Listicle: Resources for Teaching Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter”

I visited several creative writing courses last week, and Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” was mentioned several times.

  • Find the original essay, published in The New Yorker, here.

Here are some resources for teaching and reading this essay:

  • Find Lynn Kilpatrick’s piece for Assay’s “In the Classroom” series, here.
  • Sarah M. Wells’ article, “The Memoir Inside the Essay Collection: Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth” (on the entire book), here.
  • Find Ned Stuckey-French’s commentary on the author, the essay’s form and context, including additional reading resources, here.
  • Find Jill Christman’s reflections in Essay Daily, including classroom exercises, here

If you have other resources, please let me know and I’ll add them to this page.

Thank you!

-Renée

The Context of “Disobedience” — by Michael Estes

I teach English Composition at a diverse community college, and for the past few years I’ve asked my students to read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” Teaching “Civil Disobedience” excites neither me nor my students with the thrill of encountering an innovative text, but surprisingly, the context of my teaching has made it new.

The first layer of novelty lies in the fact that most of my students haven’t heard of Thoreau. Whatever they’re teaching them in those high schools (pronoun vagueness intentional, and I’m a former high-school teacher), Transcendentalism isn’t high on the list. Both Thoreau’s beard and his diction are unfamiliar to my students, but with the help of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography lauding Thoreau’s eloquence on the importance of “noncooperation with evil,” we quickly discover that he’s preaching a familiar theme: what’s legal is sometimes the opposite of what’s right.

ThoreauA second layer of novelty stems from the relevance of a 165-year-old essay to my students’ educational paths. As we read Thoreau’s description of the inferiority of the American government to the American individual in statements such as “This American government . . . has not the vitality and force of a single living man” and “[The American government] does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate [emphasis original],” it’s hard not to think of the stories my remedial Composition students have told me about complacent English teachers in their pasts, and we discuss whether or not the current American government educates and how much vitality it seems to have to invest in the cause of keeping the country, or its citizens, free. In my students’ experiences and those of their peers, is the public-school system more invested in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, or constructing it?

This leads to a final source of contextual novelty for “Civil Disobedience”: race. Thoreau exhorts his readers to be jailed if necessary before they contribute their poll taxes to a government that, in his view, wishes to use tax money to conduct the Mexican War and thereby spread slavery. His experiment in civil disobedience occurred in the inevitable context of his status as a Harvard-educated white male, and he spent one night in jail. Imagining for a moment that black men had the option of paying poll taxes in 1849, how would Thoreau’s experiment have been received at the time if he had been black? What laws and legal practices today are immoral, and what happens to those who resist them?

Three quotes from “Civil Disobedience” that have been particularly relevant to my students’ discussions of law, morality, and the relationship between police and citizens:

•  “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”
•  “A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences . . . and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.”
•  “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

Before reading Thoreau, my students write an essay about an event in their own lives that changed who they are, and I’ve learned from these essays that the contexts of many of my students’ lives are very different from my own. I don’t pretend for a minute that bringing “Civil Disobedience” to their attention is a form of letting my life be “a counter friction to stop the machine” of social inequity that characterizes some of their lives. But as a teacher, using “Civil Disobedience” in the context of a classroom mostly filled by people whose lives somehow demonstrate civil society’s disobedience or betrayal of the social contract has proven valuable. Pedagogically, it’s exciting to see students respond passionately to an essay they had no intention of having a meaningful encounter with and discover its connections to the contemporary world. Personally, I would love for it to have the potential to help, in Thoreau’s words, “prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”

***

Estes photoMichael Estes teaches English in Louisville, Kentucky, in the company of his wife and two daughters. His poetry has appeared in Boulevard, RHINO, The Potomac Review, and elsewhere.

Martin Luther King Day 2017 — Online Teaching Resources

MLK

In English Composition courses, I usually assign Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I’ve heard from students that they really appreciate having that reading included. My students also respond very strongly to “Learning to Read and Write” by Frederick Douglass.

It’s possible to listen to MLK read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which is especially useful in an online-learning environment. Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute has other excellent resources and curriculum suggestions.

Ned Stuckey-French provides fantastic analysis and context of Martin Luther King’s “Letter” here.

Thank you to Nancy Peck for suggesting the inclusion of original source documents. You can access MLK’s documents through http://thekingcenter.org/archive.

