On the Beauty of My Mother…and the Typewriter

I remember delivering practice math problems to my mother, my feet sweating in pajamas, shuffling into her bedroom on the wood floor, to interrupt a flurried session on the typewriter, to show her that I could multiply and divide really large numbers. 

 

My mother typed piles of reports for Mr. Stempel, a name that occupied our home like he loomed over us–like he’d observe us at the table when we ate my mother’s meatloaf dinner later. The clacking of keys striking paper and spool served as our soundtrack as kids. We knew nothing of what was written in the reports, never thought to ask or sneak a sentence off the thick, perfect stack of pages on my mother’s desk. He was Mister Stempel, an emphatic nod to the respect and deference my grandparents quietly passed on to our mother and her sister, my beautiful Aunt Barbara, as little girls in the 50s, as young women in the 60s. We never knew his first name.

 

Her occupation as our mother: typist. I was always proud of her for that (among other things, obviously) because she was so skilled at it. My brothers and I never imagined there was a better typist in the world than our mother. And now, as I hunt and peck a page or two a day of this book, this recollection, this disclosure–this complete and total exposure of the last decade of my life–I’m even prouder of what she could do between chasing us down to wash our hair in the kitchen sink and thumbing through the Sears catalog for fresh pairs of Toughskins the August before every school year. I still see her staring slightly off to the left at whatever Mr. Stempel gave her to type while her fingers transformed all of it into neat text on the page, her bifocals down to the button tip of her nose. What was Mr. Stempel’s first name?

The typewriter for me today, a month before I turn 50, is a revelation, a gift from a lifelong friend on the event of yet another tectonic shift on my personal planet. The typewriter has been a chance for me to discover why I love to pour my thoughts onto the page so much. The typewriter has been a place to err on the side of indiscretion, throw contemplation into the atmosphere with the hopes that a sentence or two may stay airborne long enough to attach itself to another. Or maybe I don’t hope or care at all. I just love to write.

 

My mother’s errorless hands played thousands of words onto paper so mine could run headlong toward some kind of elusive truth about myself. Her hands turned Mr. Stempel’s handwritten notes into money, baked Irish soda bread, steered the Caprice to Maple Avenue in Seaford where she’d correct me whenever I got the country music lyrics wrong. My mother’s hands pointed us in the direction she thought was the proper way. My hands grope in the pitch dark along the wood paneled wall for a truth I should have alighted upon a long fucking time ago. 

 

There’s something I really want to get at about typing, though. I’ve been trying to approximate the feeling, or equate the feeling to something I can pass on to you. Typing on a Google Doc right now serves its purpose. I am putting words down, but I’m also revising as I write, and I’m doing this on the first draft of the essay. I stop often and read the sentences, I move them around, delete and replace a word.

 

I talked about how great these features are for students last week, and I still believe it. The ability to move text wherever you want on a document, at any time, is an incredible advancement in not only technology, but in documenting human thought. If I didn’t have the ability to move type, I would have misplaced the sentence “My brothers and I never imagined there was a better typist in the world than our mother” in paragraph three. Originally it sat, unconnected, four lines after where it is now. If I would have written this essay in high school in a blue book, I would have been marked down for misplacing it, but really, I would have written the sentences in the order they came to my mind. If a student has the patience to revise, they certainly have tools that I did not have at their age.

Ah, but typing. Walking through the door and taking the dishcloth dustcover off the Royal, feeding it a fresh white sheet of paper, and picking up where I left off the day before has been an exhilaration. I make terrible mistakes on the typewriter, but something propels me forward, forces my hand to type the next word, no matter what it is. Sometimes I don’t even finish words. I get to the end of a line–get too greedy after the ding–and I’ll have to either finish the word on the next line, or not. I can write it in later when I reread the pages. It’s the chatter of the typewriter, the snare drum tat of the keys, that urge a rhythm inside me that I don’t want to stop. It’s like my mind has generated a kind of electricity, and suddenly I’m a child and I’m running down a steep grassy hill, and I can’t stop myself but I’m not afraid to fall.

 

Jack Kerouac wrote about this sensation, or his version of it, in the fall of 1953. Kerouac had just finished writing a book called The Subterraneans, a manuscript that took him three nights of continuous typing to create. Allen Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs asked Kerouac how he managed to do it. In response, Kerouac wrote “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” a nine-section essay on, basically, how others could engender the exhilaration and creativity within themselves. In the section titled “Procedure”:

Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image.

When I’m on the laptop, I’m sketching language and blowing and all that, but it’s certainly not undisturbed when I’m getting notifications, email, and text messages. When Jimmy gifted me this beautiful machine, this was exactly what he had in mind. He knew the value of getting me offline. 

In Kerouac’s section called “Scoping,” he writes

Not “selectivity” of expression but following free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought, swimming in sea of English with no discipline other than rhythms of rhetorical exhalation and expostulated statement, like a fist coming down on a table with each complete utterance, bang! (the space dash) -- Blow as deep as you want -- write as deeply, fish as far down as you want, satisfy yourself first, then reader cannot fail to receive telepathic shock and meaning-excitement by same laws operating in his own human mind.

When Truman Capote made his famous remarks dismissing Kerouac’s writing in 1959 (“That’s not writing; that’s typing.”), he missed the point of what Kerouac hoped to achieve through these methods. Capote dismissed it as “styleless style,” and many scholars have dismissed Kerouac’s writing, but “Scoping” tells me Kerouac was on to something. “Satisfy yourself first,” he says, which doesn’t sound stylistic to me. It sounds like a writer who was unhappy with convention and needed to be happy while he wrote. 

 

And while this Capote/Kerouac confrontation is the one that has endured sixty years later, Capote actually said this about a lot of writers of the time. In a 1957 (the year Kerouac released On the Road) interview with The Paris Review, Capote levied the moniker “Styleless Stylist” and “Typist” rather than “Writer” to Graham Greene, John Hersey, Flannery O’Connor, Thornton Wilder, Willa Cather, and J.D. Salinger, among others. Capote said “Only they’re not writers; they’re typists. Sweaty typists blacking up pounds of bond paper with formless, eyeless, earless messages.”

 

William S. Burroughs must have seen something he liked in Kerouac’s method because nine years after Kerouac’s essay he published Naked Lunch.

 

The last section of “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” is titled “Mental State”:

If possible write “without consciousness” in semitrance (as Yeats’ later “trance writing”) allowing subconscious to admit in own uninhibited interesting necessary and so “modern” language what conscious art would censor, and write excitedly, swiftly, with writing-or-typing-cramps, in accordance (as from center to periphery) with own laws of orgasm, Reich’s “beclouding of consciousness.” Come from within, out--to relaxed and said.

Sexual imagery aside, this is what I’ve been doing: writing “excitedly, swiftly…” on the typewriter all the time. I achieve this once in a while on the laptop, and maybe the typewriter is conditioning me to be able to do it on the laptop more consistently, but there’s something about pounding away at the keys that relaxes me, centers me, and uncensors me. I’m not scared to write about myself anymore. I can’t wait to get back to the desk, black up another pound of bond paper, and put it in the box. 

