Week Eleven

“. . .there are forms of both creative and literary nonfiction, including autobiography, memoir, and journalism, that, unlike essays, need not hold themselves to the requirement of having an idea” (37)

Alexa Masking Our Fear of the Unknown

Ashley An Artist’s Heart and Soul

Michael An Exploration [and Corruption] Of Repetition

Sonja Of Water

Roy Identifying an approach to Death

“[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 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)

What is the essay doing?

  1. Presence
  2. Idea
  3. Evidence

Week Four Editorial Assistants: Roy and Alli

Roy: “I believe everyone has grown more comfortable with addressing the broad question “What is the Essay?” Our in-class discussions about “Stuff” have allowed us to let our minds wander and I came to the conclusion that we all had our attention grabbed by very different things, but all uniquely profound in their own right.”

More Comfortable: wandering mind -> attention -> unique and profound

The essay provides an opportunity for us “to be public thinkers, people who can voice and reflect on their ideas, assumptions, and values” and for us to “become thoughtful, compassionate, and observant people through the act of crafting them” (59).

—Nicole B. Wallack

Alli: Favorite lines

Let us develop “more and more precise language for talking about how this form [the essay] works to create sensation, communicate ideas explicitly and implicitly, and register the presence of the writers mind in the world” (169).

—Nicole B. Wallack

Working in the following pairs, follow the workshop prompts below

Roy and Michael
Dan and Rachel
Alli and Alexa
Lexi and Sonja
Nicole and Ashley

1.Where does the essay begin?

  • Read first paragraphs aloud. (The writer listens.)
  • Talk about what the first paragraph is doing. Explain to the writer how it works. How does it follow what comes before (title, epigraph, image)? What is the title doing? How does the first paragraph frame what follows? What is the first sentence doing? Does the first paragraph offer something comprehensible to the reader? Does it offer the reader something compelling? Talk about what is comprehended (or not). Talk about what is compelling (or not).

2.Where is the Idea in the essay?

  • Read the essays. Report to the writer what idea (or ideas) appear to be at work in the essay. Where exactly does the idea appear? If it is not defined in a sentence, how does the writing disclose the idea?
  • In the coming weeks we will be talking about (and writing) “idea-centered” essays. This means that the essay is doing some kind of conceptual work that a reader can describe.

3.Where is the writer?

  • As you read the first paragraph, and continue to read the essay, listen for a specific, identifiable person. Where does the writer show up? If the writer does not show, what exactly is missing? Even when it is difficult to discern the presence of a writer by reading only one piece of writing, we can often describe the motive of the writer. That is, what motivates the essay?

4.Where are the kick-ass sentences?

Here are the sentences that Alli picked out:

“I went rogue that winter, skipping church and praying only in a manner of sarcasm, and by springtime, I took to fishing on Sunday mornings instead of service.”

“Though possibly being a tool for positive change, hindsight can also be a canker on our memories. Like a canker it goes away, but then it returns just as painful on subsequent outbreaks—particularly because it’s escorting regret.”

“The notion of privacy is almost gone, but in order to function we need to bring it back. Without privacy we lose respect and consent as well, all of which are vital components to living a healthy life.”

Isolate one or two sentences from the essay you have read and share those sentences with the writer, and the world, by posting a comment on the essay of the writer on his/her blog. We are following the lead of Sonja. For example, note here notation on the essay The Beauty of Male Friendship (at the bottom, in the comments section) how she picks one of the sentences from


Week Three: Editorial Assistant commentaries for Essay 1: Rachel and Daniel and Michael and Mark

Rachel: I started to realize that an “essay” does not have to be regurgitated information that is fueled by a desire to please others.” – Nicole

I really related to Nicole’s essay as a whole and this was just one of the sentences that stuck out to me. So many of the essays that we write as students have us researching information and then interpreting that information and then writing about that information. To make matters worse, we are usually only writing an essay for a teacher or professor and not for ourselves. How are we supposed to enjoy writing essays and learn anything about ourselves as writers, as Nicole says, if we are rewriting facts and trying to get a good grade?

“It is our words that lead us to war, but it is also our words that return us to peace. Words wound us emotionally, entertain us, rescue us from despair, crush our self-esteem, and imbue us with confidence. Used for oppression, entertainment, and didactic purposes, words are catalysts for change, and they can sow the seeds of enlightenment.” – Sonja

Words are so powerful and Sonja really captures that in these few sentences. Words are so much more than just a combination of letters on a page, they can have outlasting effects and they can be really hurtful or really helpful. The phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”, couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I shovel deep into my brain, extracting any idea I can harvest.” – Alli

This line really struck me, I like the metaphor Alli uses here because I think every writer can relate to this at some point. When writing an informal essay, you can write whatever comes to mind and you have the freedom to write down your thoughts and opinions, hence “extracting any idea”.


When browsing through the titles on, I couldn’t help but notice how specific they were. For example, The Ambassador of Rattlesnakes or The Greatest Dog Essay Ever. You can get an idea of what the essay might be about, whether literally or metaphorically, just by reading the titles. You know the central theme of the essay is going to be about a dog or about rattlesnakes. Many of the titles of the essays written in class, mine included, were too vague and didn’t match our central ideas per se.

