Response #9 – Sue Miller’s “A Lecture on Revision”

As we head into the final two weeks of the semester, I would like to ask you to start thinking about revising, refining, polishing and deepening one of your four essays. In  her essay “A Lecture on Revision,” Sue Miller gives us some pretty wonderful insights on how to think about revising.

In the exercise for this week, I’ll ask you to:

  • take up Miller’s idea of “the dragon,” or how you might deepen your essay by looking closely at the what is the core struggle you are grappling in the work.
  • As she also implores us, to keep in mind a reader, to make the work of consequence for a reader. Another way of thinking about this is to project out, to give a reader not only our story, but to help readers in thinking about their own lives and struggles.
  • To consider the other word she uses: “center.” What is at the center of the essay you’re writing? Once this is determined, we can deepen the meaning of the essay by writing toward this core.

In your response this week, discuss what you have learned about revision from this essay, and how you might begin revising your own work.

Please post by Tuesday(ish), April 21.


Response #8 – Max Apple’s “Roommates”

In this short essay, Apple gives us a profile of his grandfather. It is clear that he loves his grandfather, and the title suggests that they had a good and close relationship. But Apple doesn’t shy away from giving us a textured, full picture. Note in particular the word choices in the second paragraph: “argued”; “not a gentle…”; “screamed at his fellows in the bakery”; “lover of strife.” In his sleep, he explodes “in anger” and curses in both English and Yiddish. The goal of a profile is to get the reader to know the subject, without sugar coating. By showing peoples’s flaws as well as their more positive characteristics, a reader will grow to know them.  

I would also like to point out the turn on page 64. Given its content, we might have expected this to be about the grandfather’s aging and inevitable decline. When Apple’s wife is diagnosed with a neurological disease, it is his grandfather who becomes a caretaker; perhaps not what we expected. That little turn is a surprise for the reader.

In your response below note any aspects about the essay you find compelling. Do either the author or his grandfather make you think about relationships in your own life? How do you feel about the grandfather by the end?

Please post by Tuesday, April 7


Response #7 – Susan Toth’s “Going to the Movies”

Susan Toth’s “Going to the Movies” feels like a good transition as we move into our next assignment, which will be writing about other people. It combines elements of memoir and literary journalism/event.   Structurally, it feels similar to the Gretchen Legler essay, in that it is  organized with numbered sections. (Though, unlike the Legler essay, which uses disparate collage like pieces in the sections, the sections in Toth’s essay follow the same pattern: a guy, movies they watch together). And, like Biss’s essay, Toth merely gives us facts, without commenting or editorializing,  all of which lead us to the meaning she intends.

And, to the point  of the next assignment, Toth reveals to us each of these men she once dated. In this case, she doesn’t rely on descriptions, or dialogue, or even action, really. Like a Rorschach test, the characterizations of these men are revealed primarily through their taste in films.

So, let’s discuss the meaning of this short essay. In your response below, discuss what you believe  is Toth’s intended meaning? How does she achieve this? This is a “classification essay,” an essay that structures by way of a list. Let us know how you feel about this type of structure, and what you feel about the essay itself. Please focus on what you might apply to your own writing.

Response #6 and Exercise #6

Literary journalism is a form of creative nonfiction that combines factual reporting with narrative technique – personal interiority, descriptive details, plot designs, subjectivity–not traditionally associated with traditional journalism. It comes out of the new journalism movement of the 60’s and 70’s, where, rather than the writer being “invisible” and just reporting the facts, the writer might embed themselves in the story, through voice, or actually taking part in the activities reported on. Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote and Joan Didion were some  of the writers who came out of that movement.

To get started, read one of the two essays below. The links here are from their original sources,  Spin  magazine and  The New Yorker.

Jonathan Ames

The first  is by Jonathan Ames, and recounts his attendance at Gothic Fest:



Goth Fest


Roxane Gay

The next essay is by Roxane Gay. It’s about competitive scrabble. Riveting, right? But check it out:

Download (PDF, 4.82MB)





In your post below:

  1. Respond: Let us know first which essay you chose. Then, comment on how effective you think the writer is at making us interested in a topic that we might not be otherwise? In what ways do these authors include themselves in the story? Does their role make it more interesting? Why?
  2. Exercise. This exercise is to get you thinking about your Essay #3. First of all, find a local event that you would like to attend. I often suggest students find something outside of their own comfort zone, something they wouldn’t normally go to, as is the case with Jonathan Ames. But it’s perfectly fine to report on something you’re already deeply involved in, as is the case with Roxane Gay. Then, write at least a paragraph about what  you expect the experience to be like. It will be interesting to then compare this to the actual event you attend.

