First, I hope you didn’t waste any of your time today. I hope you gave and received honest, useful feedback. Some of you need to hear that this piece you are working on, as it is, has no point and is boring and full of cliches. It hurts to hear this. It’s not fun to admit that the work we have done doesn’t… work, and probably just needs to be abandoned. It’s not fun to admit that we have made a mistake.
It’s great and terrible thing, this writing business. Perhaps you now better understand what Orwell meant when he likened writing to a long bout of some painful illness. It’s a horrible, exhausting struggle indeed.
But why? Why is it so trying?
Or maybe more important, why do we do it then?
Orwell explains (remember, the four motives?) this, too. But even more than our motives for writing or the circumstances under which we are to write (in your case, because I’m making you), there is this thing about writing which is inherently self-aggrandizing and ego-centric (I have something to say and it matters enough to write it down and force people to read it! Ha! I am amazing!) and also self-deprecating and other-focused (Ugh, I can’t believe I actually wrote this. It’s garbage. People are going to judge me. I will bore them. What do I have to offer that is any different than what has already been offered?). We write for an audience. Sometimes that audience is ourselves (with, say, a private journal or diary, I suppose) but generally that audience exists outside of us–it should. Never lose sight of your audience.
- Satire is fun. Being all outlandish and snarky and taboo feels daring and satisfying (I should know, that’s usually my m.o.) but it’s difficult to do well. I fail at it most of the time and I’ve had many years of practice. You will think you are being clever and wry and all that good stuff, but usually, it just won’t quite work, and for this essay, it’s just not the best idea. We will be working with humor and satire in these next couple of weeks; save some of your snark and hyperbole for that.
- Proposals are nice and formulaic, but require a great deal of justification and research and are often satire (see previous caution) or devoid of personal connection and voice, which are primary components I’m demanding to see for this essay. This does not mean that a proposal couldn’t involve interesting discussion of something that really matters–and matters to you, or couldn’t beautifully demonstrate your voice, it’s just that they often don’t because they’re inherently more direct and down-to-business.
- Similarly, those “about” essays I mentioned can end up lacking personal connection, lively discussion and exploration, or the substantial research that they require. This is not the time to write a persuasive, research-based essay about some hot-button issue unless you can successfully and maturely couch it in something else. Fascinated with insect reproduction? Awesome. But beware of listing facts and sounding like a textbook. You aren’t writing a report; you are writing an essay. An attempt at exploring a particular subject. An attempt and deriving some conclusions about something and making some kind of connection to something that matters somehow.
It’s not that you can’t or couldn’t write about the social hierarchy of the American red squirrel and apply this to some observation you’ve made about humanity–perhaps about your family, or your peer group,you can. It’s just that you must make that additional connection. Further, you must explore the implications of this connection: what it says about us, what it means. This is true of any topic. You might want to write about hipsterism. Fine, cool, go for it. But say something new about it. Make a claim with it.
Writing about your mom/dad/sister/grandma/buddy/dog/third-nephew-once-removed? Why should anyone else care to read it? What are you revealing about this person (or about yourself, or about family, or about the nature of friendship–in which case your essay would actually be more an exploration of friendship than about that person)? What does your essay suggest or imply about the relationships we have? About our priorities? About our traditions, tendencies, etc.?
TO DO LIST
This weekend, as you’re working on your essay, read the following pieces
via mrscardona.com: “Doubt is Torture” from Writing Down the Bones, “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser, “Heavy Sentences” by Joseph Epstein and “How Long,” a memo that should seem familiar to you because parts of it are in the syllabus. Originally written by Wayzata’s own, Dave Motes. There are other suggested readings, but definitely read these four.
Oh, here’s some more:
[what follows is essentially plagiarized from Prokott’s blog, but we’re kind of the same person, so it’s fine.]
