Posted by Joe Harris.
Please read pp. 1-119 of Assassination Vacation.
One of the things I most admire about Sarah Vowell’s writing is how she combines a lively sense of narrative (we always seem to be going somewhere with her), a quirky and idiosyncratic voice, and a dogged work ethic as a researcher. In reading Assassination Vacation, I’d like you to think about that last quality of her writing. What does Vowell have to teach us about how research can be made part of writing creative nonfiction?
Please locate a passage where you feel Vowell makes effective use of research (either text-or person-based). See if you can identify some of the strategies she uses as a writer to enliven how she presents her research—to make her accounts of her reading and interviews seem more than simply academic reporting or exposition.
Deadline: Wed, 10/06, 11 AM, posted to this site. Please use R5 as your category.
Posted by Joe Harris
Please write a brief note in which you:
Remind us of the X assignment you developed and revised for this week;
Describe the most important adds, cuts, and changes you made in revising;
Identify a 1,000-word excerpt from your draft that you’d like to read to your group;
Note any questions or concerns you have about your draft right now.
I’d like you to read this note to your group before they discuss your essay, and to hand it in to me at the end of class.
Workshops [from 6:20 to 8:10 PM]
We will follow the same process as two weeks ago, with the following small changes:
- Each writer gets 20 minutes for her or his piece;
- Each writer should read their “pre-workshop reflection” and then the excerpt they have chosen;
- Each reader must point to one moment in the text that they feel should be changed in some way. Even if the advice you have to offer is about the piece as a whole (e.g., about tone or structure), your comment must be anchored in a specific moment in the text.
- I encourage readers to offer advice about how these drafts might be more fully documented—either through text-based or person-based research.
I will respond to your pieces and assign them a letter grade by Mon, 10/04. If you look at the Grades page on this site, you’ll see that your four workshop-revisions combined will count for 1/4 of your semester grade—which is to say, each individual workshop-revision is worth 1/16 of your semester grade.
In grading these pieces, I will consider:
- Ambition and interest,
- Evidence (autobiographical,text-based, person-based)
- Professionalism (document design, copy-editing).
For next week
- Post-workshop reflection due Fri, 10/01, 8:00 AM, as email to me.
- X4 due Tues, 10/05, 11:00 AM, in personal dropbox folders
- Read Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation, pp 1-119.
- R5 due Wed, 10/06, 11:00 AM
Please summarize the the gist of the responses you got to your draft in your workshop. What did people like most? What concerns did they have or advice did they offer?
Given those responses, what are your current plans for this piece?
Do you have any new questions for me that you didn’t include in your pre-workshop reflection?
Moment of Zen
The Writers Workshop, a dissenting view, Sandra Cisneros
Posted by Joe Harris
For next week I’d like you to write in response to a text that interests you. By text I mean an object or event that has been crafted to convey meaning. A text is something you can cite and quote directly, and that your readers can access independently of you. The text you write about may be in any medium: print, digital, video, audio, graphic, spatial, sculptural, etc. You can even write about a performance or scripted event—so long as it has been “textualized” or recorded in some way.
It may seem odd to be reading Sarah Vowell in conjunction with this assignment, but I think she actually offers a compelling example of how someone can write about texts—both those found on site and in archives—in ways that tell us as much about her as what she is reading or observing. I’d encourage you to think about how you might make your writing as lively, informed and idiosyncratic as hers.
Make sure to include a complete reference to the text(s) you are responding to. If you can, please supply a hyperlink to the text or send it to me as an email attachment. If neither of those options is possible, please bring copy of the text with you to call on Wed, 10/6.
Your deadline is Tues, 10/05, at 11:00 AM. Please upload your piece to your personal dropbox folder, or send it to me as an email attachment.
Posted by Joe Harris
Deadline: Tues, 9/28, 11:00 AM, in group folders
Responses: Wed, 9/29, 11:00 AM, in group folders
Post-workshop plans for further work (or not): Thurs, 9/30, 11:00 AM, emailed to jh
1,500 to 2,500 words
I strongly hope that some part of the development of your piece will involve field or archival research—that is, either note-taking or reading.
Posted by Joe Harris
Write an entry to the Bulwer-Lytton contest for the worst opening sentence of a novel. (“It was a dark and stormy night . . .”)
Call me, Ishmael, she said, or text me, or whatever, but not until you get over this whole Great White Whale thing you seem so obsessed with.
