Sunday, July 22, 2012

Understanding Essays

Prologue: The opening paragraph of a piece by J. Hillis Miller, Dylan Thomas's "Delayed Meaning" ends with these two lines:
Of his early poetry Thomas said: "I thought it enough to leave an impression of sound and feeling and let the meaning seep in later." This does not mean that there is no meaning, but that the poet refuses to give the reader easy access to it… (ellipses Miller's)

Understanding Essays:
Using your Tardis, suppose you found a Chinese master chef and asked him precisely whether his Peking soup was sweet or sour? He'd scowl, for his soup is a wordless blend, crafted as best he knows how. Ask an English literature-type author which picture to put on the cover of his classic novel and he'd reply, "Make it black." Then, I suppose, you'd use a dark meaningless old oil painting.

Ask a classical composer what prose description-title to put on his piece. He'd shrug. "Can't you just give it a number?" In our own day, of course, pop artists have said they only make music videos because their labels insist they do. It disturbs the musicians because it takes away your personal imagination. The artist Seal won't even put song lyrics in his CD liner notes, because, as his notes explain, you might be able to mishear and mistakenly come up with better words on your own. Art is like that—it's personal.

Similarly, for an essay, the prose title may not be very descriptive, the message may not be reducible to a sound bite, and some reader assembly may be required.

So if an essay goes on at great length about serving in ill-fitting uniforms for years in London (London - 1944 by Mary Lee Settle, from The Virginia Quarterly Review) while on reduced rations under the blitz, and then, at the end, suddenly switches to a brief incident, around VE Day, of hearing a French officer at a fine New York dinner expressing satisfaction at the reduction in the Jewish population... then don't expect from the author a prose description, a pretty paint-by-numbers conclusion, telling you what the essay was all about. If I met Ms Settle, I would not ask.

I am saying that essays can be artistic, a blending of art and craft, of right-brain and left-brain.

Unlike essays by schoolchildren, an adult essay need not proceed to a predetermined end of Q.E.D. (Thus it is demonstrated) Topic sentences are fine for kids, but...
...Topic sentence technique can result in nothing but wooden and mechanical writing....and the fact is that topic sentences can be found in the work of no great author... Further, since the topic sentence inevitably gravitates towards the beginning, it cultivates textbookish writing: first the definition in blackface, then the explanation. If we understand the definition, we need not read the explanation. Texbook writing makes no attempt at suspense; and since textbooks are synonymous with dullness, it is perhaps as well that such writers as Dickens, Thackeray, Conrad and Galsvorthy wrote before the topic sentence technique was born... 
 The Way of the Makers, by F. M. Salter, University of Alberta, 1967  
Essays are not as artistic as novels, of course, but the two forms are related. In prose, the reason you can have symbols and themes being interpreted three different ways by three different English teachers is: Art is like that—the interpretation is personal.
And no, the writer won't give away the answers: It just isn't done, and besides—he or she doesn't know. Some of the things, the insights, came as she wrote, not before. Her readers will have insights too, but each reader will be unique, each having different insights at different places in a novel... or in an essay.

I may never write a novel—essays are more fun—but I have written short fiction. I was humbled, once, to meet a fan. I was in a booth at the Lido cafe when a stranger, a young man, knelt (knelt!) at my booth. He asked if I was that friend of Lucas who had once read a short story aloud at a picnic table at Citizen Paine coffee house. I said I was. He said, "That story changed my life."

I thanked him, asked no questions. He left... For him to ask me what exactly I had thought as I wrote, or, for me to ask him what parts had changed his life, would have been just too personal: Art is like that. And besides, we may not have quite known the answers ourselves.

Please don't feel that an essay has to be crystal clear, as in some impersonal computer manual, and please don't feel foolish if you don't "get it." If an author is good enough to merit an editor and be published then you surely "got" his blended soup at some level, you got what what you personally needed to get.

The End


What I am saying, before we get to a long thoughtful epilogue, is that you should not be intimidated when reading a non-structured essay, nor be intimidated into the thinking you must write a structured essay.
Unless you are a pre-adult in school, I  guess, for just as you will re-trace the reasoning of Pythagorus,  for your own good, it will do you good to learn to think straight. But once you're learned? Here is a blow against structure, as part of advice to young movie critics:

9. Just write, damn it. I believe that ninety percent of writer's block is not the fault of the writer. It's the fault of the writer's wrongheaded educational conditioning. We're taught to write via a 20th century industrial model that's boringly linear and predictable: What's your topic sentence? What are your sections? What's your conclusion? Nobody wants to read a piece that's structured that way. Even if they did, the form would be more a hindrance than a help to the writing process, because it makes the writer settle on a thesis before he or she has had a chance to wade around in the ideas and inspect them. So to Hell with the outline. Just puke on the page, knowing that you can clean it up and make it structurally sound later. ..