For contemporary and current resources, this NPR report is a useful start: “Ferguson in the Classroom: How One College Took Up Race and Policing This Semester.” The November 2015 NPR report discusses this NYU class developed by Professor Frank Leon Roberts. You can find Roberts’s #blacklivesmatter syllabus and other resources here.

In additition, here is a link to “13 Significant Books on Civil Rights for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.”

For creative writing courses, and departments, it’s essential to consider Claudia Rankine’s keynote address at AWP/LA (2016). Rankine adapted that address into an essay for The Writer’s Chronicle, found here. Rankine’s masterpiece Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf) should be considered essential reading.

Please also consult the Syllabus on Black Feminism from Melissa Harris-Perry, here.

Here at Assay, you will find our resources and pedagogy articles useful. Here are a few suggestions:

On James Baldwin:

On Civil Rights:

On Empathy:

If you have other classroom resources that you wish to share, I’ll add them to this post as I receive them. Many thanks!

Favorite Essay to Teach: Sui Sin Far’s “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian” by Brenna M. Casey

When I teach Sui Sin Far in my classroom, I start with indignation.

Far was a woman of firsts. In the second half of the nineteenth century, she was the first writer of Chinese ancestry to be published in English in North America. Far was one of the first voices writing from newly forming Chinese and Asian American communities. These communities, themselves, were a product of the forced migrations of workers in the brutal coolie trade, indentured and carried across the Pacific on retrofitted slave ships to fill the gaps in labor left by the abolition of slavery at the end of the U.S. Civil War. Far was the first writer to acknowledge the presence of Chinese women and children living in burgeoning Chinatowns, billed all too conveniently by the U.S. and Canadian governments as the temporary sojourn of bachelor laborers. Born to an English father and Chinese mother, Far is one of the earliest thinkers to contemplate multiraciality in an American context. She remains a smart and prolific writer whose work across multiple genres—reportage, fiction, and essays—ushered in the twentieth century. Her currently uncovered works (many of which were penned anonymously or signed with a pseudonym including her given name, Edith Maude Eaton) number some 250 published pieces in over 40 periodicals throughout Canada, the U.S., and Jamaica. Sui Sin Far’s work should be as prized and familiar as Henry David Thoreau or Mark Twain. And yet, no one of my students has ever heard her name.

This, I tell students while pantomiming a frustrated flip of the seminar table, is an all too familiar story for women writers in America. Especially, I say waiting a freighted beat, for women of color.

editheatonphoto1“Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian” is organized as the title suggests: a palimpsest of thoughts, memories, conversation fragments, and anecdote that, taken together, form the collagic and painful coming to consciousness of Far’s own racial difference. Despite her ability to pass as a white woman, Far is insistent on enunciating her Chinese heritage. This insistence often results in Far’s immediate vulnerability in the dangerous era of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The form bespeaks the content. Identity formations are a process; the effect of Far’s prose is cumulative. Only as a catalog of Far’s own excruciating education do seemingly inconsequential social interactions take on the stifling weight of Far’s feelings of being between, “something different and apart.”

The essay was written for the New York Independent in 1890, but its content is eerily prescient. Students transiting in their own early adulthood identify with the formative experiences of childhood cruelty and mean-spirited inspection by their peers. Without fail, students of all different backgrounds table a two-part question ubiquitous on college campuses: “Where are you from?” Then: the coded, casual, and insidious racism of the follow-up, “No, where are you really from?”

Far also insists on particularizing her experience as a woman. One episode of “Leaves” relates an unwanted sexual advance from a naval officer who visits Far uninvited. He wants to tell her, he says, about all “the sweet little Chinese girls” he met while stationed in Hong Kong. While we never learn how this incident ends, the menace of its beginning lingers. The officer laughs a little when he introduces himself and Far writes, “The laugh doesn’t suit him somehow—and it doesn’t suit me, either.”

I love to teach this essay because it isn’t perfect. In its do-gooder enthusiasm, Far sometimes reasserts the prejudice she seeks to dismantle. As in the moment when Far is confronting her own ethnic biases and writes that two Chinese men she glimpses in a store are “uncouth specimens of their race.” In another anecdote, Far is tracing commonalities between herself and the black population of Jamaica—a radical moment of interracial solidarity—but never questions the infantilizing characterizations deployed upon a servant class. These encysted bigotries, are not without their merit. They demonstrate to students that ethnic and racial identities are not fixed. Rather, they are untethered from individual bodies, visually unsurveillable, and consolidated only through careful engineering—made and remade by whomever is controlling the narrative.