 

When I’m not putting pages in the box, I’m typing letters and sending them out to people. I gifted myself some letterhead on nice thick paper, too thick, really, because I have no idea what I’m doing. I make mistakes on these letters: hit the wrong key, type into the footer because I don’t know where the bottom of the page is. I’ve written maybe ten or twelve so far, and I’m going to keep going until I run out of the nice letterhead paper (fifty), and then I’m going to buy more letterhead paper, but thinner.

 

I wrote my mother a letter just after she turned 73 at the end of August, and I think I told her I was proud of her. I may have asked her why there isn’t a number one key on my Royal (I have to use a lower case el.) I hadn’t gotten in the habit at that time of taking a photo of the letter before sending it out, so I’m not positive about what I wrote. I know that I never felt closer to her than when I told her how much I love her in these letters. These aren’t things we can do, really, on the phone or in person. It’s the typewriter, all these years later, that brought us as close as we’ve ever been in our lives, and I’m looking forward to the next one I write to her.

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The Death of the Blue Book Approach to Writing the Literary Essay

The first half of September usually means students are engaging in essay writing in response to their summer reading assignment. Some teachers gave students a vast array of summer reading choices, so the essay prompts are broader to accommodate this variety. Other teachers assigned one summer read (This is what I do.) and choose to test students’ writing abilities by assigning an in-class writing exam that the students execute either by hand or by some kind of word processor, usually Google Docs.

 

These essays have been required of students for decades, but summer reading was never meant to be required and certainly not tested. In 2012 the Boston Globe published “How America Learned to Love Summer Reading,” and they unearthed an 1872 quote from the Chicago Tribune

The Chicago Tribune, just before it unveiled its favorite summer reads for 1872, put it this way: The best summer book was one "the idler can take with him into solitude, and read with delightful pauses, when with indolent finger upon the page, his eye wanders up some green vista, or catches some view of the distant sea, and his ear is soothed with the distant murmur of the winds and waves."

But according to Ya-Ling Yu of Rutgers University, it’s only been in the last 40 years or so that summer reading has been utilized to address the perceived “learning loss” that happens in the summer months. This seems to be when a student started being tested on whether or not they did their summer reading.

 

When I was a high school student in the mid- to late-1980s, few things brought more terror and anxiety than the sight of a neat stack of Blue Books poised for distribution right before the summer reading exam in English class. The only thing more frightening would have been if I also received a Scantron for the test. I surely would have blacked out then.

 

We can thank a Butler University professor for the Blue Book. According to a short history of the C.P. Lesh Paper Company I found on the Web, 

Because of its capacity to print multicolored lines on a page, a Butler University professor approached the company in the 1920s to print sheets of paper for his students to use for exams, which, he suggested, might be bound together. The booklets were designed with blue covers because Butler’s colors were blue and white. The company marketed the resulting “blue books” across the country, and they became indelibly associated with college-level exams for millions. By the mid-1980s the company was selling more than a million exam books a month.

Tulane University archived a Blue Book written in by John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, twelve years after the author’s suicide. Toole wrote in the booklet for a philosophy course exam in 1955. He didn’t seem to have an issue with it.

 

My task when I ever received a Blue Book was to fill the eight pages, twenty-eight lines per page (I never wrote on the backs of pages), with a literary essay that, for the most part, regurgitated theories the instructor expressed the two weeks prior to the exam. 

 

Teachers encouraged us to plan the essay first with some kind of outline. I don’t remember ever practicing essay writing in class first, but I do remember my father teaching me how to outline because that’s what he wanted to see, along with clearly marked dates, in the notebooks he checked every night for a while. I still make sure everything I write is dated.

 

I don’t remember the content of the essays at all. I just remember that no matter how long I planned before starting the timed essay exam, I’d always run into problems with how the process of discovering while writing messed with my responses. Most of us wrote our essays spatially: we started at the introduction, wrote the body paragraphs, and if there was room we’d cram a conclusion at the end in words way smaller than anything else we wrote.

Virginia magazine at UVA wrote an article in 2013 on the variations of Blue Book responses, and this one is my favorite because it comes closest to approximating the issues many of us had in writing the essays spatially. No matter how well I seemed to plan at the start of the exam, the actual writing of the essay would reveal things to me that I had forgotten or discovered at that moment, but unless I used erasable pen, which was impossible for me because I was left-handed and would stain the outside of my hand blue from sweeping it across the page as I wrote, there was no way to go back without making a mess of the manuscript. Most of our intentions in turning something in was to make sure we didn’t piss the teacher off, so the more fearful of us wouldn’t feel safe writing extra sentences and drawing arrows to where we wanted them to go. We couldn’t write the whole thing over, either. There just wasn’t enough time.

 

The smartest students were the ones who’d start their essays with the body paragraphs halfway down the first page so they could insert an introduction at the end. I didn’t realize, though, how necessary this strategy was until about ten or fifteen years into my career as a teacher. 

 

Despite the fact that an “introduction” is the beginning of a traditional American academic essay, it’s really the conclusion a writer has come to based on a study of the text, so it only makes sense that a student should write it last. And thanks to the word processor, there’s no longer a need to write from beginning to end anymore. Still, students are still conditioned to write this way. Of course the introduction is first. It’s the introduction! The problem is that whatever a student has written in the introduction can change by the time they get to the conclusion of the essay. This is a huge problem, and I still encounter it at the start of every school year from students who are otherwise capable writers. 

 

Since it’s the natural inclination of the human mind to wander, even in considering one topic, and the impromptu essay is a written recording of this wandering, the student is always at risk of going away from the thesis they’ve written in the introductory paragraph. There’s no possible way to come up with the conclusion (thesis) of the entire essay before you’ve considered, in detail, the body paragraphs of the essay.

 

I have to take a second here to say that I worked with a teacher pretty recently who told all of us at a department meeting “I don’t teach introductions and conclusions because students don’t know how to write them.”

 

Let that wash over you for a second. I’ll wait.

 

In an attempt to persist in encouraging students to break the habit of the linear approach to writing the essay, I offer some advice toward writing a rich, cohesive response to a literary prompt.

 

Wait, before I do this I have to say that there are a couple of ways you could be presented with this assignment: 

  1. You may be given a series of prompts to choose from. Most likely these prompts will reflect the topics you’ve discussed in class. Annotations are a necessity during these discussions because you’ll be able to mark places in the text where these topics figure prominently. 

  2. You may be able to choose your own topic, which might be a little more difficult since you didn’t necessarily annotate your summer reading text while you read it in July and August. This means you’ll have to return to the text to pinpoint the evidence that can support your thesis.

Let’s say for the sake of simplicity that you’re presented with option number one and we’ll go from there. Option one allows you to basically plan ahead. If you know that you’re probably getting an essay prompt on the effect of forced migration on characters’ lives, for instance, you can plan your essay before you walk into the in-class essay exam

So try these steps if you have the patience for them and have time to plan ahead:

  1. Establish the main topic of the prompt (characters who migrate) and find all passages in the text that deal with this topic. Mark all of them.

  2. Read each passage again. Since this will likely be the third or fourth time you’re reading the passage, things will begin to rise from the text for you.

  3. Cluster the textual evidence into subcategories. Sometimes the subcategories are easy, like one subcategory for each character who has migrated, for example. 

  4. Delete all the textual evidence you won’t be using (or move them somewhere out of sight. You might come back to them later.)

