I’d like to change our procedure slightly for the final workshop.
Please read all of the writings by your group members and be ready to talk about them when your group meets. But rather than responding to four essays, I’d like you to concentrate your attention on one piece. Follow the same response format that we’ve used so far:
- A letter to author stating what the project is, what is working, and what needs more work
- A few marginal comments that point to specific moments where the author might do more work in revision.
- Use the Track Changes function to suggest specific, micro-level revisions to the author’s text (as many as you feel might be useful). That is, I’d like you to function not only as a reader but as an editor of the text.
I would then like the “editor” of each author’s draft—rather than the author—to direct discussion of her or his text in the workshop.
The editor/author pairs in each group are:
Andrew edits Grace
Grace edits Margrette
Margrette edits Zeewan
Zeewan edits Xan
Xan edits Andrew
Brea edits Lawson
Lawson edits Janet
Janet edits Rachel
Rachel edits Carol
Carol edits Brea
Lauren edits Erica
Erica edits Dayo
Dayo edits Eriks
Eriks edits Tim
Tim edits Lauren
To accompany the visit of Dave Eggers next Wednesday, I’d like us to read and think about some pieces of writing that, like much of his work, comment on the process of their own making. That’s an awkward phrase—”the process of their own making”—but I think you’ll get what I’m driving at when you read the following piece by Eggers:
- Front pages. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. New York: Vintage, 2001 (posted in Reserves);
Along with three essays from Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point:
- “Voir Dire” (pp. 3-23),
- “The Essay Vanishes” (pp. 41-49); and
- “Solipsism” (pp. 91-103).
In response, I’d like you to write a very brief piece (perhaps 400 or 500 words) in the spirit of Eggers and/or Monson. Deciding what writing “in the spirit of” those two authors is part of the challenge—and, I hope, interest—of this assignment.
If you can format your response as conventional post to this website, do so. If your document requires more complex formatting, please attach it to your post as a docx or pdf file (as you did with Project One). In either case, use R9 as the category for your post.
Deadline: Wed, 11/10, 4:00 PM
Posted by Andrew Brown
Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation brought the idea of creative nonfiction to life for me. Before reading Vowell it seemed to me that there were basically two types of creative nonfiction: memoir and interviews. Basically I felt constrained to write something either from my own memory, or to conduct some type of interview and write “creatively” about it. Professor Harris confused me a bit the last two weeks with his instructions to look for more documentation and do more research because I didn’t understand how documentation should fit in with a piece about my own life. Vowell helped me understand this.
Throughout Assassination Vacation Vowell interweaves personal anecdotes about her experiences researching the book with the actual quotes and bits of information she set out to collect. This style sounds odd, but Vowell executes the technique remarkably well. Her personal comments and quips not only bring liveliness and humor to incredibly morbid topic, they actually shed new light on some aspects of the history.
One of my favorite passages is Vowell’s description of trying to find Dr. Samuel Mudd’s house. Vowell writes:
“About ninety minutes into the roughly ten-mile drive from the restaurant to the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House, I become convinced of Mudd’s guilt. Klam and I, armed with one road atlas, two historical maps of John Wilkes Booth’s route, an old article from the Washington Post travel section, directions from various locals gassing up their cars, and six printouts from MapQuest.com, are lost for two hours. Mudd’s house in rural Maryland is so hard to find, even in the daylight, even with a lap full of maps, that I don’t see how Booth and Herold, who were horseback riding under the influence of whisky they acquired at the Surratt Tavern, could have found Mudd’s house in the middle of the night if they didn’t know exactly where they were going, and whom they could trust.”
In that passage she brings the journey of John Wilkes Booth to life in a way that you would never to be able to in traditional historical literature. The house wasn’t simply hard to find or out of the way; it was impossible to find with an atlas, two maps, a newspaper article, help from locals, and MapQuest! I hope to use some of Vowell’s techniques to bring my writing to life.
Posted by Lauren Kahn
R5: The History Teacher I Wish I’d Had
When I learned that I was assigned to read a book detailing presidential assassinations, I was less than excited. This is an understatement. I was dreading the read. Yet, with wit and personal anecdotes, Sarah Vowell managed to capture my interest. Before I knew it, I found myself recounting Lincoln trivia to my friends and staying up on Sunday night watching clips of her from NPR and the Daily Show and reading her Op-Ed pieces in The New York Times. She writes with personality that imbues life into these historic events. I certainly learned about the assassinations in American history, but we used to read from a dry and musty textbook in class. Sarah Vowell is the American history teacher I wish I’d had. She helps make moments memorable by pointing out connections to other historic events and also by discussing what I will call “the human element,” the emotion-filled gossip that keeps shows like E! and websites like “Perez Hilton” in business. Yet, Vowell incorporates this human element in a much more intellectual and sophisticated way than these shows, making her all the more fun to read:
“I e-mailed Bennett the next morning that the Court of Claims Building, where the Seward plaque is hung, was designed by John Carl Warnecke, the architect who helped Jacqueline Kennedy with her historic preservation crusade to save Lafayette Square. After JFK was killed, Mrs. Kennedy hired Warnecke…In the process (I guess there is nothing more romantic than poring over graveyard designs), she and Warnecke fell in love. She was having an affair with the man in charge of her slain husband’s tomb” (35). From learning about why Seward’s totem pole has red paint on his face to the drama surrounding John Wilkes Booth’s girlfriend, Vowell captured the human element in a way that drew my attention. Additionally, I admired the way Vowell uses imaginative liberty in describing historic events. “When the bullet dropped in such a quiet room, it must have been almost as jarring as the original gunshot” (51). I can imagine being in that room when the doctors extracted the bullet. Vowell also incorporates her imagination in writing her “grandfather paradox” theory, which I found particularly entertaining and insightful. Though I look up to Vowell’s writing style, I am not sure how easy it will be to mimic in my own writing. She smoothly incorporates historical facts, personal anecdotes, and current affairs into her writing, all while maintaining a sense of humor and wit. I can focus on one or a few of these qualities, but am not sure how I will pull off such a smooth combination. Nonetheless, Vowell gives me inspiration for my creative nonfiction pursuits.