Responses to writing groups
- People left groups more excited about their own drafts
- People were interested in what others were writing
- Sense of support, friendliness, and helpfulness
Finding a balance between support and over-politeness
A test case: Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson, 2000)
Lesson in Style: Writerly and Conversational Styles
- Salinger vs. Dickens
- Test case: Freud
- More test cases: Margrette and Dayo
- Hypotactic or paratactic?
- Writerly or conversational?
- Other issues/insights?
Sue Allison, “Taking a Reading (1-2): Brea, Grace, Tim, Lawson
Brian Doyle, “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever” (37-38): Carol, Margrette, Janet, Xan
Other items of note
- Profile, John Berger (17-25), Dayo
- Not an Autobiography, Patricia Hampl (43-52), Carol
- Texts/Ideas, Wendell Berry (26-36), Eriks
For next week
- Rev 1 due Tues, 9/28, 11:00 AM, in Group folders
- Responses to Revisions due Wed, 9/29, 11:00 AM (both letter to author and marginal comments)
- Bring print-outs for workshop in class on Wed, 9/29
Fastwrite: Which of your three pieces do you plan to develop for next week? What do you want to add? change? cut? What questions do you have for me?
Moment of Zen
Revision works! Educating Rita (Lewis Gilbert, 1983)
Posted By: Brea Davenport
Taking a Reading was probably the shortest of the essays to read, however it stood out the most to me. I am not a fan of math and cringe at measurements that are not the American kind (I don’t know the metric system! Oops). Yet I thought it was endearing of Sue Allison so use words for measuring things so easily in her essay. She starts off her essay with “A yard, a pace, a foot, a fathom. How beautiful the language of measurement is…” and her essay actually has me believing that now.
She describes how the different measurements are composed of other smaller measurements or how they help compose bigger measurements. It is like she is telling us that everything counts (literally). She even questions what the measurements actually mean. Why is a cranberry bushel bigger than a bushel? What is a bushel when the cranberries are on the bush? I would like to think that these ponderings on measurements are her approach to reflect on life. She even gives us a glimpse into hers as she tells us that her favorite measurement is the height of her husband and she has a chain (which also has a specific length measurement – who knew?) which “cannot hold a ship to shore but holds so much more”. I loved how she expressed her sentiment and feelings by using something as mundane and precise as measurements. It was a very effective and unique approach.
Posted by Carol Shih
Brian Doyle sounds like he’s thinking out loud on paper, but he’s not. See, it’s tricky. It’s an allusion; what he doesn’t want you to see is that he is crafting a symphony of melodies with a two-page essay. While I was reading “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever,” I felt like Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth, a childhood favorite of mine. Doyle takes us on his travels from paragraph to paragraph, and no two lands are the same. Take this one, for example:
“Then an odd paragraph, this is a most unusual and peculiar essay, for right here where you would normally expect those alpine Conclusions, some Advice, some Stern Instructions & Directions, there’s only the quiet murmur of the writer tiptoeing back to the story he or she was telling you in the second and third paragraphs. The story slips back into view gently, a little shy, holding its hat, nothing melodramatic, in fact it offers a few gnomic questions without answers…”
He brings characters out of nothing! He personifies certain words and gives them sounds, feelings, texture. Each sentence is perfectly placed, and he is so very aware of his sentence’s effects. Some are chunky long-winded sentences when he’s talking about being mesmerized by a nature essay, and some are shorter, like “probably the sentences get shorter, more staccato. terser. blunter. shards of sentences.”
This week, when I was sitting down to write my X3, I knew that I wanted to emulate some of Doyle’s writing. I wanted to speak to my reader the way that his essay spoke to me, like a friend who knows you pretty well and who you would entrust with your silly secrets. I’m not sure if I succeeded, but it was fun to try a different style of writing and to use italics like Doyle. Did I have the same effect? I have no clue, but it was definitely a refreshing experience.
Posted by: Rachel Revelle
The criterion for what an essay can and cannot be seems fairly limitless. We have been reading and experimenting with different approaches, and certainly got an interesting cross-section through this group of Best American Essays. I was particularly intrigued by Chris Arthur’s (En)trance because of its discussion of what an essay can do. He continuously compares his writing, both overall and right here on this page, to the narrative of a great descriptive novel. First of all, this was effective in that it made me realize that the novel form is one that I also really enjoy, and I would have gained from the story if it had been written by “a writer of the sort [he] is not.” Effective delivery can come through a variety of forms, but one must consider the message being delivered.