  5. Form a hypothesis based on a pattern that seems to be emerging from the subcategories. This is your “working thesis,” something that might change as you develop your ideas in the body paragraphs. Your hypothesis shouldn’t be an observable fact. It has to be a subjective conclusion that isn’t explicitly stated in the text.

  6. Arrange your clusters of textual examples (future body paragraphs) into an order that shows a progression. The body paragraphs should be arranged in a progressive order and the evidence within the paragraphs should show a progression.

  7. Write the body paragraphs, using the hypothesis as your guide. Try to be cohesive, but allow yourself to wander if you need to. 

  8. Re-examine the hypothesis to see if it still applies. It most likely won’t, so look at the topic sentences of your body paragraphs and make sure you write a thesis that clearly expresses a conclusion you’ve reached through the writing of the body paragraphs. If you don’t do this, your essay won’t be cohesive.

  9. Write an introduction that reflects your revised thesis. 

  10. Write a conclusion that doesn’t rehash everything, but fortifies the thesis, while also moving the overall thesis forward. I call it a kind of baton in a relay race. What you write in the conclusion after fortifying the thesis should be something the next person can take and start a new essay (picked this up from another recent colleague but this colleague is quite brilliant).

Here I am talking about introductions and conclusions to my students about ten months ago. 

The eleventh thing should be to shred the Blue Book.

 

If you found any of this helpful, I’m glad. I also wouldn’t mind hearing about it. It’s been difficult to leave a place I gave all of my emotion and skill to for over a decade and not hear from many people about not being there anymore. It didn’t bother me so much until I heard one of my sons express his feelings about it. 

 

My son left the school when I did, and he wanted to know when school started there this year. He anticipated and secretly hoped that a relative stranger, someone maybe from outside the circle of those who knew him well, would reach out to him, not to commiserate with him, necessarily, but simply to react in a way that said “I remember you were here at some point because your human presence mattered to me, but you’re not here anymore and I notice.” I think that’s all any of us want, really: for someone to notice when we’re gone.

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On the Beauty of My Mother…and the Typewriter

My brothers and I never imagined there was a better typist in the world than our mother. And now, as I hunt and peck a page or two a day of this book, this recollection, this disclosure–this complete and total exposure of the last decade of my life–I’m even prouder of what she could do between chasing us down to wash our hair in the kitchen sink and thumbing through the Sears catalog for fresh pairs of Toughskins the August before every school year.

Read More »

The Death of the Blue Book Approach to Writing the Literary Essay

Despite the fact that an “introduction” is the beginning of a traditional American academic essay, it’s really the conclusion a writer has come to based on a study of the text, so it only makes sense that a student should write it last. And thanks to the word processor, there’s no longer a need to write from beginning to end anymore.

Read More »

Methods of Annotating Text

My first instinct as a reader is to listen and discover, but to be able to find a commonality (or a contradiction) in a long-held philosophy I’ve had about people, or to imagine how in the world I could possibly survive given the same situation, is what makes reading fascinating and personal to me. Reading has helped me to find out more about myself than anything else I do. The sensibility I bring to the text, my beliefs and my prejudices, are what help me form a kind of truth about myself, and many times it’s a hard truth. But that’s what I think makes literature beautiful.

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The Interrogation of Sasha Rivers

Too many writers throw metaphors into an essay without regard for how the objects used in the metaphor relate to the content and pattern of the essay. “It sounded good to me,” they’ll say. There’s nothing wrong with writing what sounds right to your ear. You should love what you write and be excited by it, but be ready to let go of what doesn’t work in the revision stage.

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The College Application Essay is a Rhetorical Situation

As much as a student would like this to be an isolated rhetorical situation, it’s not. Their rhetorical situation occupies a pile of applications with thousands of other rhetorical situations. Harvard University received 43,330 applications from the college class of 2023. Each one of those is a rhetorical situation.

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College Essay as Sculpture

The clay for the essayist, for the purpose of my comparison, is the rough draft. It is difficult to convince young people that the essay they have come to know through their academic experience is, indeed, a piece of art because art takes time and practice and a patient process. To be fair, students don’t have the luxury of treating these assignments as art when they have seven or eight classes in a day, homework, extra-curricular activities, family.

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Methods of Annotating Text

One of the first questions a student asks at the beginning of the school year is “How do you want us to annotate assigned readings?” It’s a fair question as every teacher who assigns or encourages engagement with a text through annotation probably has a different preference when it comes to what they require, based mostly on what they have seen succeed in the past. This week’s article hopes not to impose a method I think is best (and I’ve done that in the past) but to guide students toward an inquiry that helps them address this question for themselves.

 

Common student complaints about being required to annotate text include “It slows down my reading” and “I don’t enjoy the book if I have to mark every paragraph.” Legitimate complaints because students read at different speeds (I’m a slow reader), so what takes one student 40 minutes to read and annotate 15-20 pages for homework takes another an hour and a half. That’s not equitable, especially if some of your students are on an Individualized Education Program (IEP). As for being conduits for a love of reading: Teachers of literature do want to instill and maintain a love of literature. It would devastate me if years later a former student were to tell me “After taking English with you, I didn’t like to read as much…”

 

So what’s the answer?

 

Annotating a text successfully is largely dependent on factors aesthetic and practical. Reading studies have determined three levels of comprehension. Click on each for an explanation.

Can you explain what, literally, is being communicated on the pages. What, exactly, is happening? Who is doing the action? What happens as a result? Where is the book taking place and what is the specific context of the story?

Can you explain why these things are happening when there is no reason provided in the lines of the text? Presume that the author included this characterization, setting, dialogue, imagery for a reason. What might those reasons be? And based on what has happened, can you predict what might happen later? Why have you made that prediction?

How can you apply the apparent themes of the text to concerns of the greater global community? How can you apply these themes, characterizations, and tone to the events of your life or your own personal ideologies? How have the ideas in the text validated or challenged your personal ideologies?

Identify What Exactly is Happening in the Story

 

Beginning a new book is difficult for many students, especially if they don’t have a habit of reading regularly. Items in a text that seem simple to a teacher (we’ve most likely read the book five to ten times already) are a struggle for the new reader. So the first step a student should take when they annotate a text should be to note the things that will help them understand what’s literally happening as quickly as possible. Underline character’s names as you discover them for the first time and write a description in the margins. Or start by creating a character list in a blank space. I just picked up five books off a shelf in my office, at random, and each one of them started with text at least a third of the way down the first page, and the adjacent page was completely blank. Creating a kind of custom user’s guide for yourself on this first page will help you concentrate on the first relevant paragraphs of the text and you’ll have notes to refer back to later.

 

Define Words and Phrases You Don’t Know

 

In the first two paragraphs of Zapata’s beautiful novel, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, there were five items I had to look up, including what the American Marines did, exactly, on May 16, 1916. Defining words I don’t know and events I didn’t know about fill in the gaps for me and contextualize the characters presented. If I were to give a reading quiz on this first page, I’d allow it to be an open book quiz. I want to reward students for engaging with the work and teaching themselves new things along the way. 

 

Consider a Separate Notebook

 

“I don’t like writing in my books,” a student will say. No problem. Having a notebook open next to you while you read would allow you to notate without having to turn back to the beginning of the book for your notes. I’d advise to make sure the notes are organized and labeled according to page number and paragraph. You’ll need to be able to find these notes later, especially if the course is a discussion-based one or if there’s a specific type of writing assignment at the end of the unit.