Daniel: I was pleased to see that most of us tried to  find a balance between the formal and informal, whether it was the freedom in which we explored the first-person, the individual experiences we shared, or the metaphors and analogies we incorporated.

I was particularly struck by Alli’s piece, because it was quite successful in steering away from conventional essay style. It was very much a personal essay, and the coupling of the topic of the essay with her own experience with religion was uniquely effective in illustrating her development as a writer.

Lexi’s piece also had a similar effect, and although she expressed her uncertainty about the assignment, as well as the awkwardness of breaking away from the formal, she was in no way non-committal. It was a conversation-like essay, much like Alli’s.

Sonja’s essay reminded me of Montaigne in that it had a philosophical element to it. Subjectivity, especially when it comes to issues that deal with morality, can be a powerful tool. She placed a great deal of emphasis on the ways in which the essay allows us to express ourselves, while also yielding various outcomes. The importance of rhetoric in public discourse, for example, is something that she explored several times throughout her essay, and the way she used current events to reinforce her points lends validity to the subject of her writing.

A pattern I noticed while reading these essays: many of us gravitated towards similar topics regarding the varying nature of the essay; more specifically, we weighed our baseline understanding of the essay–developed in high school–against our newfound understanding of the personal essay. For instance, many of the essays delved into the literal types of essay, like the expository essay, narrative essay, etc., and almost all of us showed some distaste for the intro-body-conclusion typical of formal, academic essays–myself included. Many of us experimented with the informal while still being somewhat rooted in the formal. As a result, i feel, some of us had some difficulty finding our footing, so to say. It’s difficult when discussing the essay, something so loosely defined, and much of what we expressed was what we already know mingled with what we’re just beginning to learn. For instance, I had a very difficult time taking my essay in a definitive direction, and it ended up being a multi-genre frankenstein. It couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be one type of essay or another.


“I have come to the understanding that poetry can help us all become better writers as poetry forces us to demolish our predisposed assumptions about writing and what it needs to look like to be taken seriously, or even viewed as competent.” – Nicole

I understand precisely what Nicole is expressing. It is critical in the development of one’s writing skills to challenge the established norms at times, whether it be by incorporating poetic elements, metaphors, memoir, etc., into your essays. Montaigne wouldn’t hesitate to exercise his preferred style no matter what direction it took him, so why should anyone else who is crafting a personal essay?

“Words wound us emotionally, entertain us, rescue us from despair, crush our self-esteem, and imbue us with confidence.” – Sonja

The emphasis Sonja places on the emotional impact of language is quite poignant. Not only do words allow us to communicate, but they allow us to influence one another in ways we otherwise couldn’t. A single sentence has the power to hurt, heal, motivate, or discourage. The inherent power of language, when harnessed effectively, simply cannot be understated.

“Since my only experience as previously stated is from an analytical standpoint, it is almost unsettling to consider that what I am writing this very minute could be considered an essay.” – Lexii

Perhaps this is just me, but did anyone else feel strange writing an informal essay for a class free of restrictions? This sentence jumped out at me because it was very relatable. I’ve spent my entire time in high school and college living up to the standards of my teachers, and suddenly breaking those standards, then writing about how I intend on further breaking those standards, sent a weird tingle down my spine. Perhaps it’s just the tingle of liberation.

“At 16, I hated school and my grungy aesthetic matched my so ‘charming’ personality. I loved to write, but homework was not in my schedule. The word, essay, made me want to vomit, and if I heard, ‘You must have a thesis, introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion’ one more time I might have quit writing entirely.” – Alli

I admire the confidence in Alli’s voice here. There is little restraint in the way she expresses herself in her essay, and it speaks to a keen understanding of her own unique style. Notice how seamlessly this essay seems to turn into a conversation. It feels as if Alli is speaking to me with the kind of confidence found only in speech—authentic, casual, witty. It makes for a smooth and enjoyable experience.

“Montaigne’s writing is enhanced by his freedom.” – Kyle (I believe)

Talk about a good one-liner! There are moments in our writing where we find ourselves meandering or waxing philosophical, so we sometimes fall on more verbose, complex language to appear as comprehensive in our explanations as possible. However, on certain occasions, I can honestly attest to the universal truth that is the “less is more” philosophy, and that is exactly what is being put to use here. Someone could easily stretch this into some ridiculously dragged-out sentence, maybe something along the lines of, “Montaigne’s work was not bound by conventional writing practices; therefore, he had free-reign to write in such a way that transcended the norms of his time.” You see? That was some fluffed up, corn-fed, grade-A bull****. Kyle accomplished the same thing with only seven words. Honest, direct, succinct, and not taxing to read.

Michael: After reading the essays, it seems a lot of us have similar experiences with the essay in academia–a form to be dreaded, only associated with research or automation. If not mentioned directly, some of our essays still seem to be clinging onto the format’s worked in the past. This should probably be expected early on, I’d be interested to see how everyone’s definition of an essay evolves over time.

