; if I was not taught to write essays in such a way, my own skills of critical thinking may have been more limited, because a good essay is also a process of working through an idea.
  3.     Identifications in multiple essays on elements that make for both an entrancing piece and a reliable voice: movement between personal and impersonal, nonfiction to factual backgrounding.
  4.     Definitive voice implemented for most drafts: huge variety of entrances to the topic, both in tone and historical context, and while many essays deal with similar issues, the path does not feel overly traveled or uninteresting. (Also makes me think my own introduction needs significant work, because it’s insanely boring by comparison, thanks everyone)
  5.     Connection to real world events, movement beyond the individual writer, is present (one instance was the discussion of Common Core in schooling, written in “Why Does the Essay Get Such a Bad Rap?”)

Kate

  1. A lot of people wrote about their own experiences with learning how to write essays, all of which aided in backing up their main themes.
  2. I agree with Joey about the usage of quotations — most were well embedded throughout the essays and helped further the exploration of ideas
  3. Most of the essays had strong structures that were easy to follow along the author’s train of thought.
  4. The main weakness I noticed with the essays were the conclusions; a lot either did not have one or they inadequately wrapped up the essay as a whole
  5. In most commentaries, the authors acknowledged the same issues I found when reading their essays.
  6. Some of the topics were really interesting and enjoyable to learn more about, for example, “Essay and Jazz.”

Sam

  1. I think the vast majority of the commentary is surrounding our experiences as pupils learning, using, and reading academic essays.
  2. A general didactic vs. personal statements argument.
  3. Essays as an entryway, or stepping stone into writing.
  4. Many people use I statements, some stay away.
  5. Some focus on an internal definition or meaning of essay, others rely on the words of famous writers and their posturings.

Specific Notes and Examples

Ideas that stood out to me, passages that inspired my own drafting: Joey

“It is in this way that the essay is not a form, but a lack of form.” – The Three Masks: An Essayists Attire.

Crucial acknowledgement of the lack of limitations on essays that should be taken advantage of as students; there is room for creativity, even in the essay.

Unbounded by decrepit standards of yesteryear, modern writers have the opportunity to wield the essay for themselves.  – On Owning Our Doubts, On Creativity, On Breaking Boundaries.

–   Potential of the essay to persuade, inspire, and inform, and more accessible to everyone besides practiced intellectuals in a limited social and educational sphere.

Kate:

  • Really like how some essays began with memories and then build their topics off of them, such as “My Essay Evolution” and “Let Me (Poorly) Define the Essay”
  • While reading, I noticed that the essays I felt more put together were the ones that had a limited number of essayists referenced, such as “Entertaining the Essayist”. Sometimes it felt like there were too many names being thrown around and the point of the essay was lost slightly.
  • Sometimes good discussions were being formed but they might be able to go even deeper with facts to back up those thoughts  i.e. “Essay: The Conscious Interpreter,” “Types of Essays,” “The New Approach,” and “My Essay Evolution,” among others.

Sam

  • I felt the reliance on quotations offered an alternative view from my own on this assignment. I slipped right back into a mode I had acquired for writing personal essays, and it was all too easy of me to do that. However, seeing the quotations showed me that there was a marriage of ideas, a personalized essay that still wielded the hallmarks of traditional academic writing.
  • The variance of approaches to understanding “essay” as a craft or genre was refreshing. Some people approached the question from a larger perspective on writing, while others zoomed right in and addressed the very word, it’s meaning etc.

Sites for Work

Titles (Mark): Are there a few principles we could generate for kick-ass titles for essays? Here are a few selected titles from Montaigne, for example: That men by various ways arrive at the same end; Of Sorrow; That our affections carry themselves beyond us; Of quick or slow speech; That it is folly to measure truth and error by our own capacity; Of the custom of wearing clothes; Of Cato the Younger; consideration upon Cicero. What can we learn from these?