For all ten points of Advice to Young Critics by MZS,  see link

Epilogue: Selected paragraphs to further indicate that schoolchild essays are not like the real world, taken from my unpublished Me and Your Essay:

My two year college ran a "third year level' course in "rhetoric" (written). As a prerequisite I needed six English courses to get in. I had one. Or, permission from the department head. This I hoped I could wrangle. So we met. I confessed, "You know how in high school they tell you to begin with a clear topic sentence and then outline your clear reasoning A,B,C each with subheadings 1,2,3? Well, I never do it that way. I am self-taught, from reading George Orwell. Would that be OK?" The man chuckled and said, "If you know George's name then you're doing better than most of the students here." And I was in. It turned out to be my favorite class; the teacher said I was one of his wild horses. So you can understand that I take the reading and writing of essays quite seriously.

I also obtained permission to take a "history of stage plays" class with the theatre majors. There I learned of theater movements such as "theater of the absurd." They say education is never wasted—especially when I can compare and contrast my two classes.

You may have found that for certain "English 101" essays, of the ABC type, you can read the first half, or the middle half, or the last half, and thereby know almost half the essay. The same might apply to reading certain plays—but never for the absurd ones. For plays like the one act The Zoo Story (two guys on a park bench) or Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (two couples at home) you have to read the entire organic whole—the gestalt. Similarly, while some essays are purely left brain, others include the right brain. For the latter, you may need to relax enough to let the whole essay wash over you.

When Orwell, a lover of literature, put in a "'conclusion' sentence" to his essays he seldom meant it narrowly and literally: he usually meant it as a subtle tip of the ice berg, expecting you to have first read the whole piece. Me too.

Three conclusion-ending lines of Orwell:

The corner of the human heart that they speak for might easily manifest itself in worse forms, and I for one should be sorry to see them vanish. (The Art of Donald McGill)

"Them" refers literally to risque post cards; but figuratively to society's outlet for impropriety.

And really it was like watching a flock of cattle to see the long column, a mile or two miles of armed men, flowing peacefully up the road, while the great white birds drifted over them in the opposite direction, glittering like scraps of paper. (Marrakech)

Literally: a scene of white officers and black enlisted men; figuratively: while on paper the colonizers could excuse their oppression, one day these colonies, strong enough to survive on their own, would be free.

One cannot change all this in a moment, but one can a least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase—some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse—into the dustbin where it belongs. (Politics and the English Language)

This seems closer to a literal summary-ending—but the subject is in fact political thought. I include it to show how richly one can write. Not like all that barren prose, immortal, floating in cyberspace, of less beauty than a drifting dandelion seed.

~Paul Graham speculated that "conclusions" came from concluding remarks to the jury. I suppose he wondered why the heck schoolchildren are taught to write a conclusion as a reworded beginning, even though readers could presumably scroll with their eyes back to the top of the essay. The above quoted F. M. Salter would agree. Here is his paragraph against schoolchild conclusion paragraphs:
Similarly, the way to stop writing is to stop; and the very best place to stop is at the end. Teachers who insist on "conclusions" are really asking students to go beyond the end. Nowhere in life is it pleasant to see people going on after they have finished; people who explain their jokes, people who linger forever at the door at the end of a visit and refuse to go home; people who have said or done all they need to do or say, and still  go on puttering. In endings it may be the theatre has the edge on all other mediums of writing if the author does not know when to end his play, the producer will  find out very soon, and ring down the curtain when the audience tells him, by applause or otherwise, "That's enough."

Sean Crawford
July 20012
~Paul Graham, my favourite web essayist, has done two more meta (about) essays, The List of N Things and Persuade Xor Discover. (Both pieces were eye openers, but I won't try to summarize them here—one of the links compares schoolboy essays to the articles in Cosmopolitan)

~My Essays and Blogs piece archived June 2010 gives a "present at the creation" perspective on the internet; the 'net came to the general public in 1992, and here is a song I really like about it, based on the hit "Video killed the Radio Star"—which I also really like—which was the very first music video ever broadcast on MTV. (the music television channel)

~For fun, I am slowly adding "links" to this piece to see if, and at what point, I get any extra hits. So far, links make no difference. My few hits are solely from the week I posted.
Update: Now I'm getting hits, but not until my piece was linked to the max.

~While the word is not on my "spell check," which doesn't have VE day either, I'm so pleased my ROM (computer) dictionary includes the word Tardis

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