“A bird on the wing is my emblem of happiness,” writes Far, encouraging her reader to leave natal places and known landscapes. Her travels across North America reveal national differences and parochial similarities “After all I have no nationality and am not anxious to claim any,” Far concludes, wresting indignant control of her own narrative, “Individuality is more than nationality.”

***

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Photo credit James Bernal

Brenna M. Casey is a writer and educator based alternately in Prague, Czech Republic, and Durham, North Carolina. She teaches literature and creative writing at Duke University where she is completing her doctoral work in the Departments of English and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame. She is currently a regular contributor at Ploughshares and you can read her work here.

Jennifer Case–A Nerve for Excellence: Teaching Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”

When I first assigned Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in an environmental writing course, I immediately recalled a warning my mentor had given early in my teaching career. “I once taught a book that I loved, and the students hated it. It was the worst teaching moment I’ve had,” she said. “Never teach your favorite book.”

PilgrimatTinkerCreekDillardPilgrim at Tinker Creek is, without a doubt, my favorite book. The first time I read it, I was a quiet, intense high school student who enjoyed gardening, writing, and hiking. I was struggling with religion, trying to understand my own beliefs, and Dillard’s environmental spirituality—deep and dark and unnerving in its questioning—felt like a new kind of communion. “Something pummels us, something barely sheathed. Power broods and lights. We’re played on on like a pipe; our breath is not our own,” Dillard writes (15). Reading such passages when younger, I felt pummeled, played on, breathed upon. I felt fed and swallowed whole.

I hesitated, as a result, when assigning the book to my class because I couldn’t bear the thought of them not appreciating it, or—perhaps even more—the book no longer living up to my memory of it.

To be sure: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is dense. It is meditative and philosophical, chockfull of allusions. It is a hard book to read and a hard book to teach. To help my students digest it, I broke the class into groups and had each group take a five-page chunk of the chapter “Intricacy.” They identified their section’s major images, symbols, and ideas, and they transferred those glosses to the board. By the end of the hour, the board was crammed with phrases such as “red blood cells,” “the goldfish in the bowl,” “chloroplasts,” “evolution and trees,” “eye pouches and Henle’s loop,” “intricacy and red blood cells and speckles.”

When I asked what they saw, they replied, “a mess.” Which was true. Aside from a few echoes and patterns, the reverse outline we created appeared random and confusing and discursive.

I then read from the middle of the chapter, where Dillard writes,

The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork—for it doesn’t particularly, not even inside the goldfish bowl—but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. (138-139)

“In what ways is form meeting content, here?” I asked, and we discussed how Dillard’s chapter, in tackling the complexity and messiness and intricacy of the natural, biological world, is also complex and messy and intricate. Her essay, like the subject matter she describes, goes on millions of tangents simultaneously, with an abandoned energy that, for some students, seemed unwarranted. We discussed how Dillard’s chapters—each of them—masterfully mimicked the subjects they tackled. My own faith in Dillard’s writing—and my students’ appreciation for her—burgeoned. I sighed with happiness and considered the lesson a success.

But it is the book’s afterword, actually, that offers the greatest lesson, and explains why I keep returning to it. When describing her experience writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard recounts a New Yorker essay she’d read about mathematicians, who apparently suffer “the failure of the nerve for excellence” as they age (279). The phrase piqued Dillard, as it piqued me in high school, when I promised myself that I, too, would write a Pulitzer prize-winning book by the time I was 30.

I am older, now, than Dillard was when she started writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Though I teach at a university and consider myself a writer, I have not published that Pulitzer prize-winning book. As a result, reading about Dillard’s nerve for excellence makes me strangely nostalgic. But Dillard’s book still pummels me; it still inspires me in its confidence, in its willingness to explore painful depths and answer impossibly complicated questions. More than anything, then, this is why I continue to teach Dillard’s essays. I want my students to be ambitious. I want their nerves for excellence to spark. Year after year, decade after decade, Dillard’s work has offered such stimulation, for me and for them.

***

Jennifer_CaseJennifer Case’s poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Zone 3, Split Rock Review, English Journal, Poet Lore, and Stone Canoe, where her work received the 2014 Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize in Fiction. She is the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org and teaches creative writing, professional writing, and composition at the University of Central Arkansas.