 

Interrogate the Text

 

Annotating for facts decreases in necessity the farther along you read in the book. It takes me about twenty pages or so to find comfort in a book I’ve read for the first time. Once a reader feels comfortable with a text, they can begin to interrogate it. Why is this happening? Why these characterizations? Often a reader will speculate the answers to these questions. All of this should be written in the margins or in a properly-labeled notebook. Writing things like WTF? or WOW Or OMG, though, aren’t helpful at all. Ask real questions. Make real comments.

 

Bring Your Sensibility to the Text

 

You don’t have to be Black and a pirate or have “long coffee-colored hair” and work on a sugar plantation in order to find your sensibilities in the pages of The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, or any book. We indeed read to uncover lives and lands we’re not familiar with, but we also read to find a place for our thoughts and feelings in global humanity. My first instinct as a reader is to listen and discover, but to be able to find a commonality (or a contradiction) in a long-held philosophy I’ve had about people, or to imagine how in the world I could possibly survive given the same situation, is what makes reading fascinating and personal to me. Reading has helped me to find out more about myself than anything else I do. The sensibility I bring to the text, my beliefs and my prejudices, are what help me form a kind of truth about myself, and many times it’s a hard truth. But that’s what I think makes literature beautiful.

 

No one else has the same sensibility and personal context that an individual student does. A student should accept the responsibility to contribute to the conversation, write these annotations, and bring them back to the class to share with their peers. This kind of evaluation of the text makes the experience of reading together richer. Do you agree with what the character is saying or doing? How does their personal character match up with yours?

 

The Practical Matters

 

Not everyone is going to find value in devoting all of this energy to literature. There might be another class that a student must focus on more intensely in order to succeed, or maybe the student just thinks we English teachers read too deeply into everything. Still, there are practical matters to attend to: you might be asked to participate in a graded discussion, or you may be presented with a writing prompt to complete during a class period, or you’ll have to devise your own literary thesis and support it with specific textual examples.

 

Knowing what your teacher expects of you is the key to efficient annotations.

 

Ask your teacher:

 

Are there discussion questions you’d like me to answer?

 

If you know the questions ahead of time, you’ll know what you should look out for as you read. It employs the same standardized test reading comprehension strategy many teachers recommend: read the questions first and mark places in the text where the answers might be as you read. Not a bad strategy at all, and it gives you a focus and direction while you read. Here’s one from the yet-to-be-released Discussion Guide for The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, published by Hanover Square Press.

Note that the discussion question asks the student to recall, infer and evaluate, all in the same question. If you know you’ll have to discuss these questions as part of a live graded discussion or an online discussion board, your approach to annotating the text is clear.

 

Not all teachers do this, though. I certainly don’t. I prefer the class discussions to be organic and based on the experiences of the new readers of the text. I feel like if I direct things too much, I’ll steer students’ minds toward a specific focus, while other pertinent parts of the text go ignored.

 

I still don’t know if that’s the best way, though. It might be presumptuous, especially given my advantage in having read and analyzed the text already. I’m thinking now that a balance might suit the course well. If a teacher can provide a question or two as a guide, those who want and need that guidance will have a path to success, while those who have the time and want the challenge of discovery for themselves can make their own path through the readings.

 

We Have to Write an Essay on this Book?

 

Another question to ask the teacher is what writing activity you’ll be expected to do at the end of the book. Sometimes a teacher will create an in-class essay exam with one or more prompts to choose from. If this is the case, paying close attention to class discussion is important. Whatever is discussed in class will appear on the in-class essay exam. If not, the teacher is unreasonable and mean. I know a couple.

 

If the assignment at the end of the text asks you to develop your own literary thesis supported with textual evidence, then you know that your annotations should include marking important passages that may or may not be included in the essay. 

 

Maybe the teacher plans to assign a personal essay at the end of the reading. If this is the case, your annotations will be more evaluative in nature. Your opinion on people and events matter the most in this case.

 

More teachers are assigning a kind of hybrid essay, which may combine historical criticism, literary criticism, and personal essay. I’ve grown to love these assignments because, as I talked about last week, students are more comfortable writing in the first person than the often impersonal, distant third of literary criticism. A hybrid essay would put these writing voices side by side for the student to see and learn from.

 

The work you do during the reading of the text largely determines success or pitfalls during what comes next. Knowing exactly what your teacher expects of you and then working efficiently as an active reader will create less work for you later.

 

But don’t just take my word for it. There are credible resources all over the web, like

 

As an aside: The Lost Book of Adana Moreau was my summer reading assignment this year for the Latin American Literature class I created. The book just came out in February, and I was mesmerized by it. This is my review of the book for NewCity Lit.

 

Thank you for reading. If you think my posts might be helpful to a student or teacher you know, please share widely. See you next time.

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On the Beauty of My Mother…and the Typewriter

My brothers and I never imagined there was a better typist in the world than our mother. And now, as I hunt and peck a page or two a day of this book, this recollection, this disclosure–this complete and total exposure of the last decade of my life–I’m even prouder of what she could do between chasing us down to wash our hair in the kitchen sink and thumbing through the Sears catalog for fresh pairs of Toughskins the August before every school year.

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The Death of the Blue Book Approach to Writing the Literary Essay

Despite the fact that an “introduction” is the beginning of a traditional American academic essay, it’s really the conclusion a writer has come to based on a study of the text, so it only makes sense that a student should write it last. And thanks to the word processor, there’s no longer a need to write from beginning to end anymore.

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Methods of Annotating Text

My first instinct as a reader is to listen and discover, but to be able to find a commonality (or a contradiction) in a long-held philosophy I’ve had about people, or to imagine how in the world I could possibly survive given the same situation, is what makes reading fascinating and personal to me. Reading has helped me to find out more about myself than anything else I do. The sensibility I bring to the text, my beliefs and my prejudices, are what help me form a kind of truth about myself, and many times it’s a hard truth. But that’s what I think makes literature beautiful.

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The Interrogation of Sasha Rivers

Too many writers throw metaphors into an essay without regard for how the objects used in the metaphor relate to the content and pattern of the essay. “It sounded good to me,” they’ll say. There’s nothing wrong with writing what sounds right to your ear. You should love what you write and be excited by it, but be ready to let go of what doesn’t work in the revision stage.

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The College Application Essay is a Rhetorical Situation

As much as a student would like this to be an isolated rhetorical situation, it’s not. Their rhetorical situation occupies a pile of applications with thousands of other rhetorical situations. Harvard University received 43,330 applications from the college class of 2023. Each one of those is a rhetorical situation.

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College Essay as Sculpture

The clay for the essayist, for the purpose of my comparison, is the rough draft. It is difficult to convince young people that the essay they have come to know through their academic experience is, indeed, a piece of art because art takes time and practice and a patient process. To be fair, students don’t have the luxury of treating these assignments as art when they have seven or eight classes in a day, homework, extra-curricular activities, family.

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The Interrogation of Sasha Rivers

or Dissecting a Successful College Application Essay

This week is the last of my series on the college application essay, and I’ve saved maybe the most useful post for the end: a dissection of a college application essay that was successful in gaining admission to a highly-ranked American university.

