Of course, in any given semester, I only discover which of the assigned pieces will become “my favorite essay to teach” when it becomes clear which piece has the most lasting and profound impact on the members of the class. One semester, it was Laura Bogart’s excellent “So much for ‘Family Values,'” and another it was Sherman Alexei’s “Somebody Else’s Genocide.” I never know, from class to class, what is going to make a particular essay work really well and why it, more than any of the other pieces we will read, becomes a touchstone we will return to again and again. Each semester, though, there is one essay that will be referenced more often in discussions of craft and in students’ reflective writing. This semester, it is Amy Monticello’s excellent “Playing the Odds,” published in The Nervous Breakdown.
In this essay, which is a collage of exquisitely rendered scenes that add up to a particularly poignant whole, Monticello details the last day of her father’s life. There is a trip to the grocery store. The purchasing of lottery tickets. This paragraph is one we return to over and over again, when we talk about the way in which a single detail can inflect an entire essay:
On our way out, me pushing the cart slowly enough to feel each pock in the tile, my father asked to stop at the scratch-off machines. He inserted a couple of dollar bills and gingerly, still pinching his catheter, fished a quarter of his pocket.
That catheter breaks our hearts every time. That catheter brings us back to the meat of the piece just as we were lost in the quotidian details of grocery shopping. Now, when a piece wanders too far from its heart, someone in the workshop will say, “What’s the catheter in this essay? Bring us back to the catheter.”
Monticello deftly weaves her father’s habit of playing the lottery, playing along with game shows, into the narrative to show us the fragile hope he holds on to when he’s told that he only has a nine percent chance of surviving his cancer. “Then he patted my hand across the console. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘somebody’s got to be in that 9%, right?'” And we come back, again and again, to how dialogue–how letting another person speak in the essay–can be a powerful tool in showing that person to the reader.
But mostly, we return to the grace of the essay, to the beauty and simplicity with which Monticello writes about such a profound day. One of the students in our workshop is struggling to write about his own father’s death. “She manages to make the grief so real to readers,” he has said, “and I want to be able to do that.” Another student is writing about her family after divorce. “I love how she’s able to show how her parents are still tied to each other even years after they split up,” she notes and borrows from the essay the use of brief passages of conversation to illustrate the complexities of her own parents’ relationship. Still others have borrowed the essay’s college technique, inserting scenes from the past into the present of their own pieces to give them richness and depth. Each of us has taken something from this piece in the writing we’ve done this semester to use in our own essays, and each of those pieces is better for the borrowing.
This is the first of a series of guest blog posts from Assay readers like you on “My Favorite Essay to Teach.” Got an essay that works great in your classroom? Tell us about it!
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