That Inevitable Part of the Semester When You Hate Me Even Though I Am Trying to Help You: ON THE DISCONNECT
Every year as a teacher, I struggle to help students build and maintain the bridge between reading and writing. As a whole, our class is a pretty great bunch of readers and observers. But we haven’t yet mastered the skill of understanding that we’re reading as writers: that the reason we read the essays we do is so we can use them as inspiration for our own work. That is, when we made that giant map of Bernard Cooper’s essay on the board and labeled all the paragraphs and where the images occurred and were reinforced–that’s what we do with our own essays, once we reach that stage of the writing process. Crazy. But that’s what we do; that’s what writers do. If you came to class this week thinking your essay was done, thinking that you could just tune up a few things: you were wrong. I’m sorry. I write this not because of the conferences I had yesterday, but because of what I’ve seen from writers in the past, in my own classes and the classes of the other AP Language teachers. You. Are. Not. Done. Probably not even close. You. Might. Have. To. Start. Over. Who cares? Just keep going and don’t worry about it. Open a blank page and journal. Learn how to ask yourself the right questions and then how to answer them.
Anyway. One thing that is critically important to good writing is creativity. How to be creative and think outside the box and find the connection between what we read and what we write is what we have to figure out. That’s hard. But the first step in generating your own material is, ironically, to COPY. Don’t steal, but start by copying. You can’t exist in the vacuum of your own work because we read those essays so long ago. I know writing seems like a lonely thing–but it really only is if you’re Emily Dickinson and refuse to come out of your upstairs apartment because the dude you love is totes married–so, understand that you are not eerily peering from behind your black velvet curtains unto the rainy, slick streets below, but are actually part of a community of writers. These are your peers, but they are mostly the ghosts of essays-we’ve-read-past. Orwell sits on my shoulder, and he should sit on yours; there should be a little Bernard Cooper in your ear and a David Sedaris looking back at you in the mirror and a Nancy Mairs whispering what’s at stake is this really a language esasy? from your plate while you’re eating your grilled cheese sandwich. These writers should be like the “face of Jesus” that self-important zealots think appear to only them.
You are supposed to copy them. You are supposed to have all those handouts and worksheets and hints and tips I’ve given you all year in front of you. You should borrow sentence structure every now and then from each of them. If your essay covers a similar issue–say, identity–you should be going back to those essays and examining how that particular author organized. Did he use space breaks? How did the essay open? How could I borrow that format but then change it to work for me? This is how genius is born.
Some people say you can’t teach creativity, but that’s not a very creative approach. I am telling you right now how to be creative; there is no magic creative button. There is only channeling what works, what you love, and then thinking I love this so much I must somehow make it mine. (Not in a Fatal Attraction way, though. Yikes.)
When I write, I pull my favorite books from the shelf and spread them out like a buffet of Christmas cookies in front of me.
The point: STEAL. MODIFY.
I’ve been writing for a really long time, and I’ve gone to school for writing for a really long time. All my closest friends are writers, and I write for fun and I read books for fun and every day I think about what could be an essay and why everything in my life might be something at stake that I can metaphorically examine later.
And I still struggle with writing. This is the part of the term where you guys just trust me. Even if I tell you it’s not working; even if your workshop group really liked it. Trust me.
This is not the time of the semester where you forget everything you’ve learned about form, audience, purpose, where you forget that you’ve been exposed to a plethora of accomplished essayists, where you forget what the whole dang purpose of this class is. It’s January. It’s cold. It’s almost time to be done. But you have to get over it. If anything, embrace this darkness and turn it into your essay. I write my best when I’m really crabby. When the world is so gray and the cold numbs my bones and my hands turn red with freeze rash.
Writing is hard. I don’t believe there was ever a day this term where I said: dude, get over it, writing is no big deal. So easy. Nope, never said that. In fact, on the first day of this class, I explained that you would fail in this class a million times and that failure was part of your success. When you hear this you thought yeah, that’s for everyone EXCEPT for me. And now you’re realizing it is for you. And you. And you.
Yeah, but that doesn’t make writing any easier: writing is hard.