 

The writer’s name is Sasha Rivers, a sophomore at Emory University in Atlanta, the number 21 school in the country according to US News and World Reports Best College rankings, conducted this year. Sasha is in the graduating class of 2023, and Emory fielded 30,017 applications when she applied, and she was one of 4,682 high school seniors selected for admission — an acceptance rate of 15.59%, which classifies Emory as “Highly Selective.”

 

The “critique” focuses on the positive aspects of the essay and doesn’t quibble with things that could have been written better. To tell you the truth, I don’t see much to criticize here, anyway, but one method I’ve been trying to implement the past few years of my career when evaluating student writing is finding places to say, “This here is excellent. You need to do more of this…” instead of marking everything that falters in the piece. By telling the student they’ve done a certain thing well in a specific instance, the student will compare that success with other places in their writing and learn by their own examples. Plus, I like to watch baseball umpires who choose not to yell “BALL!” when a pitcher throws one out of the strike zone. I like the ones who are silent when a mistake happens, so we can quietly assume it was an errant pitch. When that same umpire speaks up after a successful pitch (STEEEEEEE-RIKE!) he is celebrating success; he’s saying “You see that there? That was successful. Throw more just like that and I’ll keep yelling praise for you.” 

 

I’m that guy today.

 

First, I will show you Sasha’s essay in its entirety so you can read it from beginning to end. Beneath that, I will break the essay into excerpts and comment on what makes her essay so successful.

“Is your dad a lobsterman?” she asks, the words “Cape Cod Beach Lifeguard” blazing on her red hoodie like stolen valor – the stolen valor of my very own friends and younger brother who guard full-time each summer to keep our beaches safe. 

“No ma’am,” I respond, “he’s a dentist.” I smile and ask cheerfully, “How many in your party?” 

Her smile droops and her eyes say “I didn’t drive 200 miles to be sat by some perio-princess dressed in Armani Exchange! I could have stayed in Scarsdale for that!” 

 

I am standing behind my podium, poised and ready. This is not the podium where I received the Harvard book prize as a junior, nor is it the podium where I will address my fellow seniors at commencement. This is the podium where I really shine: the host stand at the tavern where I work. I’ve had this job since the summer of my freshman year; I know the ins and outs of the restaurant industry. I love my job, my coworkers, and the free food; but the inauthentic, ubiquitous tourists, who somehow are always questioning my authenticity are something I could do without. At work, our patrons expect me to be local color. I am local color – just not the right hue, I guess.

 

When you look at me on paper, I’m sure I resemble the throngs of upper middle class white kids from Massachusetts. I have happily married parents, a big house, etc., but that’s exactly what sets me apart from my cohorts on Cape Cod. My townie friends live in rental houses in the off-season, and camp in Grandma’s backyard all summer to save money; they learned to tie nets and descale fish before they could read. My prep school friends are the descendants of Boston Brahmins whose parents never seem to work but who ooze money and sailboat-sized confidence. I’m probably the first Jew any of them know well. My first grade teacher told me I was the first Jew she’d ever met. When I told my mom, she made sure to bring in latkes for my class during Chanukah. My Sar-el trip to Israel  last summer was the first place where I had Jewish friends. Even there, I caught myself over-explaining when I used a Yiddish word in conversation, because it was just what I was used to having to do. My mini-lessons in Jewish life worked with my friends back home though, who I am now proud to say not only love smoked fish for breakfast, but also wish me happy new year every September as well as January first. 

 

People who haven’t lived on Cape don’t understand what it’s actually like: everybody here knows someone who’s overdosed on opioids, my hometown of Chatham (summer playground of the preppy and famous) is home to an elementary school so far below the poverty line that all of its students qualify for free lunch, and in the winters here, it doesn’t get too cold, but you can go weeks without seeing the sun. It’s hard to articulate, but I’m not just a local because I was born in Hyannis. I remember the autumn when lobster dipped to $2.99 a pound; the crustacean replaced our Thanksgiving turkey that year in solidarity with our community. I’m a local because sand between my toes (and in my car, and stuck in my rug) is just as familiar a feeling to me as laying in my own bed (which is also full of sand).

 

The tourists I seat for dinner are wrong to question my authenticity. I am a native Cape Codder. They expect me to be some peg-leg pirate with a “pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd” Downeaster accent, but I’m not. I’m much more likely to mimic my parents’ “cawfee” New Yorker accents, but I can still shuck oysters better than any restaurant you’ve eaten at – I never leave any bits of shell. I’ve mastered diving off the back of a boat but still have a hard time diving into a pool; the bottom always way too visible. Life on the Cape can be hard sometimes, but I’m proud to live here, proud of the skills it’s given me to blend in with any group, whether it be my salty, sea-faring friends, or my dad’s old-money fifth-generation Cape Codder patients, and to be just as comfortable addressing my high school’s donors as I am sunning on the bow of a Grady White.

This 744-word essay is holistically successful because it answers the one question that puzzles young writers of the college essay: 

 

How do I squeeze everything about who I am, what I value, and what I have accomplished during my time in high school into one 650- to 750-word essay? And how do I do it without sounding like I’m full of myself?

 

Sasha responds to this puzzle with remarkable control of language that moves through different tones and content while maintaining a strong structural integrity, a continuous thematic thread, and communication of a remarkable amount of personal information indirectly. To me, Sasha’s essay is a beautiful representation of an autobiographical profile. Let’s look at how she does it, starting with the opening scene:

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The essay opens with a scene that includes dialogue, one of the many effective ways to begin a narrative. The reader experiences a situation from the first words of the essay. Reading these first lines after reading the entire essay, you can see that the scene has a distinct purpose. It’s thematically representative of the kind of presumptuousness that bothers the writer, which she revisits consistently in the paragraphs that follow. This is what I mean about a “continuous thematic thread.”

 

The writer also reveals some important information through a single exchange of dialogue between two strangers: Sasha’s a lifeguard and a host at a restaurant. Sasha has a younger brother, her father is a dentist, and Sasha has good teeth. She’s also got a spark to her, a bit of an attitude. This isn’t someone afraid to be genuine and authentic.

 

Sasha is versed in rhetoric, too, with the successful use of anadiplosis (“stolen valor”). She’s not just showing off her AP-rich education here, though. The rhetorical device is important in this instance because the repetition of the phrase highlights the spurious nature of people bothersome to Sasha.

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The alliterative use of the consonant ‘p’ here is brilliant, and I’m guessing, based on Sasha’s skill in this essay, that it was intentional. Again, alliteration isn’t just here for show. Sasha is utilizing the device to call attention to her “poise” and her “podium” (as we’ll see in the next excerpt). A writer can’t do this with any authenticity unless 1. it’s instinctual or 2. There’s careful consideration of rhythm and sound during revision, when real crafting of the essay happens.

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Sasha’s use of the podium starts as an object in the setting and quickly becomes a vehicle to deliver her accomplishments indirectly. Not only has Sasha Rivers won awards, but she’s deeply respected by her peers. Sasha doesn’t have to utter a word about her accomplishments directly. The podium does it for her in one sentence.

 

And what’s also great about this is that she’s back at the tavern one sentence later to reveal parts of her character through a job she’s had since age 15: she takes her work seriously, gets along with (the right) people, and she knows how to have fun. Sasha loves the “free food,” and you can’t underestimate the power of a slight variety in tone. This variance moves the reader around psychically, something all really successful writers do for their readers.