For Arthur, a descriptive novel “would have been constrained by the boundaries of what happened” (12). He leads us into an alternate world in which every detail or moment can be considered in a new light. It is acceptable, in fact enlightening, to run with a certain thought till it has come to life in a new way. He says he, “[takes] single pieces of life’s puzzle and [leans] the weight of reflection upon them till they’re pulverized, then [ponders] the dust particles” (4). The dust particles of the pillars of Shannon bring us to a consideration of time, memory, and the numinous. Instead of simply narrating the history of this particular setting, he gets us to consider what might have happened in this setting, and how it did happen for him in memory, which is also a different matter.
I hope I am able to use Arthur’s advice as I further develop my writing. The essay gives us the amazing freedom to consider the truth in all forms and levels of complexity. The essay, Arthur says, has “mongrel toughness,” allowing us to “resist the closures and conclusions of composition and feel the deluge of the real push against the fabric of the mind until it is engulfed and intoxicated” (15). I will try to push the fabric of my mind and consequently that of the reader’s.
Posted by Dayo Oshilaja
In my opinion, the best example of creative non-fiction is the piece entitled “Portrait of a Masked Man” The story focuses on Mexico, the Zapatista movement and a man, presumably the narrator, struggling to draw three members of the Zapatista movement. The essay unfolds itself sentence by sentence describing its subject matter through a combination of anecdotes, observations and history lessons. The essay also does a good job of incorporating some of the tools that we have learned in class, giving us access to the narrator’s thoughts and making us privy to his conversations. Simultaneously, the narrator makes sure to put everything in historical context giving us poignant snapshots of the relevant history of this specific area of Mexico.
As you might have guessed, I like the structure of this essay. It offers a multi-layered approach to the subject matter. It is like a film giving you a variety of different camera angles and scenes each possessing a pertinent piece of information that carries the story along. At its most superficial level, this is simply a story about an artist and his subjects. You dig a little deeper and you are drawn into the history of the Zapatista movement and the conditions that gave birth to it. Dig even deeper that and you also see that this is a piece about art which traces the lineage of art in Mexico and beyond. What this author manages to do so well is to weave together all these intricate themes and details into a concrete and cohesive tale.
As I continue to write for this class, I will try and use John Berger’s work as a template for my own. I will work from a simple idea, into a more complex framework as I try andaddress all the subtle nuances of my subject matter. I will try to approach my work from all different perspectives so that my readers can feel right along with me but still understand the context of my work.
Posted by Grace Kohut
The stylistic phrasing I have found I most admire can be located in two essays: Taking a Reading and You Be the Moon. This little trick is difficult to explain for it is a description that deals in both literal and abstract forms. It is a play on words–a certain eloquence that allows the writer to make his or her reader think twice about meaning. It makes the reader “picture” things from a different angle.
To give a straightforward example, I’ll start with You Be the Moon, “If a moon can reach this groove, it will never crash down like masonry nor drift away like a mood” (67). Here the author describes the moon (or what the moon wont be) by using something both concrete and abstract to indicate weight. The moon will not sink like stonework nor float away like passing emotional state.
Here’s another time the author employs this trick: “Another is known as an open orbit, where an unaffiliated traveling object gets pulled to another body, curves around it, and flies away, never to return, like a minute” (71). Here the author is very literal in describing the phenomenon of an open orbit. She does a good job of accurately depicting it. The last three words, however, give the sentence and the description an entirely different form. She uses the idea of time to get across the idea of something that comes and goes, never to return.
Now I want to move on to Taking a Reading. “Carat, candela, caliber, Kelvin, case. A chain is precisely 66 feet divided into precisely 100 links. It is also what is around my neck holding a diamond heart which I’ve kept clasped since receiving it some anniversaries ago. It cannot hold a ship to shore, but holds a great deal more” (1-2). To me, this passage is brilliant. She states a chain of “kuh” sounding words, then gives a definition of a standard metal chain and finally refers to the chain around her neck. She mentions all these chains, showing the reader the different things a “chain” could mean. “It cannot hold a ship to shore, but holds a great deal more”. She makes the reader understand its lack of physical strength but then alludes to the amount of emotional strength it represents.
I have always been fascinated by double-meanings, which is why, perhaps, I’m fascinated by these two essays.