Creighton Nicholas Brown — My Favorite Essay to Teach: Jamaica Kincaid’s “A Small Place”

Every spring semester that I teach English 203: Exploring the World, I look forward to the day when my students begin discussing Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. While not definitionally an essay, Kincaid’s slim 81-page memoir (or travelogue? or jeremiad?) is the shortest text I teach in a course using contemporary nonfiction travel writing to explore postcolonialism, social and environmental justice, and issues of gender in the global South.

Kincaid

My students arrive to class having been confronted—without warning from me—with Kincaid’s categorical rage and pinned under a relentless gaze constructed skillfully through her repetition of you. Kincaid lands my students in Antigua and regularly reminds them, “The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being.” We spend much of the first of two class days working through both Kincaid’s rage and my students’ deeply personal reactions to her castigation of Western tourists.

Of particular interest for me on our first day with A Small Place is the transition in class discussion from discounting Kincaid’s scathing observational claims about her readers to a conversation considering whether such anger can be productive. This conversation is bumpy with some students arguing her outrage does not merit her description of them as “incredibly unattractive, fat, pastry-like,” and others positing that Kincaid’s indignation grabs her readers’ faces and forces them to look at, to see, to witness the over 500-year history of Western barbarity on this twelve by nine-mile-wide island. These students—those arguing for the productivity of anger—begin to cite passages linking the slave trade to Antigua’s Hotel Training School and to the discourse of tourism, which positions us to discuss contemporary imperial discourses and institutions during the next class meeting.

We leave our first class devoted to A Small Place reflecting on Kincaid’s stark observation on the development of capitalism. She asks her readers, my students, “Do you know why people like me are shy about being capitalists? Well, it’s because we, for as long as we have known you, were capital, like bales of cotton and sacks of sugar, and you were the commanding, cruel capitalists.”

What I like most about A Small Place—in addition to her profound rage, despair, and unanticipated hope—is watching as Kincaid carefully maps historical and contemporary imperial discourses and institutions onto this small island. As she guides us through the streets of St. Johns, she catalogs institutions such as the bank that once traded in human capital and now lends the descendants of those slaves funds or the hospital that government ministers avoid. But the most striking example of Kincaid’s discursive cartography is her genealogy of the Hotel Training School.

We spend much of the first half of our second day explicating Kincaid’s claim that the Hotel Training School, which produces hospitality workers for the many hotels lining Antigua’s beaches, resulted from slavery and emancipation. She remarks, “In Antigua, people cannot see a relationship between their obsession with slavery and emancipation and their celebration of the Hotel Training School (graduation ceremonies are broadcast on radio and television).” This is a challenging discussion for my students. Initially, they seem to react with the same frustration they felt on the first day, but as we closely read the text, my students realize they’re collectively feeling despair with the systemic injustice built into this one industry in Antigua, which they realize can be translated onto other metonymically small places. This is why I love to teach A Small Place: it is in this moment when my students stop resisting Kincaid’s acerbity and begin to empathically engage with her humanity.

I devote the second half of our second day with A Small Place to explicating Kincaid’s conclusion—both as the moment we witness her rage and despair dissolve into cautious hope and as a model for my students’ conclusions in their own writing. Line by line we determine the purpose of each sentence and observe that Kincaid concisely contextualized and summarizes her thesis, makes a provocative insight, and concludes with the broader implications of her project:

Again, Antigua is a small place, a small island. It is nine miles wide by twelve miles long. It was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Not too long after, it was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa (all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted; there can be no question about this) to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their own miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty—a European disease. Eventually, the masters left, in a kind of way; eventually, the slaves were freed, in a kind of way. The people in Antigua now, the people who really think of themselves as Antiguans (and the people who would immediately come to your mind when you think about what Antiguans might be like; I mean, supposing you were to think about it), are the descendants of those noble and exalted people, the slaves. Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.

If I’ve planned my course schedule correctly, the two days we dedicate to discussing A Small Place are sandwiched between Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes and spring break. My students leave for Gulf Shores, Cancún, or Saint Kitts having grappled with Kincaid’s justified rage, despair, and hope-filled plea, and having investigated a network of contemporary imperial discourses.