You can put both of these in the same post, but make sure you label them – or even just a skip a line between them–to help me distinguish.

Due by Thursday, March 5 by 5:00 PM

Have a great Spring Break!!

Response #5 – Eula Biss’ “Time and Distance Overcome”

Here is the essay “Time and Distance Overcome” by Eula Biss. If you are one who doesn’t like to read online, you can download the essay below:

Download (PDF, 616KB)

Eula Biss

In what has become a classic essay in the genre of nonfiction, “Time and Distance Overcome” is stunning in its transformation; it starts out as a somewhat mundane list of facts about telephone poles, and then becomes something else entirely. For me, the essay is a reminder that research can be an avenue into discovery, full of surprises. Biss presents this essay and discovery just as she found it; she started researching one thing, which lead her to something else.

Another lesson I take from this essay is how an emotional effect can be created through nothing more than concrete fact. In this essay, the “I” is almost entirely de-centered (until the very end) with no real editorializing. Biss does not preach, though her meaning is clear. She merely places the facts before us, and allows us to come to our own reaction, much in the way a painting or photograph might.

I also want to draw your attention to the conclusion. She uses an image, and without needing to spell it out for us, the ending provides a symbol of hope, even amidst the darkness of the history she portrays. One thing to consider in your own work is how you might leave reader with a lasting image, a concrete symbol to represent the emotion you want to leave them with.

I do not want to say more, as I want you to experience the essay on your own terms. In your response below, post your general reaction to the essay: you might consider addressing how effective the transformation/shift is; whether or not you feel the order is important (Could these fragmented pieces be placed in any order to be effective?). Finally, provide some possible research topics of your own you’d like to pursue.

I look forward to reading your responses.

Response #4 -E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake”

E.B. White. You might know him best from his children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web.

Part of the beauty of this remarkable essay is  how seamlessly White is able to move us in time without it ever feeling disjointed. In the first paragraph, for example, we get the introduction to his boyhood trips to the lake in Maine, his since  becoming a “sea-water man”, and then, “a few weeks ago,” his return to the lake with his son. How does he do this?

We often talk about transitions between paragraphs, but what about within a paragraph? Notice how White uses phrases to keep us oriented, even as he transitions us in time. Specifically, he begins with “One summer.” Then, he uses the phrasing “I have since become…” to move us to understand him now as a man. Toward the end of the paragraph, “A few weeks ago…” again transitions us.

An essay should not be a house of mirrors, or a corn maze. An essay works best when the turns and moves it makes flow logically from one sentence to the next, like a drive through a landscape, or a float on a river.

Also, note how he begins in the very specific “One summer,” and then widens to the more general “We returned summer after summer.”

Time is also a thematic element in the essay: the conflation of father and son, the constant (and sometimes ironic) notion that things don’t change, and ultimately, the final line about “the chill of death.” Along the way, of course, the essay is filled with rich, specific details, keeping us engaged in landscape and story of the essay.

For this response, choose one paragraph. (There are 13 paragraphs; you can identify which paragraph you chose by giving us the number).   Pay close attention to the transition from sentence to sentence, phrase to phrase. To the precision of the language, the rhythm and music of the words, the clarity of the story and meaning. What do you take from this to apply to your own work?

Please feel free to also respond to any other aspect of the essay.


Reading Response #3 – Gretchen Legler’s “Moments of Being: An Antarctic Quintet”

Gretchen Legler

Here I confess, Gretchen Legler is a favorite of mine. I have come to her work fairly recently, and I find in her words a model for my own work, a kindred spirit.  I don’t take this word – spirit – lightly. Spiritual writing, as I believe “Moments of Being”  to be, is often conflated with religious writing, and certainly it can have a religious focus. But generally any writing that invites us to think of ourselves as a small part of a larger world can be said to be spiritual. A lot of spiritual writing has a nature focus, though it certainly doesn’t have to; you can write a spiritual essay set in New York, or a diner, or your own apartment.