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 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 Joe Harris
Please read pp. 1-66 of The Best American Essays 2009.
As you read through these pieces, I’d like you to be on the lookout for writerly moves or strategies you might want to make your own. You might, for instance, be drawn to:
- A distinctive approach or tone taken by the author;
- A certain format or structure for an essay;
- A particular stylistic move or phrasing.
In any case, take us to a passage in one of the essays that illustrates the move that interests you, and explain why admire what the writer is doing and how you might want to do something similar yourself.
Logistics: Your post need not run more than 400 words or so. Please check R3 as your category and remember to type “Posted by . . .” at the top of your comment.
Deadline: Wed, 9/22, 11:00 AM
Posted by Lawson Kurtz
I thought that I had been taught how to write. I’ve learned grammatical structures. I’ve studied the styles of famous authors. I’ve read great examples of what my writing should be. I’ve practiced drafting essays, and stories, and poems. For years I learned, yet in all that time, not once did I realize that all my lessons had neglected a fundamental element of writing: observation.
In the chapter titled “Looking Around” Lamott writes, “Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.” It’s a painfully obvious statement. In order to write, one must have some understanding of the world. The only way to develop such understanding is through observation. What was not obvious, to me at least, was that I needed practice paying attention. There are very few things in life that can be done perfectly without practice. How then was I so arrogant to assume that I held the innate ability to see the world in its true entirety?
Reading the chapter served only to confirm my fears that I am indeed a naïve observer. I was the rational mind Lamott referred to when she wrote, “To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass–seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one.” In contrast, Lamott describes her observation as a spiritual experience where “you see in everything the essence of holiness.” I cannot say that I have ever had such an experience, nor can I say definitively that I ever will. What I can do, however, is join Lamott in her practice of compassionate detachment, and hope to one day see the world that lies outside my bowels.
Posted by Alexandra McKnight
“You couldn’t have had any way of knowing what this piece of work would look like when you first started. You just knew that there was something about these people that compelled you, and you stayed with that something long enough for it to show you what it was about” (40).
I thought the analogy between writing and watching a Polaroid develop was very insightful. I have often stopped writing due to fear that I would not be able to plan the whole thing out or that the ending would not develop the way I had planned in my head. I “suffer” from racing thoughts of inspiration or strings of simple ideas compounded together yet I will sit down to write and feel empty. It feels like my pen has run out of ink and that my thoughts have finally come to a never-ending red light.
This need for order is very similar to the way I live my life. I must have a plan or schedule. I make a schedule based on hourly slots, designating what will come first, second, third, etc. If I cannot plan it, it will not get done. If I cannot see how it will turn out, with assurance, then I will not begin the task.
However, writing should not and cannot follow this process. A professor once told me that it is okay to be lost sometimes. It’s in being lost that we ultimately discover our souls. I know that this resistance to let my work just “develop” and for it to show me what it is about is a weakness of mine as a writer. This analogy has helped me to look at the uncertainty as a positive, or at the very least as a natural process. I can start with a vision but leave room to acknowledge that there are other elements that may, and most likely will, develop and change my original idea. I will leave room to acknowledge that this too is okay, even great.
Posted by Dayo Oshilaja
It took me a day and half to write these words. I don’t mean I sat at my computer for an actual day and a half. I mean that it took me one day and half of the next day to work up the courage and energy to write this piece. I have a love and hate relationship with the process of writing. Sometimes we are infatuated with each other, like an unholy addiction. I eat, dream, and sleep about writing. I toy with the idea of becoming a professional writer seeing myself poised as the much younger but no less talented protégé of the great Toni Morrison. I write endlessly and fervently laying out paragraph after paragraph and filling up page after page. And sometimes the words just desert me with no explanation at all, leaving me listless and unmotivated and days and weeks and months go by without me writing so much as a sentence.
I suppose this is why “Bird by Bird” resonates with me so much. I enjoy Lamott’s descriptions of a writer’s angst and see something of my own struggles with writing mirrored in her book. I particularly like her chapter entitled “Shitty First Drafts” which demonstrates just how difficult the writing process can be even for professional writers. But I think Lamott’s most helpful piece of advice is in the chapter entitled “Finding your own voice.” She offers up a very interesting description of why we write. She says that a writer’s job is to, “see what’s behind… [the door] to see the bleak, unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.” (198) Lamott continues by saying that this is impossible without finding, “your own true voice.” (198) Despite the many pieces and papers that I have written over the years, I don’t think that I have found my own true voice yet. But I know that this class will help me begin to develop one, as I attempt to form a more stable relationship with writing process. And hopefully, as I commit to writing every day, and as I write my responses and exercise pieces, I will be able to, “expose the un-exposed” in my own true voice. (198)