***

BrownCreighton Nicholas Brown is a doctoral candidate and Emmy-winner at the University of Kansas, where he teaches in the English Department. Currently, he is working on his dissertation, which is titled (Un)Disciplined Subjects: Postcolonial Life Writing and Contemporary Imperial Discourses. His research interests include contemporary literature of the global South, postcolonial theory, life writing, and ecocriticism. His most recent publications are “The Hunger: The Power and Politics of a (Post)Colonial Cannibal,” which appeared in Diasporic Identities and Empire: Cultural Contentions and Literary Landscapes, and “Dracula’s Colonized Tongue Speaks through Fanged Teeth.”

Hey You, Speak Up!: On Teaching “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp” by Joy Williams

whaleOn writing fiction Joy Williams recently observed, “a novel wants to befriend you, a short story almost never.” She didn’t reveal her thoughts on the essay, but my belief is she considers this genre your best friend, as in the friend who tells the truth whether you want it or not.

Sometimes nice is what we want, but not what we need, and I find the greatest foe to undergraduate student essays is sentimentality. “But I don’t want to be mean,” students plead, as they argue for bland stories about roommates or touching family moments. That’s why my best friend in the classroom is Williams’s environmental rant, “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp.”

From sentence one, Williams pops the balloons of that special Disneyland vacation with Dad:

“I don’t want to talk about me, of course, but it seems as though far too much attention has been lavished on you lately — that your greed and vanities and quest for self-fulfillment have been catered to far too much.”

Right away she confronts the reader of selfishness, of destroying our ecology one tiny selfish comfort at a time. The class recoils from Williams—her dark humor doesn’t translate and her polemic puts them on the defensive. They begin to talk about how they hated this essay and how this author will never persuade anyone by alienating her readers. Sometimes, the students get pretty harsh.

Success! My nice students are no longer nice, aside from that one student with the Bad Brains T-shirt who totally gets it and wonders if she’s the only one, and she could be wrong, but she finds Williams funny? I want to throw this student a parade, but I play it cool for we’ve gotten to the next step: it’s time to examine why and how, exactly, Williams is so skilled at pissing us off.

1) Williams uses second person with conviction:

“You just want and want and want. You don’t believe in Nature anymore…Your eyes glaze as you travel life’s highway past all the crushed animals and Big Gulp cups.”

In composition classes, I ban second person because students use it as a crutch to avoid real claims. (You know what I mean.) When Williams uses second person, she means you, you there, washing down that In-n-Out Double-Double with a bucket-sized Diet Coke.

2) Exclamation points have became the default setting of texts and emails, used to convey false enthusiasm over trite conversations. Williams wields hers like a weapon:

“You don’t want to think about it!”

“Yes! If it weren’t for the people who kill them, wild ducks wouldn’t exist!”

3) Williams creates disruption through short, powerful sentences:

“And the word environment. Such a bloodless word. A flat-footed word with a shrunken heart.”

“Florida is crazy, it’s pink concrete. It’s paved, it’s over. And a little girl just got eaten by an alligator down there.”

“You’re eschewing cow.”

4) After zooming in to look at the details, it’s worth panning out, to examine her overall structure. What scaffolds the essay?

Williams moves from outright accusation, to an imaginary conversation between herself and the reader. As the reader claws her way through rationalizations and comforts Williams ousts them out, one by one, anticipating every move and blocking escape. She not only anticipates the reader’s counterarguments but implicates herself. By the end, there is nowhere for the reader or the author to hide.

I’ve taught “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp” alongside “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace. Both essays, after extensive mental journeys, conclude with the same plea for mindfulness, but Wallace’s ruminations are in stark contrast to Williams’s sawed off shotgun. Love or hate these writers, I tell my students, they have a distinctive style. Within a few sentences we know who they are, the literary version of “Name that Tune.”

Final hope: students might see voice is worth risking alienation.

**

Kelly+Ferguson_RedKelly Kathleen Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself. Her work has appeared in mental_floss magazine, Poets & Writers, The Gettysburg Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other publications. She teaches creative writing at Southern Utah University.