 

The theme of authenticity is back, too, which links this section to the beginning, structurally. The “thread” is visible.

 

But the best part of the writing here, for me, is the voice — how a writer sounds on the page. Part of my Writing Standards measurements in assessing both personal essay and literary criticism is how comfortable the writing feels on the page. This isn’t easy for young writers to do. Most students see a huge difference between the voice of the personal essay and the voice while engaged in literary criticism, and to some extent they should consider the differences, but the gulf that seems to exist between the gray, lethargic voice of their critical essays and the bright, lively voice of their personal essays shows me that they don’t think a conversational voice is always appropriate. Sasha’s voice here is effortless and authentic, and it moves freely and confidently. My guess is that her literary and historical criticism don’t read much differently in terms of voice.

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This section transitions from how tourists view her to how she appears at this moment to admissions personnel. The opening phrase acknowledges audience and purpose, and it brings me back to my junior year of high school and Jonathan Kessel’s English class at Connetquot High School, Bohemia, New York 11716 where he’d teach while throwing a tennis ball off the wall, and the bouncing ball mesmerized us. We’d follow the ball back and forth across the room, and when Kessel wanted to make a point, he’d catch the ball in his hands and hold it so the entire class would be looking at him while he made his ultimate point. I became a teacher because of him. 

 

That’s what Sasha does here, whether she knows it or not. She creates a moment in the narrative when she’s being looked at, judged, and she parlays that scene into a reminder to the reader that they are doing the same exact thing. Pretty remarkable.

 

Sasha works in contrasts here, too. She knows she has things others don’t, and she’s grateful. Sasha’s also standing up for her peers who don’t have what she has. The reader knows that Sasha most likely possesses an empathetic nature due to the contrasts in life in Chatham.

 

The attention to specific detail is notable, too. I’ve talked about this in the past, but specificity is one key to success in the college application essay. There’s something specific and stimulating — and revelatory — about people who “learned to tie nets and descale fish before they could read.” I don’t know anyone like this, and I’ve lived for just about 50 years. I loved reading that line in the essay for that very reason.

 

Note also how the metaphor Sasha uses, “sailboat-sized confidence,” appropriately matches the scene. Too many writers throw metaphors into an essay without regard for how the objects used in the metaphor relate to the content and pattern of the essay. “It sounded good to me,” they’ll say. There’s nothing wrong with writing what sounds right to your ear. You should love what you write and be excited by it, but be ready to let go of what doesn’t work in the revision stage. For a Cape resident to use “sailboat” as a metaphor is just really smart. It’s the sign of a careful, considerate writer.

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Despite attending an independent school, Sasha reminds her reader that, Yeah, I’m privileged to attend this school, but life was not without its challenges.

 

And let me just create a new paragraph here to say it’s an absolute joke that students born after September 11th have to go out of their way to remind anyone born before September 11th that life contained difficulty for them. Please.

 

Sasha also varies the emotional impact here. There’s a generosity in sharing the epicurean traditions of a family, and also something comical about this incident, but there’s also something subtly pointed about the tone here. This is where the writer comes from. This is where she gets her resilience and attitude.

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Sasha transitions to an indirect reference to her commitment to service married with her devotion to her faith in three sentences. The hard “k” in “smoked fish for breakfast” doesn’t just showcase Sasha’s poetic sensibility in applying consonance to her sentences, but it highlights a rich, sensory detail that embodies the way her faith intermingles with her daily life, and it shows yet another example of her authenticity (the thread continues). Sasha isn’t revealing only her contribution to the global community; she’s revealing something important about her character, too.

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Here’s authentic Chatham, Sasha says. She educates her reader, disabuses them of the view of Cape that I’ve always had: champagne flutes, polo shirts with the collars up, the Kennedys, a scarf or something. Note that the words “I” or “me” do not appear in this excerpt, yet we know exactly what this says about Sasha Rivers: she knows her community and there’s a sharpness to how aware she is of how life has befallen the less fortunate of her neighbors.

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Sasha knows she’s heading toward the end of the essay, so the lobster from the first line is back and community links this graf to the previous one and the vivid imagery of the “sand between [her] toes” keeps the thread of authenticity flowing through the piece.

 

The piling up of “sand” here is another effective rhetorical devices and one I happen to use a lot. It’s called polysyndeton, and it’s especially useful for moments just like these: when you want to simulate a relentlessness. The sand is everywhere, and repeating the conjunction “and” intensifies its ubiquity for the reader.

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Sasha’s range of tone, syntactic skill, and personal character crescendo in the last paragraph, as they should. The first sentence brings the reader right back to the podium at the tavern, where this essay began. It’s followed by maybe the strongest sentence in the essay, but only because of what she wrote before it. “I am a native Cape Codder,” a mere six words, might hit a reader in the same way Michael Douglas’ character, Andrew Shepherd, famously declares at the end of The American President, “My name is Andrew Shepherd and I am the President” (please go listen to this masterful piece of cinematic and fictional rhetoric). If Sasha’s six-word sentence appeared in the first line of the essay, the piece would have been on shaky ground right from the start. Here though? It’s masterfully placed because by now the reader knows exactly how to read it. Sasha’s given the reader the tonal blueprint to arrive at this sentence correctly.

 

The phonetic quotes mix a kind of acceptable mockery with playful humor. This is a witty student. And for the first time she brags, but it’s not about her awards or accomplishments. It’s about her ability to shuck oysters. In the next sentence she balances the bragging with vulnerability, but again, it’s nothing about her studies or how bad she feels for those less fortunate in her community. It’s about diving into a clean pool of water. 

 

The last sentence is a flourish: a 64-word sentence that summarizes everything beautifully without sounding like a summary. Many of the skills Sasha has demonstrated in the essay come into play here: there are contrasts, there’s playful alliterative language, her father appears again as a dentist, and, oh, Sasha apparently was entrusted to represent her school while addressing donors. She makes this clear to her new school (which has an 8 BILLION dollar endowment, by the way), in six words.

 

Emory University, the number 21 school in the nation, is most definitely lucky to count Sasha Rivers among its students.

 

But besides all that, what can a student who is writing their college application essay learn from Sasha? I’ve been thinking about this, and I’ll go back to a previous point about how much information she was able to reveal indirectly through the dialogue exchange at the beginning of the essay. When you have written a draft of your essay, and you are ready for someone (me? I’d be honored…) to critique it, ask them to do the following:

Pretend you know nothing about me. List what you have learned about me, either directly or indirectly, by reading this essay. 

Take the list from them and ask yourself:

Is this what I want college admissions personnel to know about my values, character, awards, and accomplishments?

If we were to make the list for Sasha Rivers, the list would be lengthy, dynamic, and impressive.

 

Yours can do all this, too.

 

A special thank you to Sasha Rivers, who allowed me to write about her essay this week. I’m grateful to you, Sasha.

Photo by The Studio by the Sea
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The College Application Essay is a Rhetorical Situation

Teaching rhetoric has been traditionally reserved for junior year of high school since it has seemed to match neatly with the American literature and American history curricula, which always includes some of the great examples of masterful rhetoric: The Declaration of Independence, The Gettysburg Address, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” et. al. Studying rhetoric as a junior works, since the accompanying AP Exam for English Language and Literature comes and the end of that academic year, and college-bound students will begin the most important essay they’ll write the following summer.

