Karen Babine is Assay’s editor. Her book, Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life, is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press in March 2015. She teaches at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN.
It’s fairly common for me to start off a semester of first-year writing (no matter the theme) with W. Scott Olsen’s “The Love of Maps” to give my students a chance to dig into what it means to claim to be from somewhere. How does that claim differ from someone else’s claim to be from somewhere else–and what does it mean for all of us to be right here, right now? I often pair it with Paul Gruchow’s “Rosewood Township” and/or “Naming What We Love.” These readings generally come on the second or third day of class, when we still don’t know each other very well.
Olsen’s essay starts off with “‘So,’ I ask him, ‘Why are you here?'” and so I start class by asking my students to free-write about why they are here. In this desk, in this classroom on an early Friday morning, at this university. They might answer that this is the only class to fit their schedule, that it’s a required class, etc–which is fine. But, as I explain to them as we discuss their answers, I want them to start thinking about their location as a choice. Nobody ends up anywhere by accident. You choose to go or you choose to stay.
We use that as a jumping off point to start talking about the essay itself, which is a segmented essay about Olsen driving towards the only public highway in North America that crosses the Arctic Circle, and I ask my students how many possible ways to answer the question “Why are you here?” Since this is very early in the semester and my students don’t know each other well yet, I often do this in small groups, and I divide up the sections among the groups. I also ask them to underline ideas and sentences they find particularly lovely. (They don’t know what creative nonfiction is yet–and the idea of a segmented essay is another class entirely, so we concentrate on the content, not the craft of the essay–yet I will use this as an example of there are many right ways to write.)
We talk about how many ways Olsen answers the question he poses in the first sentence: “Why are you here?”–and we talk about philosophical, historical, physical, theological, historical, and other answers to that question. At this point, the students really start nodding. I ask them for what they underlined, pieces they marked in the text as interesting and there are no shortage of quotes my students pull out, because this is a beautifully written, beautifully considered essay.
We talk about how Olsen and Gruchow fit together, how they both wrestle with the question of what it means to be somewhere, what is necessary to know a place, what is necessary to call a place home. We wonder if it is true, as Gruchow argues, that you cannot know a place unless you know the names of the things that surrounds you.
Students inevitably bring up a line in Section 7: “Theoretical or theological, medieval maps had Grace in the center and monsters at the frontier. Yet, the edge is as often as attractive as repellent.” We talk about why the frontiers might be so attractive, why Columbus sailed off, even though he knew the world was flat. I ask my students, then, to think of a time when they went towards the edge (though they did not have to mention specifics)–maybe it was a road trip, maybe it was a party they were told not to go to, could be anything. What did you learn about yourself, because you found that edge?
Somebody always mentions how interesting it is that Olsen’s essay is about knowing where you are, but its forward motion is a road trip.
Here’s the writing exercise we did, designed to reinforce the elements of essay I want them to learn (narrative, exposition, high exposition) as well as start to think about their first writing project. This is a composition class, classically argumentative, but creative techniques like freewriting are essential to give them confidence in their ideas.
- Describe a place you connect to–any place, could be home, could be a place you’ve been once–with every sense except sight.
- What significance does this place have for you? Why is it important? What do you like or dislike about it? (If you connect to the place because it holds memories, dig deeper: why do you want to hold onto those memories, what do those memories represent for you?)
- How long did it take for you to form this attachment?
- How does what you know about this place play into your connection?
- Now: how would you tell someone else about how amazing and special this place is? How would you make someone else care? (This is the “so what?” factor.) Why should anybody else care about your place? Why do you want them to feel the same way about it as you do?
I want my students to learn about writing details and descriptions, as well as beginning to articulate why a particular place has any sort of meaning–but that’s only half the battle. The other half, as they will soon learn, is in making anybody else care about what they’re doing. Without this exposition and high exposition, what they’re doing is a basic journal entry and everybody has journals and nobody cares about yours. But making something that is personal relevant to readers takes practice. And there’s no better time than the present to start.