My Favorite Essay to Teach: Jorge Luis Borges’ “On Blindness” — by Gwendolyn Edward

GwendolynEdwardMy introductory to creative writing students have preconceived notions about what non-fiction is or should be. The essay as a form of non-fiction is not well known to them; the genre has been established in their minds as one devoted to the long-form narrative: shocking tales of harrowing experiences or bestselling celebrity memoir. They are worried about being tasked to write non-fiction because they do not think their lives have been interesting enough; they worry they will be reduced to writing about cliché subject matters like death of grandparents, breaking up with a significant other, the first time they saw or did something incredibly shocking. They also seem preoccupied by the idea that non-fiction is simply storytelling.

But non-fiction is not relegated to the telling it straight storytelling and it does not have to be book length. It finds a home in different types of essay as well, and essay—in the introductory class—is our non-fiction focus. I begin our unit with a quote from Philip Lopate:

The essay is a notoriously flexible and adaptable form. It possesses the freedom to move anywhere, in all directions….This freedom can be daunting, not only for the novice essayist confronting such latitude but for the critic attempting to pin down its formal properties.

When Lopate says the essay is flexible, I tell my students that I believe he’s speaking to two different qualities: the types of established essay and the way essay influences the genres of poetry and fiction.

We begin by talking about the traditional narrative essay: using narrative and the personal experience as an investigative tool. The braided essay: narrative threads and themes that work together to create a certain impact on the reader. The lyric essay: one concerned with representation of time and use of language. The researched essay: one that relies upon response to other writers and events and relays required and investigated material to the reader. The meditative essay: a dwelling of thought on a subject matter that trumps narrative. We also talk about ideas central to the essay, confession and revelation, and how they’re different.

We look at “purer” forms of all these types of essays, but my favorite part of our unit on non-fiction—the last essay we read—throws a curve ball to the students. Now that they’ve seen the essay is in fact rather approachable, now that they’ve been assured that they all have something to write about and that sometimes, the fun, sometimes, in non-fiction, is working with story or form to find meaning, they encounter an essay that achieves the same goal but does not fit the boundaries we’ve established. It breaks the rules we’ve put in place. It is Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “Blindness.” In the essay, Borges recounts the loss of his eye sight and how terrifying it was—initially—for an author who relied upon viewing the written word to compose and revise. But he also learns that this loss is not one that overwhelms; it is loss as recovery and discovery.

What Borges offers them in “Blindness” is all types of essay in one. The narrative aspect is present across the essay—the story of Borges deteriorating eyesight and his journey from writer of prose to writer of poetry. The braided essay is present too in the way Borges moves between central themes. The lyric essay is embodied in moments of poetic description. The researched essay is there too in all the authors’ lives and works that he discusses. The meditative essay is present throughout: Borges, on multiple occasions, anticipates needing to contextualize his content and so he gives us thoughts as opposed to action. Confession is present in his fears, and the over-arching glue to the essay is revelation: that blindness is not a not such a bad thing after all, when it has in turn given him so much.

“What do we call an essay like this?” I ask my class. “How do we define it? More importantly maybe, why would we need to define it?”

My students are smart. I don’t mind bragging about this. They suggest all sorts of reasons: we need rules and terms so that we learn how to manipulate them in productive ways; we label it because it helps us locate types of essays we want to read and write. But there’s always a student too who catches onto my game and says something along the lines of “maybe we don’t need to define it. Most essays aren’t really just one kind at all but use elements of different kinds anyway.”

This, in part, is why I assign Borges last. We’ve established what we can do and are capable of in non-fiction, and now that we’ve looked Borges we understand too that we have permission to play with form and content. Non-fiction is not an either/or type of writing; elements of different types of essay can be present all at once. But more than this, Borges also makes us think about how non-fiction writing speaks to all writing and what is most important to the writer: language.

Borges has used the essay as a teaching tool about other genres. Education is central to all literature and creative writing, I tell my students. Non-fiction, poetry, and fiction all teach us something about the human experience, just in different ways. In non-fiction we have the tool of knowing that this thing—this story, experience, trial, the thoughts, epiphanies—belong to a person who we are invited to view and respond to. There might be something more approachable about non-fiction. We might be willing to learn more readily when we know what we’re hearing is true. What better tool for education do we have than honesty about experience?

The goal in reading “Blindness” is twofold: students become more aware of the styles of essay and how—like Lopate says—they’re flexible, but students who are not sure how to “read” poetry become aware of one method of approaching it.

Students often struggle with poetry—not only the labyrinth of interpretation, but the idea of poetry itself. It seems students fall into one of two categories: familiar with canonical poetry and receptive to discussion about more contemporary texts, or distrustful of poetry and viewing it as cryptic or inaccessible.