 

While memorizing all of the ridiculous terms that accompany a study of rhetoric is tedious and intimidating (No one really needs to know it’s called a “dysphemism,” sorry.), the concept of rhetoric and the rhetorical situation can be communicated and understood quite easily. The basic principles are direct and clear, and I suppose it’s what made Aristotle, the philosopher who provided us with our understanding of rhetoric, such a brilliant teacher. Invariably, when I’m in the middle of the unit on rhetoric, I think I should have done this at the beginning of the year or I should have introduced this when I taught middle school. Studying rhetoric should really happen as soon as young people discover how to ask their parents for things they want or when they discover the power of verbal and written communication. Saving it for age sixteen deprives students of so much information they can apply not only to their academics, but to their personal relationships and their evolving understanding of themselves. I’m convinced that if I learned the principles of rhetoric even before I became a teacher in 1995, I would have recognized a lot of flaws in the ways I communicated with people. I would have understood a lot of important things about myself a lot sooner.

 

And I certainly would have written a better college application essay in 1988, which was way more about my grandfather and his qualities than about me and my own. I must have thought they were thinking about admitting him to college and not me. It’s still a mistake many students make because it’s always way easier for a young person to think about how much they admire someone they love instead of dissecting their own character.

 

The fundamentals of Aristotle’s treatise on rhetoric are these: any successful rhetor employs three characteristics of rhetoric in creating a text that appeals to an audience. Click on each for a definition.

when a writer shows their audience they know what they’re talking about. The writer is reliable, credible, comes across as, perhaps, likable, at least professional. The writer has taken the audience’s thoughts, beliefs, and context into consideration.

when a writer can back up everything they say with logic, with proof, with examples.

when a writer creates a text that tends to appeal to the emotions of an audience. The text shows some of the emotion of the writer, designed to elicit an emotional reaction from the reader.

The college application essay is, indeed, a piece of rhetoric. The student must appeal to the audience (college admissions personnel) ethically. The writer must have stability, credibility, reliability. The voice of the writing is steady, the manuscript without errors in usage or punctuation. The college application supplements are where the writer considers the audience and the individual school a bit more closely by talking about specific aspects of the school that appeal to the applicant. 

 

The student also must be logical, specific, and back up the things they write with examples and detail. If the student is going to write about a time they changed their thinking about something social, political, or personal they better back it up with evidence, specific anecdotes maybe.

 

The student should appeal to the emotions of the reader, but this is always a delicate balance. Writing a sob story about your life isn’t going to convince people of your resilience. Also: try to leave tears out of the essay, especially if it’s “a single tear [that] rolled down [your] cheek.”

 

One of the most masterful pieces of rhetoric in human history is Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and Laurel Lacroix, Ph.D. from the Department of English at Houston Community College System — Southwest created a color-coded version of the masterpiece, which is fascinating in studying the ratio, balance, and placement of the three appeals. What if students did this color-coding before deciding on the final draft of their college application essay? Admittedly, some students (usually half) don’t like a color-coded approach to creating an artful essay, a document meant to represent their evolution of being, and I’m sure Dr. King didn’t color code the Letter before sending it out, but we know he did revise it. He wrote the original on scraps of paper, anything he could find inside his cell, and the manuscript linked at the beginning of this paragraph is the typed manuscript sent from the jail.

 

So what if you color-coded your college application essay before you finished it? Better yet: what if you asked someone else to so that you have an idea of how it could be received by an audience?

 

The Rhetorical Situation is an evolution of Aristotle’s thoughts on rhetoric, presented by Lloyd Bitzer at Cornell University in 1966 and published in the first issue of Philosophy & Rhetoric in January 1968. This diagram seems to elucidate the basic principles of his essay.

from Devil or the Dictionary: Genre Theory Adventures by Renea Frey.

The “writer” is composing a text for an occasion. There’s a problem to be solved, so to speak, as the writer wishes to move their application from the big pile to the YES pile and gain admittance to a prestigious college or university. There is a “reader” to convince. This reader will “construct” the text by making judgments on the subject, organization, development, and the writer themselves. The “subject” is the content of the piece, most importantly the ways the writer demonstrates an understanding of their identity, their character, their humanity, and their compatibility with the school.

 

As much as a student would like this to be an isolated rhetorical situation, it’s not. Their rhetorical situation occupies a pile of applications with thousands of other rhetorical situations. Harvard University received 43,330 applications from the college class of 2023. Each one of those is a rhetorical situation. Harvard knows this, though, and they seem to take it seriously. Here’s a page from the school called What We Look For.

 

Over the last eleven years of my career, I’ve continued to rely upon Purdue University, specifically their essential writing instructional website, which contains, among a cornucopia of other things, a page on the Elements of Rhetorical Situations. Every student and teacher should acclimate themselves to the Purdue Online Writing Lab. There’s even a place where students can engage in OWL Exercises, which test their aptitude in grammar and usage, aspects of writing that contribute to building a substantial ethos.


If you’re engaged in writing the college application essay and its supplements, or you’re interested in studying rhetoric, contact me about how I can help you become a better writer, thinker, and learner.

If you found this essay helpful, consider sharing it to social media. Thank you.

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College Essay as Sculpture

Sculptors of clay and wax seem to have a hundred tools to use during the process of creating a piece. I’d like to be clear that I don’t know much of anything about sculpting, but I find invaluable parallels to writing anytime I study the creative process of any artist. In a couple of wanderings around the web, I learned that many sculptors make their own tools to match the task they want to achieve or the effect they’d like to make. The tool that fascinates me the most is called the wire-end modeling tool, about the size of a pen with a wire loop on each end. My fascination comes mostly from watching it in action. The sculptor pulls the wire loop along the surface of the work and the clay comes off in ribbons. The loops vary in size and shape according to the detail the artist wants to achieve. The larger loops help make the piece look like it could be something identifiable, and the smaller ones attend to the fine details needed to finish the work. I’m oversimplifying for the sake of my comparison to writing. Many artists who work in clay do much of the work with their hands. I imagine there are purists who won’t even use a tool on a project.

For the college application essayist, really any essayist…really any writer…the same principle applies, but the medium changes from clay to words. The difference is that the sculptor begins with material they don’t have a hand in creating. It’s clay. If they need more clay they get more of this thing called clay. The writer must find the words, although now that I’m thinking about it, the writer takes these things called words–things that were already created for them–and put them down on the page. I guess I’m thinking that if the sculptor works exclusively in clay, the choices a sculptor has to make before beginning to shape the piece are fewer in number than the choices a writer has to make. There are way more things called “words” than things called “clay.”

The clay for the essayist, for the purpose of my comparison, is the rough draft. It is difficult to convince young people that the essay they have come to know through their academic experience is, indeed, a piece of art because art takes time and practice and a patient process. To be fair, students don’t have the luxury of treating these assignments as art when they have seven or eight classes in a day, homework, extra-curricular activities, family. So when a student gets an assignment, one of the first questions they ask is “How long do you want it to be?” like I’ve commissioned the work from them.

