Today, I’m writing about the classroom experience of teaching a text that literally brings me delight—I’m talking about Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights (Algonquin, 2019). A flash prose project, wherein the poet wrote nearly daily reflections on moments of delight he experienced for one year, the book demonstrates the generosity of attention—to objects, to others, to our selves—and making a practice or discipline, even a faith, out of the dailiness of that witness. Because of the year chronicled (the project lasted July 2015 to July 2016), Gay necessarily documents several of the political, racial, and social issues of this period. My goal in assigning his book was to teach students about cultivating a sustained attention to a particular thing or response.
I first taught this book in a graduate hybrid nonfiction course in the Fall of 2019, where we read the whole text. We discussed Gay’s premise and self-assigned project—to write brief, unedited pieces documenting instances of delight each day for a year (though he doesn’t manage each day, and it’s unknown how unedited the pieces are)—in terms of its success, and the variety in the quality of attention he brings to his subject. Even by grad students’ standard of defaulting to a critical stance toward readings, it was disastrous. They hated it, found it Pollyanna-ish, though I tried to point out Gay’s delight as a deliberate choice, not a vapid reaction. I don’t expect students to love everything we read, yet I was shocked by their response, though I tried not to show it.
Late in the discussion, however, one of the only students of color in the class—and the only Black student—made the point that I was hoping they’d get: that choosing delight, especially by a Black man, especially in the face of the current events of that period, is a radical act. That the delights Gay describes often are physical, bodily experiences, in defiance of treating Black bodies only as sites of violence. The class got very quiet.
They did a much better job analyzing how attention functioned in Gay’s entries: how sometimes the attention turned outward and was somewhat distanced and observational even while detailed, but other times his attention shifted inward and became meditative, even meta. His emphasis on connection and touch. On bodily experience.
The writing prompt associated with the reading was even more successful.
- Pick an abstract quality that is experienced in the body – irritation, surprise, etc.
- For one week, write a daily flash prose diary documenting instances of the experience that quality.
While I didn’t expect students to get an entire project out of modeling Gay, my hope was that paying sustained attention in writing over a sequence of days might produce material that could inform their own work in deeper ways. My favorite submission was from a student who wrote a week of meditations on empathy, and how moving, disorienting, and exhausting the experiences became.
Since then, of course, Covid happened, shutting down a lot of delight and connection. I also teach for the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and Gay’s book has featured heavily in my teaching materials. For these students, whose lockdowns and isolations in service of preserving health have led to day after day of sameness, writing prompts have become one way to escape the mundane. They, of course, get how choosing delight can be a radical act, and how generous the gift of attention can be. Unlike my grad class, when I do the same writing prompt, I have them focus on positive abstract qualities to pay attention to and document experiences of: delight, joy, compassion, empathy, (pleasant) surprise, curiosity, pride, contentment, pleasure. In fact, I started including a shortened version of this exercise (just 3 days of flash responses) as a fun extra credit assignment in my college composition classes, which have all moved online during the pandemic (If not using the full book, you can find excerpts here, here, and here, and some long passages included here.) It may be a bit Pollyanna-ish but, like Gay, we can, with full awareness of the negative in the world, still choose radical delight.
Essayist and poet Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the lyric essay collection Fluid States, selected by Dinty W. Moore as winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the poetry collection Conjoining, and is the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She writes and teaches in Minneapolis, where she is an Editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com