I often teach the unit on non-fiction before poetry for the express purpose of using Borges’ “Blindness” as a way to begin thinking about poems and how to read them. Early in the essay Borges says,

“One of the colors that the blind—or at least this blind man—do not see is black…. I, who was accustomed to sleeping in total darkness, was bothered for a long time at having to sleep in this world of mist, in the greenish or bluish mist, vaguely luminous, which is the world of the blind.”

My class tends to agree with Borges: the non-blind think of blindness as blackness or a dark nothingness. Borges’ experience is instructive because it teaches us something about our perceptions of limitations or obstacles: they can be wrong, and sometimes, surprisingly so.

Borges, I tell my students, is teaching us a way of seeing. His essay, more than anything else, is giving us ways to approach writing across genres: he shows us how to see with language, and seeing with language is one form of understanding, uncovering, discovering. When we discuss the essay and how Borges begins his foray into poetry, we talk about how we process language. Most of students’ reading is done silently, but reading any piece of literature—be it prose or poem—can be transformative when read aloud.

“Why don’t we just look at one of his poems,” I suggest, though this is planned ahead of time. We look at Borges’ “On His Blindness.” I project it onto the screen at the front of the room and then we read it silently to ourselves. On a second read, I ask students to sub-vocalize, to play with how to stress words, where they find pauses both directed and natural. Then we take turns reading it aloud. Inevitably the students read it aloud in different ways. In the first line some students read “like it or not” as factual; others give inflection which suggests a wry humor. And in the third line some students will read “single thing”, stressing the words, giving them more weight. As the poem continues, some students pick up speed. Some students slow down. By the time we’ve made it through our volunteers, we’ve had at least ten different interpretations of how the poem sounds, resulting in at least ten different interpretations of what is most important to the poet and each reader.

Borges, in “Blindness,” is delighted at the discovery of sound that is given to him when he loses is eyesight. Sound is applicable to all writing, and in reading “Blindness,” I hope students continue to think about how non-fiction writing and reading can inform their approaches to other genres.

“Imagine what Borges must have felt like—that amazing discovery of what sound can do. Borges says in ‘Blindness’—of learning other languages—‘that each word was a kind of talisman unearthed.’ He continues to say, ‘I had replaced the visible world with the aural world….’ What if we learned to do that too? To think not only of what we write but what that writing sounds like and how it guides our readers?”

By the time we begin our unit on poetry, students seem more at ease. They may still be uncertain as to whether their readings are “right,” but they can talk about content and meaning and how sound affects these. I hope that they begin to see more truth in what Borges says about blindness: “Blindness has not been for me total misfortune; it should not be seen in a pathetic way. It should be seen as a way of life: one of the styles of living,” just as thoughtful use of language is a style of writing. I hope they begin to see the lens of Borges’ truth in their own experiences. I hope that the boundary between essay and reader collapses and that they find one of the greatest joys of non-fiction: when we find ourselves becoming the text of an essay, when the experience of one person becomes the experience shared among many.

Borges says of James Joyce, “Part of his vast work was executed in darkness: polishing the sentences in his memory, working at times a whole day on a single phrase, and then writing and correcting it.” What if all of our work was this tight? This thoughtful? What if we all could learn to compose with some form of blindness—that as much as it limited us—also freed us?

Blindness is a concept we keep working with; Borges’ essay trails us throughout the semester. One of the prompts I give students in response to this essay is think about a time you were blind to something and what you learned when you eventually realized you weren’t seeing. As we begin our unit on revision students read sentences from each other’s work that they like and they explain why the language attracts them. Many times, the students whose work is being read delight at this when the discover the intricacies of language are actually engaging their readers—just as much, sometimes, as their stories do. At the end of the semester, Borges finds us again. Students must revise a piece for class—a poem, essay, or short story of their own invention—and they must read an excerpt, demonstrating that they’ve thought about how sound affects meaning in reception. My favorite time in the semester is this: the end. Not because my work—for the time being—is done, but because when we hear each other’s work we also hear the labor and heart that went into the revising. The pieces we read in workshop evolve into work more nuanced. We learn to see our own work a bit differently, and we learn to see each other’s work differently too.