Assigned word counts cripple creativity for young people, and Google Docs isn’t helping any. On your Google Doc, click TOOLS at the top. Choose WORD COUNT. Then check the box that reads DISPLAY WORD COUNT WHILE TYPING. The rectangular box that appears on the bottom left of the screen becomes the most important aspect of the screen for the young writer. If the college application essay on the common application cannot exceed 650 words, a young writer might either write until they reach 650 words and then pull back out of fear they won’t know what to cut because they can’t neglect to include all of what they wrote, or as they approach 650 words, they think about the danger of going past it and lose the groove of what they were writing.

Word counts are necessary, and students will encounter them their entire lives, especially if they want to be writers of any kind. But my advice to the young writer is to ignore word count at the start of the essay process. Do not click TOOLS at the top of the page during the early stages of the writing process (“process” is the 652nd word of this essay.)

One of the best texts I’ve read on the essay is Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. The thesis of the book is rather straightforward: There are basically two main parts to the personal essay: 

  • The “situation,” or an event that happened that triggers a deeper realization about the self and

  • The “story,” which is the deeper realization of the self.

As an example, Gornick cites Augustine’s Confessions:

“Augustine’s Confessions remains something of a model for the memoirist. In it, Augustine tells the tale of his conversion to Christianity. That’s the situation. In this tale, he moves from an inchoate sense of being to a coherent sense of being, from an idling existence to a purposeful one, from a state of ignorance to one of truth. That’s the story” (13-14).

Most students default to the “situation” when responding to a journal prompt in writing or when they’re asked about their weekends at the start of class. Students love talking about what happened to them…their situations…So logically, when writing the first draft of a college app essay, a student will recall a situation that had a great impact on them.

The difficulty for the student essayist lies in telling the “story” that resulted–that continues to result–from that situation. I often tell students that when I studied for my MFA in Writing at age 32, I had a lot of difficulty making sense of what had happened to me in the past. Not that there’s anything traumatic about what happened, but that I didn’t think I had enough space to reflect on the events, the situations, that I experienced. If it was difficult for me in my thirties, imagine how daunting it is for a 17- or 18-year-old student, with the weight of college acceptance pressure on them, to make definitive sense of the short lives they’ve lived. 

But students tend to be magical that way. I can’t tell you how many times I’d provide my students a writing prompt, give them fifteen minutes to write something, and then sit in shock as three or four of them read something quite fantastic. I think students have worked so long in moving from one subject to the next during the day and producing the same intensity and output in each subject, that it’s become almost a reflex for them. 

But, again, the difficulty for the young writer is telling this “story” Gornick talks about in her text. The rough draft of the essay is mostly situation, and a student can write 650 words of situation quite easily.  A writer should blow past any word count and throw the entire situation on the page. I’m working with a great student right now who is over 1400-words-deep into his situation for the Common App essay. He’s trusting that this situation is indeed significant and that he will find a deeper story in it, that the situation, and the small details within the situation, might serve as an extended metaphor for personal growth.

That’s where the wire end modeling tool comes in. I ask students to find places they’ve seemed to repeat themselves (and they always do). Cut those words. What about parts of the situation that are really cool to recall but don’t really have much significance for this essay? Cut those, too. If a student loves the words so much, I tell them to cut them and then paste them in another document. Writers do this all the time as a coping mechanism so they don’t have to lose the words to oblivion…or they want to actually save the words for another project.

Another technique (or an additional one) is for the student to read over the situation and find places where they can insert themselves as the present tense thinker. The situation is in the past tense. The story is in the present. If a student reads over the 1400-word situation and can find four or five places they can insert themselves as someone who is contemplating the event in the present, they know that they need to keep those parts of the situation. A student should cut places that don’t serve their purpose in this way.

The further along the essayist gets in the process, the smaller the modeling tool loop is…the more narrowly the writer considers the essay. If in the beginning the essayist is deleting paragraphs of repetitive, irrelevant text, the end is about fine tuning, about cutting adjectives and weak verbs until the work is so sharp with detail that the essay is worthy of the plinth.

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Italo Calvino and Starting the College Application Essay

I’ve assembled a few notes on the college application essay, inspired by students I’ve worked with recently. I’m no expert on the formula for unlocking the door into the Ivy League, but I’ve worked with enough brilliant students who’ve struggled with writing this document to feel confident that the advice I’m providing could be successful. 

This summer I’ve been reading books by Italo Calvino, an author I’ve never encountered before other than hearing his name in passing (I think I might have been intimidated by him.), but after a recent interview I conducted with novelist, Joe Meno, who studies Calvino with his writing students at Columbia College in Chicago, I felt compelled to pick up a couple of Calvino novels in a used bookstore this summer. Currently, I’m reading the elusive If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler and I’ve resolved that, at this point in the reading, I’m treating this text as one of those “books of ideas,” rather than admitting that I can’t detect, nor can I follow, a discernible plot. 

What does this have to do with the essay? Well, I’m finding so much great writing advice in these pages. 

I am trying to read in the succession of things presented to me every day the world's intentions toward me, and I grope my way.

Writing any essay is about “groping” your way through or attempting to make sense of the things that have happened to you. Fear and anxiety might accompany the process because an essayist of any age (in this case a teenager who’s being forced to search for personal answers for an audience that has the fate of the student’s next four years in their hands) has to confront the unknown in order to make sense of it. The “groping” is sloppy and may take the form of scribbled notes, a voice recording of the idea, or a stodgy introductory paragraph. The student must allow this to happen without too much self-flagellation. A close friend calls this the “access-intro,” or an action that allows a student entry into the daunting, unfamiliar psychic space of evaluating their short lives for a group of strangers.

Then, little by little, something started moving and flowing between the sentences of this distraught recitation. The prose...had got the better of the uncertainties of the voice; it had become fluent, transparent, continuous [until the writer, the thinker] swam in it like a fish.

It’s difficult to convince a student that, eventually, they’ll be able to swim in their ideas, breathe freely inside of them. Arriving at the “flowing between the sentences” takes both deliberation and liberation, which doesn’t seem to make sense, but it’s true. A student must be willing to stay at their workspace (I’ve gotten up four times while writing this.) and have the discipline to trust the process. The student must also liberate themselves from the conventional rules of grammar, syntax, and structure while they search for the place they can swim. 

The word “transparent” strikes me here, too. I have told my students that I already know they’re smart, so there’s no need to muddy their essays with imprecise certified SAT words at the expense of clarity and directness. The same holds true for me with the college application essay. These professionals have read just about every type of approach to the essay and know when there’s a word that tries too hard, but it isn’t easy to convince a student that clear, concise communication is intellectual.

The key to a good college application essay is specificity.

If I’m right, and college admissions professionals have read every approach to the essay possible, then a student’s best approach is one that leaves no doubt that they are the only one who could have written that essay. The details and lessons cannot be generalized. The student cannot be unique until they examine how specifically unique they are. Being clear and specific about their experiences and how they are personally making sense of them cannot possibly fail.

I tell students: If you read a draft of your essay and it’s clear that 47 other students could have written it, you’re not being specific enough.

If this was helpful to you, please share it, or let me know it helped you. If there aren’t students on the other end of the things that I write, it doesn’t mean anything to me to have written them.

Check back for more posts on reading, writing, rhetoric, and journalism.

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