Montaigne also has a title, “Of smells,” that reminded me of a photograph I took a few years ago when I was visiting Indiana University in Bloomington:

If I were writing an essay / blog post and I decided to call it “Of Smells” I might include this picture as a featured image on the blog post. The image found its way into an essay I wrote on my blog The Far Field a few years back. It is called Swimming with the Current

General critique about the essays as a group: Joey

  1.     Wide variation in length (as to be expected in the first draft), but some have written significantly less than others, and have only expressed ideas without expanding upon them.
  2.     Paragraph usage: some essays had some extreme blocks of text relating to one idea.  While all concepts within are related, it changes the pacing while reading and is also more difficult to read and follow when confronted with a wall of text. Finding places to split them and create transitions would help both in content and flow as well as visual appeal.
  3.     While the idea of essays according to Montaigne is a form designed to explore, I have a warning on taking that idea too literally. Wandering can be exploratory, but unless it relates, it seems more ramble than discovery. Remember the intent, even if it remains an object far in the distance, nearly out of sight.

Kate

  • Most essays need a better, more thorough conclusion. A lot either do not have a conclusion at all or only wrap up the last few thoughts/paragraphs rather than everything
  • More transitions could be included / improved to make the continuity of the essay more coherent
  • Some essays either focused too heavily on a reflection of their personal memories without including enough information, while others focused too heavily on facts rather than including their own voice into the piece

Sam

  • I agree with Joey, I was surprised to see the length (or lack thereof) on some of the essays. It illuminates a struggle we may have between conflicting viewpoints. Is the adherence to a goal more important, or fulfilling an internal checkpoint of sorts that seems to answer the question, or satisfy our perceptions of the objective? I believe I fall somewhere in between, wanting to stay somewhat close to guidelines, but sometimes finding myself rejecting the rules for a little bit of wiggle room.
  • Unfortunately, the font we choose presents an image of us and our writing despite what the actual content might suggest. I found it hard to read some fonts that were perhaps less serious. I don’t always enjoy Times New Roman, but you have to give serifs credit for what they achieve.
  • Some essays might have been a bit off on interpreting the prompt. I think they still provided great insight, but might have missed the mark a bit on what we were trying to talk about.

Tuesday January 30 Domain Work

Your first essays are posted and appear on the From the Blogs page. They are wonderful. Each essay demonstrates your unique presence as writers as well as the challenges of writing. The editorial assistants are reading the essays and I anticipate a lively and productive writing workshop on Thursday. Please be looking over the essays of your peers and thinking about, indeed continuing to work on, your essay.

Today we will look over the course blogs you have set up, talk about the choices available to you using Word Press, and set up a domain space for other projects you might want to do. I am particularly interested in you (those of you who are seniors for sure) thinking about how  your domain beyond your identities as students.

Course Blogs and the WP Dashboard

To Do List

Title (syndication and the course/mother blog)
subtitle or tagline
pages and sidebars
widgets and you (Blogrolls, Meta, other features)
commonplace books
licensing and photo credits
social media options and plugins
Idea-centered blog posts. Some notes toward intellectual, ethical, civic writing

Your Domain

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.”

-Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

The Domain of One’s Own project begins by providing students and faculty hosted domain space. One way to think about this opportunity is to create spaces on the web to share and in sharing defining who we might want to be.

KSC Open creates for me challenges as a teacher. How might I, for instance, create opportunities for students to build a place for intellectual projects that will motivate them to push themselves beyond what they believe is possible—to take up challenges in school and, if a student wishes, beyond the classroom? How do we open up and allow you to “write what you wish to write,” in the worlds of Virginia Woolf, if indeed “that is all that matters”? What might it mean to write in the open—as part of a wider digital conversation not dictated by assignments, classes, or teachers?

To Do List:

Install Word Press on your Domain. (And do not set up another subdirectory.) Go to Setting up Your Domain for a description of this work

Set up a “Home” site for yourself on the Domain. (If you have not installed an application, your domain will look like This

Consider some of the ways you might use this site

Here are a few examples:

Devon Sacca at http://aphrodite.kscopen.org/

Meghan Hayman at http://meghanhayman.kscopen.org/

Nick Chasse (a site set up on a different domain)