Writing What I Think

I had a student say after posting her firsthand portrait: This is so different from high school writing: I can write what I think instead of writing what I think the teacher wants to hear.
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I’m thinking more about “the essay” and the writing process. Of course we have to use the writing process when we’re writing for publication. But I think our field has been compromised by our ancestry–our origins in the literature department, that we have to teach our students how to write publishable work and in so doing have alienated them from the flow of writing–the kind most people do in their nonacademic lives. And in so doing, we may end up alienating students from writing, the same way we do with reading when we push them to read like literary critics instead of consumers who read for the pleasure of reading and getting lost in the worlds and words of the writer.

3 Replies to “Writing What I Think”

  1. Last year I taught I course on "Style in the Essay," a lower division elective. I was bothered by the the definite article — THE essay?! — and spent a lot of time thinking about what "essays" have been and meant through time and across cultures. I pulled out my old copy of Lopate's *The Art of the Personal Essay* and thought about how he chose pieces from around the world and across two thousand years. Drawing on what i learned in an MFA on nonfiction writing, and what I later learned about genres as social action, I asked myself again and again, What does the essay DO? What is it that makes each of these pieces in Lopate an essay? What, if any, is the common denominator, the shared aim?

    What I finally came to is that we use the label "essay" to describe personal writing about matters of public interest. Topics may range from intimate matters (Montaigne's headaches) to highly social issues (as in Addison and Steele's publications), but the common thread is how the writer articulates her or his subjective experience in a way that invites identification and connection from others who do not personally know the writer. (It's the latter angle that makes some letters "essays" while others remain merely personal correspondence.)

    Having reached that understanding of what "essays" have historically done, I next asked myself, "What serves this function today? Is it published essays, or something else?" I rejected published essays pretty quickly, because I don't think they have broad public appeal (another characteristic that I think it essential to the social function I had settled on); they are a genre by and for the hyper-literate, the readers of *The New Yorker* and of literary journals.

    What I finally settled on was blogs. I think blogs are the essays of today: subjective experience and perspective presented in such a way as to engage public readers, inviting them to relate, to think, even to respond. They offer writers a chance to decide whom they want to engage, in ways that academic or literary essays do not, and they ask writers to make the difficult move of presenting their own perceptions or experiences in a way that is both true to themselves and to their readers.

    I think it worked — that is, I think the students learned a lot about writing and about themselves as writers, including what it is about writing that lights them up and makes them enjoy the challenges of constructing publicly effective AND personally meaningful prose.

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