**

Gwendolyn Edward is a Pushcart nominated writer of non-fiction, poetry, and fiction. Her work has been accepted by Crab Orchard Review, Fourth River, Bourbon Penn, Crack the Spine, and others. She retains a MA in Creative Writing from the University of North Texas where she worked with American Literary Review, and she is currently pursuing a MFA at Bennington. She works with Fifth Wednesday Journal as an assistant non-fiction and fiction editor and also teaches Creative Writing.

My Favorite Essay to Teach: Debra Marquart’s “Hochzeit” — by Dinty W. Moore

DintyMooreI have been teaching Debra Marquart’s stunning flash essay “Hochzeit” for more than ten years, and each time I bring it to the classroom, my students find something new to admire.

Consider, for instance, the rhythm and musicality of her description:

“The two young daughters … patter away at the drums and bass. Their mother, her lips a wild smear of red, stomps and claws chords on the jangled, dusty upright.”

Or here: “The music speeds up, the accordion pumping chords like a steam engine. My father clasps my mother’s hand and pulls her tight. The dance floor flexes and heaves like a trampoline.”

Or look at the circular patterns nested within Marquart’s opening sentence — “I remember circles—the swirling cuff of my father’s pant leg, the layered hem of my mother’s skirt,” followed by creamy half-moons and spinning gold pools of wedding whiskey.

The essay itself is a spinning gold pool at times, whirling us through a wedding ceremony in North Dakota, capturing not just the rhythm and trajectory of the polka, but the sheer exhilaration of the family celebration.

And the essay, of course, ends where it began, closing the circle tightly: “My father secures his arm around my mother’s waist. They spin and reel as they polka circles around the room. If left to itself, gravity could take over, centrifugal force could spin them out, away from each other…”

But what I find most fascinating about this 560-word masterpiece is how Marquart captures the very young Debra’s point-of-view. Not just the traditional way, letting us into her thoughts, but even the visuals. We see the wedding the way a child might see it, sitting on the floor, eye-level with the hems and cuffs of the grown-ups. And the character details are based in the reality of childhood: “A neighbor lady polkas by, the one who yells so loud at her kids every night when she walks to the barn that we can hear her across the still fields.” That’s what a child would notice, how the woman treats her kids, not the more complex adult details of the woman’s life, her husband’s drinking, or the struggle to keep the farm afloat.

There is more, much more, but this admiration is threatening to become longer than Marquart’s essay itself. I could teach a whole semester just picking this amazing gem apart, word by word, space by space, image by image. And even then, I’d probably need more time.

**

Dinty W. Moore is author of Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals as well as the memoir Between Panic & Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize. He edits Brevity, an online journal of flash nonfiction, and is deathly afraid of polar bears.

Assay’s “In the Classroom” Series is Back!

cropped-cropped-img_6123.jpg“In the Classroom” is Assay’s ongoing series about writing & teaching creative nonfiction. Our intention is to provide posts that nurture you as writers, readers, and teachers — and to continue building the creative nonfiction community. This ongoing series supports Assay’s journal, which we publish in the fall and spring.

From last year, we’re pleased to bring back Assay’s weekly posts on “Favorite Essays to Teach” and “Writers to Read.” This academic year, we’ll alternate weeks with this series. Our first “Favorite Essay to Teach” was provided by Jessica Handler, eloquently writing about teaching Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook.” If you missed that post, you can read it here.

We welcome submissions to this series. We’re pleased to continue supporting the work of students, and your students may be particularly interested in submitting to “Writers to Read.” Here is a link to “In the Classroom” submission guidelines.

This year we’ll also include posts from Lauren Wilson, who serves as Assay’s Editorial Assistant. Lauren will be contributing pieces about being a writer-in-progress abroad. We’ll also be featuring guest bloggers from conferences: we’ve put a call out for guest bloggers from NonfictioNow. If you’ll be in Flagstaff for the NFN conference, please consider contributing to make NFN available to those unable to attend (or to be at two panels at once!). Next spring, we’ll put a call out for guest bloggers from AWP#2016/Los Angeles. In the past, Brevity blog has done fantastic work highlighting conference panels, and we’re happy to continue this tradition, making conference panels, talks, and happenings accessible to all.

Over the winter academic break, look for a new feature on craft. Our first one will focus on a panel presented at AWP#2015/Minneapolis, which was led by Jo Scott-Coe.

Welcome. And thank you for being part of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.