Rarely does a visiting writer sit down for the Friday morning craft talk and introduce a concept that I go on to use every day – every day – after. But this is exactly what happened when José Orduña, essayist, professor of English at the University of Nevada, and author of The Weight of Shadows visited us at the University of Missouri last September.
The concept Orduña shared was this: one must have an occasion to write.
He showed us a photograph of the U.S.-Mexico wall and pointed out that while certain prominent political voices are calling to “build the wall,” the wall already exists. Indicating the wall in the photograph, Orduña said: “this is my occasion to write.” As I understand it, the wall provides the impetus for Orduña’s research, and likely also guides his aesthetics.
“The occasion to write” is a useful concept for writers and students of writing. It is also useful for readers. The concept thus helps me link two different course goals in my Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay: one major goal is to expose students to contemporary trends in nonfiction. Another major goal is to coax students into writing beyond themselves. I recently created an ekphrastic writing assignment to combine these, relying on art, history, and conversation to multiply students’ own occasions to write.
Ekphrasis: Ancient to Contemporary
- What’s ekphrasis?
Ekphrasis, from the Greek, combines ek and phrásis (literally “out” and “speak”) into a verb for “proclaiming” or “calling an inanimate object by name.” At its simplest, any work of art that is “about” or enmeshed in another work of art (usually of another medium) can be understood as participating in the ekphrastic tradition.
I insist—in this post, as in life—that we be as expansive as possible in our thinking about what constitutes art. Example: ekphrastic writing may dialogue with a rock opera, a painting, a violin concerto, a capoeira performance, a piece of jewelry, a digital mashup… The real key is that ekphrastic writing is crucially more than description. It is also distinct from art history or criticism. Ekphrasis engages another artwork to enter into creative communion with it; ekphrastic writing is writing that thinks alongside art.
- Why teach ekphrasis in Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay?
Ekphrastic approaches are flourishing in the contemporary essay. Off the top of my head, here is an incomplete list of 21st century books of ekphrastic nonfiction:
Visual artworks are central to the project:
- Terry Tempest Williams, Leap (2000)
- Michael White, Travels in Vermeer (2015)
- Jericho Parms, Lost Wax (2016)
- Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (2001)
Dialogues with visual artworks less centrally, but significantly and recurrently:
- Claudia Rankine, Citizen (2014)
- Maggie Nelson, Bluets (2009)
- José Orduña, The Weight of Shadows (2016)
Dialogues with nonvisual artworks (namely music):
- Joni Tevis, The World is on Fire (2015)
- Mary Cappello, Life Breaks In (2016)
- Elena Passarello, Let Me Clear My Throat (2012)
- Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful (1991—okay, not the 21st century, but a favorite)
On to the practical application portion of this post.
The Lesson Sequence, Part One: Reading Orduña
In celebration of Orduña’s contribution to my thinking vocabulary, I assigned “A Civilized Man,” the fifth essay in his 2016 book, The Weight of Shadows.
“A Civilized Man” takes place in a waiting room in the Neal Smith Federal Building in Des Moines, Iowa. Orduña observes a young couple whose attorney might be coaching them for the inhumanity of a Stokes interview, the interview that scrutinizes a couple’s request for immigration relief based on their marriage (thus coldly judging the legitimacy, moral standing, and substance of legal partnership itself). Because they “look like posed figures in a Renaissance painting,” Orduña studies the scene as he would a canvas. Ultimately, Orduña draws from the Venetian painter Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi,” linking contemporary power dynamics to historic consciousness of 1500s Europe. We learn not only about U.S. immigration policy, but also about strange resonances with the Medici Bank, its financing of the Catholic Church, the resulting erosion of absolute monarchy, the rise of trade- and transaction-based power—discovering uneasy echoes with the Department of Homeland Security at every step.
In class, our analysis focused on disentangling one core question: what is the role of the artwork in this essay’s whole assemblage of meanings and effects?
To piece together an answer to this question, I had students track exactly what percent of the text describes “Adoration of the Magi,” what percent of the text teaches context about “Adoration of the Magi,” and what percent of the text explicitly connects “Adoration of the Magi” to the waiting room or to the “present-dayness” of the essay.
Students created a retrospective structure of the essay, and discovered that the bulk of the essay is not about artwork at all. Yet of course the closer they looked, the more tacit connections they discovered. Is it an essay that “just touches” on a Renaissance painting here and there, or is that painting actually woven in between the lines on every page? The latter, of course.
The Lesson Sequence, Part Two: Research and Writing
Second, we took a field trip to the Museum of Art and Archaeology, where students did a good deal of freewriting. They had a few days to expand this initial work and complete a five-hundred word ekphrastic essay responding to any artwork they encountered at the museum. Examples: I read two essays dialoguing with Rembrandt paintings, an essay about an ancient Indian carving of Ganesha, another one taking a work of American Impressionism as muse, and several essays rooted in sculptures and photographs from the museum’s curated exhibit of works by emerging young artists with disabilities.
In the next stage of research exploration, students turned to print and online sources to gather historic research. They found sources on their artists, on the medium (one student learned about the development of acrylic paints, for example; another researched the history of photography), and on the countries/social contexts in which their artworks were created (the student writing about Ganesha, for example, made a valiant effort to scrape the surface of Hindu literary/mythological tradition). Most students came away from this research less satisfied with their initial take on their chosen artwork (which is to say, more curious). Regardless, in a 500-word mini essay, students had to marshal new information and creatively convey the most intriguing things they learned.
Finally, part three of this research exercise required students to have a conversation. They identified a theme/topic in their ekphrastic writing assignment. And they had to think of a person with whom they’d be able to have a lively, 5-10-minute conversation about this theme/topic. Another 500-word mini-essay came out of this exercise.
Ultimately, students assembled their work into longform essays that—via ekphrasis, historic research, and the human voice—explored a range of convictions, questions, memories, and experiences. Students discovered that from the headwaters of their initial required research (mimicking Orduña’s methods of connecting art to life by freewriting in front of an artwork), their thinking had traveled unexpected distances.
Takehome points from this exercise and discussions emphasized craft strategies and “how-tos” (how to write about art, how to connect art to something else you’re writing about, etc.).
But the literary studies component of this sequence is probably more significant. Students came away with new recognition of a notable trend in the contemporary essay: nonfiction writing about art is flourishing right now. Popular conceptions of nonfiction rarely see past the memoiristic “story of my life” intent on understanding one thing, the “I”—but with ekphrasis, my students experienced an occasion to write that exceeded their individuality. Ultimately, my hope is that they leave the semester seeing the essayist as part of a wider thinking community, someone in conversation with the world in which they’re embedded—and responsible to and for it.