Teaching the Pen Breakers: On JoAnn Beard’s “Fourth State of Matter”–Siân Griffiths

51g5kyhmq1l._sx327_bo1204203200_There’s a danger in teaching work you love. Love is, after all, irrational, and there are works I love irrationally, works I resist scrutinizing. I can articulate what draws me to parts of them, but I struggle to articulate how all those parts come together to push the work into the realm of genius. Take JoAnn Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter.” The essay makes me want to break my pens, knowing I will never write anything as good. I included it on the syllabus for Writing Creative Nonfiction course because I believe writers should read the pen breakers.

This line of thinking was fine when I selected texts, but it was quite another thing when I had to figure out how to actually teach it. I saw myself stuttering in front of the room. This essay is beautiful, I would say. And? How would I stretch that juicy tidbit? What did I want them to take from this essay besides the fact that Beard herself is brilliant? Would I just spend the class saying, “look at this, look at this” over and over, pointing out images and reading sentences and sighing? What could I give my student writers that would be of use? How could any of us manage what Beard managed?

Worse, what if they hated the essay? I spent the weekend having imaginary arguments. It’s boring, they would say. It’s too long. It’s just another shooting, so what? I saw myself in front of them, seething and ranting, deploying strategies that have never once helped a student learn.

Feeling lost, I tweeted my frustration, and my colleagues answered. Kirsten Kaschock has her students describe the essay’s organization, offering four options: braided, chronological, before/after, or organized around absences. Aaron Burch directed me to Jill Christman’s essay in which, among other things, she asks her students to argue the importance of each of five strands: dog, squirrels, husband, friend in physics, and shooting. Each group must make the case for their strand being the most important and trace its relationship to the recurring image of plasma. The ensuing debate allows students to see how Beard gives equal weight to the mundane and the extraordinary, connecting the particular (right down to the particles in the blood) with the cosmic.

Armed with these strategies, I started the class with our regular written reading response, in which the students locate one choice the writer made and discuss why that choice is effective for this specific project. Most of them start the year well schooled in the art of negative critique, but this routine practice asks them, instead, to analyze from a stance of appreciation, an equally if not more important skill as writers need to recognize tools and their uses. That done, the students counted off, and I randomly assigned each group the one of Christman’s strands. As they assembled into groups, I added Kaschock’s list of organizational strategies to the board, noting that I wanted to come back to these at the end of our debate. I asked that the groups think about the structure as they talked. My hope was that by focusing on one small aspect, the larger structural strategies would also slide into focus in the same way a magic eye painting reveals itself when the eye looks one place but takes in the whole.

The debate format drew on the students’ native competitiveness but also on their sense of fun, and thus it was spirited and lively. Each group was certain they had won. As it turned out, my fears that the class would hate the essay were misplaced. Of course they were—the essay is brilliant and so are my students. As we returned to the topic of structure, we found that all of Kaschock’s forms were at play, but we discovered a fifth fundamental structural strategy as well: the chiasma. One student said, “At first, I thought this was an essay about a dog.” It is, we agreed. It’s about a dying dog and a dear friend seeing Beard through that real and debilitating loss. Midway, however, the shooting flips the essay, turning it on its head, and it becomes about an old dog seeing its owner through the devastating loss of her dear friend. The essay hinges on reversal. Beard managed the impossible, not one structure but five.

Part of my job is to help my students develop taste. Selecting beautiful, challenging essays is crucial to that work, but so is building lessons that will facilitate their appreciation. By braiding my colleagues’ approaches, asking the students to home in on various strands while keeping an eye on the larger structures, they gained an apparatus that allowed closer reading and deeper appreciation—as did I. There’s always more to find in Beard’s essay; that’s the hallmark of a pen breaker.

With minutes left to go, we agreed we were in awe, ready to toss aside our laptops and concede defeat by a worthy superior. Beard had done it. What more could we add?

I couldn’t leave us there. This is, after all, a writing class, not a not-writing class nor a never-writing-again class. Sure, Beard’s essay is amazing, but writers write both in pursuit of the great essays and maybe a little in spite of them. We need to find our inner punk. We need to keep going, to carve our own spaces.

In my imagined arguments, I’d heard the phantom students complain that they couldn’t write anything like “The Fourth State of Matter” because (assuming they were lucky) they hadn’t been through a newsworthy trauma. Of course, the shock of the shooting is only one reason why the essay works. My students had plenty of their own material; they simply need to find a shape and a language for it. With this in mind, I pointed them not to the shooting but to a detail that draws me close to Beard, the image of her holding her collie’s long nose and moving it like a stick shift through the gears. “Maserati,” she calls it. She and her dog share this game and it is unique to them, but in that singularity, it connects.

Hoping to encourage them to do the same, I offered this prompt: compose a snap shot of yourself doing something weird, something that maybe only you do. Don’t tell us why. Describe the action in depth and put it in a context that allows us to understand. In other words, do what Beard does so brilliantly, but in a way that is all your own.

Here, I want to step out of the classroom for a moment to give a little context and maybe add some insight into my pedagogy. I play city league tennis. I play erratically and often poorly but with great fervor. I love to watch Serena Williams, to see the way she carves a forehand, to witness the power of her serve. She’s a player who would make me want to break my racket (I’ll never be a tenth the player she is), if not for advice I once read in W. Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis. He notes that, on the court, it would be helpful to see ourselves like flowers, as things in the process of growing.

When we plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as “rootless and stemless.” We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed. When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development. The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly all right as it is.

A bud does not fault itself for not being a rose. As players, we too must accept what we are and appreciate ourselves at each stage, while allowing the possibility of growth. I won’t be the next Serena, but I learn from watching her: grit, the beauty of a perfectly placed shot, the importance of follow-through, but most of all, a love of the game. I play better for it.

So it is with writing. We study Beard to learn from her, but ultimately, I don’t expect the essays that my students draft to be works of polished brilliance, ready to take their place in the next New Yorker. These students are still growing, after all. That’s an important stage to accept. Even so, the seed of the next pen breaker may already be in the class, absorbing water, working to break through the soil. “The Fourth State of Matter” will give it light, sustenance, energy. After all, growing things stretch best towards the brilliance of otherwise blinding stars.

Siân Griffiths

For further reading on “Fourth State of Matter,” check out

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