The essays I enjoyed the most were ones that had the most focus instead of being general or applicable to all essays. Sonja and Ally’s pieces seemed to know where they wanted to go and what their identity could be, both incredibly honest.  I appreciated the voice of some essays, Dan and Kyle’s come to mind. There’s a personable aspect to them, conversational. It makes me as a reader not feel distant from the one speaking. Dan’s anecdote about his economics paper really stuck out to me.

Selections: “What is an Essay?” (Nicole French):I truly believe that if we are not given the freedom to write in a way that feels right to us, the quality of our work will suffer

I like what the author has to say here, this might even be a great opening line! Maybe this is my bias as another poetry advocate, but I have always found that putting restrictions on what an essay can be is bound to degrade the quality. I like her comment about the way essays are taught to us being a “cookie cutter” approach; by being so widely applicable, the essay we’re taught in school loses what could make it special or compelling.  

“THE WORDS” (Sonja Martineau) “Of this, his premise was simple, don’t lead with the fancy words, you might need them later.” I found this profound, always good to keep in mind.

Mark: I have read over the essays on the From the Blogs page and have enjoyed the reading very much. There is some interesting movement as the writers are attempting to experiment with the form and content of the essay. I’m going to start out by offering two general comments: the first comment is about titles and the second comment is about ideas. In both cases, as it happens, there is exciting work to do.

  1. Titles: the matter of titles is that titles matter and I want to ask whether we might benefit from those students who have taken English 201: Writing with Style. Or at least when I teach that course, we work a lot with the resources of thinking about style through a macro and micro lens. Considerations of “microstyle” (See Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little, by Christopher Johnson). If you scan the “Selected Essays” tab in the sidebar of the course blog you will likely see that the titles of these essays might be worth talking through. A more provocative framing of the problem would be to ask, what is the difference between the default WP “Hello World” and some of the titles that appear to be less fully considered? How does on make a very short message, such as a title, effective, interesting, and memorable?
  1. Ideas: Of course one answer to the question above is a question about what exactly an essay is doing. The essays are doing different things, by design. But on the whole I am not quite sure many of them quite know (at least yet) what they are doing. Or we might say that they are responses to an assignment prompt. Or maybe it is that many of them are doing more than a few things. Or we might end up with a couple of questions bouncing around in our heads: What is the idea? What it the relationship between the idea and the form of the essay?

These two considerations lead to further considerations. First, in all of these essays I hear the emergence of the presence of distinctive writers. It is also the case that these are essays that are beginning with the act of reading The main question I have for each writer is one that we will talk about as we go forward in this course and we use the formulation “an idea-centered essay” to move forward: what is the idea you are working with in your essay? For example, one of the conventional moves a writer can make is to announce the idea in the title, such as Montaigne, “On Vanity,” or Emerson, who takes on two ideas and also their inextricable relationship, Quotation and Originality. Or “Religion and the Essay (Alli) and “Grocer Pangs, Produce Machinery” (Michael): two titles that might be useful to move from. Sonja’s blog has a tagline, a quote from Dickens, that is apposite to these comments on ideas. “An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.”

Second, your commentaries. I think you might want to move on to a page. And then title the commentaries by essay and perhaps date. I appreciate the way Dan talks about metaphor and the way the application of his love for fiction might apply in nonfiction–that curious name for a genre that announces what it is not rather than what it is. Remember, too, that the personal and the scholarly (or whatever version of this formulation is in play) will prove to be quite difficult to navigate. My working assumption, as I said in class more than once so far, is that the opposition is perhaps the greatest problem you will face as writers.

Once we get into the Wallack book much of what we are discovering in practice will make even more sense. For instance, in discussing the practice of including evidence that goes beyond the single person’s life, she says,

These essays are valuable to study and potentially for students to attempt themselves because they demonstrate how it is possible to 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 own 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)

This is one formulation of a problem we will be thinking through and around and in.

For class:

  1. Read one of these essays. Choose a single sentence that provides a point of entry into what you believe the essay may really be about. For instance, in Alexa’s lovely letter to herself I found myself thinking that what the essay is about is what she says at the end of the fourth paragraph:

“If I could write my essays like anyone, it would be Montaigne.”

Or Nicole’s simply arresting

“What questions do I want to ask?”

  1.  The Matter of Titles: Click on the collection of nonfiction essays in A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments. Click on the category nonfiction and browse the dozens of titles. What can we say about titles using these examples?

Week One

In an entry in his journal January 29, 1854

A very cold morning. Thermometer, or mercury, 18º below zero.

January 30, 1854

This morning, though not so cold by a degree or two as yesterday morning, the cold has got more into the house, and the frost visits nooks never known to be visited before… The winter, cold and bound out as it is, is thrown to us like a bone to a famishing dog, and we are expected to get the marrow out of it…the winter was not given to us for no purpose. We must thaw its cold with our genialness.

I knew a crazy man who walked into an empty pulpit one Sunday and, taking up a hymn-book, remarked: “We have had a good fall for getting in corn and potatoes. Let us sing Winter.” So I say, “Let us sing winter.” What else can we sing, and our voices be in harmony with the season?

Let us sing winter

“We too have our thaws. They come to our January moods, when our ice cracks, and our sluices break loose.”