essay-expository

What has gone missing?

May 25, 2016 | 14 Comments

Writers on our political rhubarb

May 11, 2016 | 6 Comments

Donald Trump’s political success has provoked in recent months some fine commentary, much of it from moderates and progressives. I’ve especially enjoyed the New York Times’s crew. Even Thomas Friedman, whom I’ve boycotted since his disgusting promotion of the Iraq war, rose, once, to an unexpectedly eloquent height. Republicans have seemed mostly inarticulate with rage over their primary’s winner, given that Trump’s record is of a pragmatic moderate. At last, however, the likable Andrew Sullivan has expressed the intellectually conservative view.

Published in the May 2 issue of New York Magazine, his searching essay “America has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny,” has gone viral. In this classical essay he’s fighting for—with every persuasive tool he’s got—what he calls “America’s near­unique and stabilizing blend of democracy and elite responsibility.”

Though Sullivan draws on a lifetime of experience, he notably cites Plato’s Republic, Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, and Eric Hoffer’s 1951 tract The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Sullivan has come to critique our increasingly democratic (but perhaps less stable) political system that frightens him. He calls the Republicans’ fight to hold open a Supreme Court vacancy “another massive hyperdemocratic breach in our constitutional defenses.” And: “The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force.”

As a man of good sense, Sullivan cannot help but cheer Barack Obama’s attainments. As a student of history who is by temperament a conservative, he cannot help but furrow his brow at the implications of such outsider politicians. Did Obama lead to Trump? Has our increasingly freewheeling democracy, inflamed by the internet and by growing economic inequality, led to both?

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Booking passage out

March 9, 2016 | 8 Comments

Between the World and Me has reaped a lot of well-deserved attention since it came out last year. It’s a heartfelt letter from Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son, Samori. Toward the end of this slim volume, Coates poses a question to the world at large: “Is that what we wish civilization to be?”

In the 130 pages leading up to this beseeching question, Coates points out the barriers Samori will encounter because of his skin’s darker color. He attempts to define racism in various ways—personal experience, observation, examples from the news, the linguistics behind “naming,” and memories.

Throughout, Coates uses lines drawn from two black writers as a refrain. They become staccato drumbeats to hammer home his leitmotif. The watchwords act as Velcro to which observations adhere, thus pulling disparate impressions together into a distinct thought. The first phrase emanates from a poem by Richard Wright (“Between the World and Me,” found in White Man Listen!). The second is from a letter by James Baldwin to his nephew (“because they think they are white,” found in The Fire Next Time).

In his acceptance speech for the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Coates explained the motivation for his manuscript. He began writing it when his friend Prince Jones “was killed because he was mistaken for a criminal” by a police officer due to the “presumption that black people somehow have a predisposition to criminality.” When Prince Jones died, Coates noted, “there were no cameras.” He went on to say: “I’m a black man in America….I can’t secure the safety of my son. What I do have the power to do is to say you won’t enroll me in this lie, you won’t make me part of it. That was what we did with Between the World and Me.”

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Publishing essays

April 21, 2015 | 8 Comments

I sent this email last week to my “Writing Life Stories” students, who meet in person with me once a week and otherwise online.

Class,

I’m reading your new memoirs with enjoyment, appreciation, and a feeling of accomplishment as a teacher for what you’ve done. This semester, you’ve all made art from your experience. We’ve pondered and tried many aspects of writing—but we haven’t touched on publishing. I have some advice on that if you are interested in pursuing it. But first a caveat.

Last summer, attending an intensive writing workshop taught by a respected writer, I was struck by how stringently she separated writing from publishing. And by how sparingly she praised what we wrote. She was a nice person; it was just that we were there to make new work. The point was to keep making pieces, not to jump the gun and think about publishing them, not yet. I don’t think she thought in terms of whether she “liked” or “loved” an essay, but, rather, focused on whether it had some spark, some alive quality.

Most pieces, written in response to prompts, we filed for the future, to be struggled with or cannibalized back home. But everyone churned out one piece that she suggested we might read to the assembled workshops at the end of the week. Those we slaved on, late into the night in our dorm rooms. Then she tried to help each of us further realize its potential. By that time, the extra insight she could provide was powerful. The more frustrated a writer is with his own piece—meaning he has struggled hard with it on all levels and has turned it into an external object, a misshapen piece of clay he’s almost angry at—usually the more help an editor or teacher can provide.

