An Essay Asks a Question and Tries to Answer it: Introducing American Lit Students to Contemporary Forms of Creative Nonfiction

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When I introduce my field—nonfiction—to students of literature, I begin by setting simple yet strict ground rules. First, we use different vocabulary in referring to forms of fiction than in referring to forms of nonfiction. Therefore, the following terms are not interchangeable:

A story links a sequence of events. (Genre: “fiction.”)

An essay asks a question and tries to answer it. (Genre: “creative nonfiction.”)

In other words, the genre of fiction includes literature in story-form and novel-form. The genre of poetry includes literature in poem-form. And the genre of nonfiction includes literature in essay-form. What we study in this unit are essays, and I begin by coaching students to refer to them as such.

Genre

Of course, hard and fast definitions are a great point of entry to discussion as (perhaps all) definitions are problematic. My advice for the classroom: call genre into question as time allows. Then reiterate the above ground rules and stick to them, at least in this introductory sequence (hybridity and blending coming soon!).

Once we’ve considered the boundaries of truth and imagination and agreed the fiction/nonfiction genre divide might be a site of entangled expectations and double-entendres, I ground our discussion in history. This portion of the lesson goes, roughly, like this:

Q: why divide creative prose into genres at all?2460028088_a0baeb592e_z

A: for shelving purposes at the library.

(Read about the origins of the term “nonfiction” here: in short, the term is an organizational strategy by which to organize the relative placement of books on a shelf. Looks like it originated in Boston in 1867.)

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You can slow down your genre discussion by providing a list like this one that reviews all the genres covered in the course…

In an American literature course, it is important the students realize the truth debate (my take here) takes up much of the discursive space surrounding nonfiction. However, because I don’t find this conversation to be particularly rich, I choose not to linger on the topic. I remind my students of Robert Bringhurst’s argument (see how his thinking can figure in to teaching American literature here) that “myth is a theorem about the nature of reality,” and I suggest to them that writers of all stripes are concerned with reality.

PALS 2
…and names the main form associated with each.

But I try to be transparent: it’s in my own thinking life and studies of literature that the dichotomy that [fiction=fake] and [nonfiction=true] isn’t particularly useful—others   find it an exciting area. So we could, in this course, give a great deal of attention to the central question of the genre, “how true is true enough?” However, limiting our discussion of genre affords us more time to plumb the depths of form. This course’s unit on nonfiction thus does not scrutinize the truthiness of nonfiction and focuses instead on the question, “what is an essay?”

So…what is an essay?

Essay: from the French, un essai – an attempt.

Or essayer to try.

16th-century France: Michel de Montaigne asks, what do I know? In his attempt to answer this question… he creates the foundation for the modern essay.

The essay often involves paradoxes, self-doubt, a winding path, and contradicting answers. The essay uses experience, research, and reflection. And the essay can use any and every literary tool under the sun. Including narrative.

But an essay is not a story. A story connects events. And an essay asks a question and tries to answer it.

(Students, by now, will get antsy: this definition is elusive and they want more solid terms on which to understand the form. But I keep repeating this formulation like an adage—an essay asks a question and tries to answer it—because this is the key interpretive frame they’ll use for close reading. I find it helps them interact with essays as essays, and sets them up for a more complex read than they produce about “true stories.”)

Survey of forms

I keep this part simple, giving brief definitions. And I make sure to let students know that the department at our university offers a three-course undergraduate sequence in nonfiction (intro, intermediate, and advanced) to emphasize that what we’re doing in this unit just scratches the surface.

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Here’s a sample overview showing five forms of essays and advancing a brief definition of each.
Texts we read in class

What I really want students to get out of this unit are the tools by which to approach and interact with any piece of literature that calls itself an essay. Since this is my priority, I don’t feel I have to dip into or expose students to all essay forms like a tray of hors d’œuvres. Students are best served by approaching just two essays: one in which it is relatively “easy” to discern the question the essay is asking (and relatively “easy” to locate its answer, as incomplete as it may be)—and one in which it’s much harder.

Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” and Barry Lopez’s “The Raven” (both included in the Norton Anthology, if you use it) make one viable pair of essays for the above exercise. Beginning with Anzaldúa’s essay, I ask this sequence of questions (good for freewriting, for small groups to hash out, for the class to consider as a whole, or some combination of these):

  1. What is the core question this essay asks?
  2. What are some of the text’s restatements or variations on that question?
  3. What seems to be the essay’s answer? What gaps persist in its answer?

It’s not that Anzaldúa’s piece is “easy” per se, but students do find traction with these questions and generate solid answers.

Barry Lopez’s “The Raven,” on the other hand, is harder. It’s more difficult to pin down as common_raven_2a text that asks a question and attempts to answer it. This isn’t surprising: “The Raven” was initially received as a story, but is now generally understood to be an essay (lots to unpack there from a lit studies perspective). And the author’s own remarks also complicate this unit’s approach to “The Raven” as an essay.
Either way, reading “The Raven” as an essay means we must listen for the core question it seems to ask, and listen for the answer it seems to offer. Students have to stretch their interpretive faculties to figure out how to apply this interpretive frame. Some find it frustrating. Others find it exciting, as making discoveries in a challenging text often is. We then briefly revisit notions of nonfiction-as-truth, and note how flat interpretations of “The Raven” become when we point out what’s true and attempt to describe the essay’s significance based on its use of factuality.

An enjoyable follow-up exam question: Pretend a friend from outside this class just read Barry Lopez’s “The Raven.” How would you teach them to think about the piece specifically as an essay?

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