One thing to take from this essay is Legler’s use of structure. First, note how she divides the essay into five sections, set off by Roman numerals. This has an episodic effect, and allows her to focus on one aspect of her experience in Antarctica at a time. It also allows us as breaks in between to consider her words before shifting gears, adding to the spiritual effect. In this case, each section stands alone. In the first she gives us an overview, and context for her stay; in the second section, she takes us on a walk, and maps us through the place as she walks, while also reflecting on her own ideas, often in conversation with Thoreau; in the third, she writes poetically about wind; in the fourth, about Antarctica’s color and light; and in the fifth section, she brings it full circle, weaving together many of the elements from the first four sections. Notice that she begins as she ends – lying on her back, looking up and reflecting on the world around her. This synergy is used as a framing device, bring the essay to a close.

I also want to draw your attention to the first two paragraphs, as they illustrate a common technique used in travel writing. She begins in scene, giving us a very specific moment that places us in the cave with her. Then, in the second paragraph, she gives us context – the where, what, when and who elements. Also notice how carefully she maps us through the essay, never leaving us confused as to where we are. She even introduces us to the people along the way. By the end, we feel as if we ourselves have been to Antarctica.

What are your thoughts about this essay? Please comment below about your thoughts of this as a spiritual essay, what that means to you, what structural elements you see her using and/or your general impressions of the piece.

Response #2 – Tony Earley’s “Somehow Form a Family”

Creative writing faculty member Tony Earley.(John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

Tony Earley’s “Somehow Form a Family” is a memoir essay about his family, growing up in a typical American small town, and the influence (intrusion?) of television on their lives.  I think there is much you might take from this essay as you work to complete your own Memoir Essay this week.

In the first paragraph, Earley gives us a description of himself, and some context regarding his family. (Also note the “July 1969” marker). And then in the next two paragraphs, he adequately maps the neighborhood he lives in. The result is that we are pulled into the story. He has answered for us the questions of “who?” and “where?”. Look at your own essay and consider whether or not you have effectively answered these two questions.

One of the lasting characteristics of this essay for me is the way Earley buries the domestic traumas behind the television viewing. There are longer descriptions about the television shows than the family:, just one line about his sister’s death, and only a couple about his father leaving.

In your response #2 below, discuss that balance between television viewing and family dynamics. What point might Earley being trying to make in burying the family dynamics? Is this effective? How does the final scene with Ann B. Davis lay into this idea? Finally, what do you take from this essay that you might use in your own?

Looking forward to reading your responses. Please feel free to respond to each other, too!

Ann B. Davis
“Buck up, kiddo. Everything’s going to be allright.”

Response #1

There is much to admire about Alice Walker’s memoir essay “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self,” but I’d like to draw your attention specifically to the some of the ways she creates structural cohesiveness. Note for example, the way she uses  markers.  Markers are those phrases or lines that mark time and/or place. Often they are placed at the beginning of sentences. Some examples:

“It is a bright summer day in 1947.”

“It is Easter Sunday, 1950.”

Often, Walker uses age as a structural element:

“I am two-and-a-half years old.”

“I am eight years old and a tomboy.”

You’ll note, she does this throughout, uses age to help us move through time, without getting lost. Also, think how she uses clothes as a means of helping us see the child she was throughout. These descriptions of clothing are another cohering element. Another such element is her use of repetition: all the “You did not change,” they say’s and the “I remember’s.” (We’ll return to these “I remember” moments with your exercise for Thursday).

She uses foreshadowing early on with the line, “It was great fun being cute. But then one day it ended.” In that line we are introduced to the issue of change, and that theme becomes another binding element. It is this idea of change, or Walker’s coming to acceptance of her eye’s appearance that pulls the whole essay together and brings it to its natural conclusion.

What else is admirable about this essay? For your Response #1,discuss some of the other elements you see working in the essay. What moments were you most drawn to? What does the essay make you think make you think about  from your own childhood? Remember to shoot for 200-400 words. Feel free to also respond to other’s posts.

To post, simply click on “comments” above. I encourage you to draft first on a Word page, and then copy and paste. Please proofread before  posting.