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Her emotional compass

June 4, 2014 | 10 Comments

With a great publisher, a page-turner of a story, and an appealing, actively publishing author, Julene Bair’s memoir The Ogallala Road is red hot. As I noted in my recent review, her book features two compelling foreground narratives: her romance with a man of the prairie and the fate of the sprawling family farm in western Kansas she has recently inherited.

Bair agreed to a virtual sit-down with Draft No. 4 about her writing process and the fate of the Ogallala Aquifer that features prominently in her book.

An impressive feature of The Ogallala Road is the number of narrative threads you weave elegantly through it—and resolve. These include: your childhood; your family and especially your father; your mid-life love affair with an intellectual cowboy; your son and your parenting of him; different types of farming and the tragic misuse of the Ogallala Aquifer to grow corn on the plains; and your love of wilderness, water, and desert. How in the world did you work out all of this while telling such a forward-moving, compelling foreground narrative?

“I don’t want any struggling memoirists out there to think this came easily. I wrote an essay for the current (May/June) issue of Poets & Writers comparing the way I write to the way my father farmed—doggedly and with determination. When a crop didn’t “make,” he plowed it under and started over. I plowed under many drafts before I understood that the central storylines were my romance with the rancher I met when I went home to research the watershed and my struggle to live up to my father’s first commandment, “Hang on to your land!” The strength of those stories drives the book forward and makes it possible for me to share much else that I care about.”

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Teaching memoir’s essentials

February 28, 2014 | 22 Comments

For my second year, I’m teaching “Writing Life Stories: The Power of Narrative” to a class of college juniors and seniors. There are 19 students this year, only one a writing major, though several other declared artists—of music, theatre, ceramics, film—among the future nurses, veterinarians, and teachers. In short, this is creative writing for non-majors. For the seniors, it’s their final semester. Their last chance to take a “fun” elective. Perchance to reflect, to second guess, to move forward. Seeing college careers end with my class is always so poignant. When the glory of late spring comes at last, there they’ll go, flying into their futures like so many valiant storm-tossed sparrows.

I loved last year’s class, but feel I’m doing a better job this time. I’ve codified everything learned last time—and from many other journalism, memoir, and cnf classes I’ve taught or taken over the years—into a focus on three essential elements of personal narrative nonfiction. In practice, I know, you have to teach much more than that at once. I harp on sentence diversity and rhythms from the start, for instance. Writers must learn to do so much at once, which is what makes writing challenging. Some talents do burn bright and quick, but I think of writing as a comparatively late-blooming art. Though I may change my tune by the end, for now I love the focus provided by telling the kids from the first day that our three big tools for reading and writing memoir are persona, scene, and structure.

Lee Martin, through his craft essays and memoirs, has taught me more than anyone about the use of persona. Point of view, voice, and tone all arise from or are inseparable from persona. I’ve become increasingly sensitive to the richness for readers in the fact that at least two distinctive and different voices from the same writer can tell the story in memoir: you “then,” mired in the action, and you “now,” the wiser person telling the tale. Surely this reflective narrator is embedded in our DNA.

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How should you read a book?

July 11, 2013 | 14 Comments

As the opening sentences of her famous essay on reading show, Virginia Woolf is highfalutin only to those who haven’t read her. As always, her chatty offhand charm and modesty impress and please. The humbling phase comes when you re-read, and see how simple she’s made complex matters, yet how rounded, deep, and full her expression.

I turned again to “How Should One Read a Book?” because after a while a reviewer tends to ask himself what he thinks he’s doing. What’s fair? Relevant? This weighed on me in wondering how to assess, for my recent review, Ted Kerasote’s Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs. I found this fine book marred by one major flaw in Kerasote’s judgment. I was uncertain how serious my disagreement is for the book, and puzzled by the issues it raised for reviewing in general.

I love Woolf’s unabashed passion and how it endorses one’s own deeply personal emotional response to literature—which, after all, is made from emotion. Engendering an emotional response is its very purpose.

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