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.

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…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?

Podcasts and Pedagogy

In 2014, I kept hearing people talk about this new podcast, Serial. I wrote it off. Why listen to a true crime story on a podcast when I can watch one on television? After brushing this recommendation aside for far too long, I finally clicked on the Podcasts app, figured out how to search for Serial, and began listening to its first episode. I soon realized that my initial perception was, obviously, quite wrong. I was instantly obsessed, not just with the show, but with the overall experience of listening to podcasts.

Since Serial, I have been finding excuses to discuss various podcasts with my co-workers and friends. These conversations, combined with the growing popularity of podcasts, have encouraged me to consider the ways in which podcasts can be incorporated into the courses I teach. Their content can be used for many purposes: as part of a classroom activity, as a complement to an assigned reading, or even as inspiration when planning a syllabus. Thus, in honor of last month’s social media campaign, #TryPod, which encouraged listeners to share their favorite podcasts (and show others how to access them), this post will introduce the PALS community to two of my favorites: The New York Public Library Podcast, which can be used to structure classroom discussion, and Literary Disco, which can be used as a resource for selecting new texts. 

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The New York Public Library Podcast

As Aiden Flax-Clark, Manager of Public Programs, states in its latest episode, The New York Public Library (NYPL) Podcast aims to “bring you conversations from the library’s programs that explore the work and ideas of authors, artists, and thinkers.” While the most recent episodes examine current events through conversations with innovative thinkers, many of the archived episodes found in The NYPL Podcast‘s feed center on literature and writing. Some of these episodes focus on interviews with single authors, such Junot Diaz and Colson Whitehead; however, the majority feature discussions that well-known authors have with other authors, artists, or activists. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith, Sharon Olds and Cynthia Nixon, and Toni Morrison and Angela Davis are only a handful of episodes that could be incorporated into a class discussion on one of these authors’ works.

When considering what would best benefit the students in my Literature and Composition class, I instantly clicked on Episode #98, featuring Yusef Komunyakaa. I usually include “Facing It” in my Literature and Composition courses because this frequently anthologized poem is so accessible to students. To help students critically think about the poem, I have incorporated several moments from this episode into our class discussion on “Facing It.” 

Komunyakaa is first asked by NYPL’s Jessica Strand if he considers himself to be a political poet. He responds, “Well, I think language is political…the politics are not on the surface of the poem, but I think since I use language the politics are underneath, woven into the emotional architecture of the poem.” He then references James Baldwin, before stating, “I think, perhaps, the poet is cursed to be a keen observer.” After playing this clip, I tell my students to take note of what Komunyakaa perceives as the relationship between language and politics as well as his claim that the “politics are underneath,” before I play two other clips from the episode that center on the ideas of the image and of silence.

Yusef_KomunyakaaWhen Strand asks Komunyakaa how he began writing poetry, he responds, “Images are so important to me…. When it comes to images, it was where I grew up… I would sort of lose myself in nature. I wanted to know the ritual of things. So it was a keen kind of observation… I don’t think I can write a poem without images.” After listening to this response, I ask my students to reread “Facing It” and list on a separate piece of paper any striking images that appear in the poem.

Finally, I play the class a clip that describes Komunyakaa’s use of silence in poetry. He states, “I often think about what isn’t said. It’s that space between images, that space between lines…. if we are in the rhythm of the poem, we are in the emotional architecture of the poem, and language says things that are direct, but also insinuation.” I ask students to revisit the images that they wrote down. Then, I ask them to write down what isn’t being said in the poem, or what they think is lurking underneath and in the silent moments of “Facing It.” Their responses help us to discuss the distinction between denotation and connotation when considering a poem’s word choice and the effect of imagery in the poem. I then circle back to the first clip’s main point to ask my students how the use of language in “Facing It” displays Komunyakaa’s belief that language is political. We also consider the ways in which “the poet is cursed to be a keen observer.” These clips, therefore, become the organizational framework that helps students analyze “Facing It” throughout our class discussion.

Literary Disco 

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With episodes centered on a wide variety of texts, including poetry, short stories, nonfiction, fiction, graphic novels, and even “story songs,”  Literary Disco was created by Tod GoldbergJulia Pistell, and Rider Strong, who became friends while in Bennington College’s MFA program. In the first episode, Strong discusses the genesis of Literary Disco: “We realized that there doesn’t actually exist a book discussion group, a podcast or a radio show, that taps into that sort of…between the high brow and the low brow.” I was late to the Disco; I only started listening to this podcast in 2014, over two years after its first episode aired.

Since then, I have made my way through the archives, where I found not only hilarious commentary on texts such as the first book in the Sweet Valley High series, but also very interesting conversations about texts I had either never heard of or had not yet read. As I have listened to more and more episodes, I started to think about how some of the texts featured on Literary Disco could be incorporated into my courses. One text that really interested me was Damian Duffy and John Jennings’ graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

Kindred.JPGRecently, Literary Disco aired Episode 102, which centered on this new publication of Kindred. Goldberg, Pistell, and Strong’s discussion is extraordinarily helpful when thinking about both the benefits and drawbacks of assigning the graphic novel adaptation versus Butler’s novel. Strong is the only one of the three who had already read Kindred (he, in fact, recommended it in a previous episode), so he provides important insight into the strengths of the novel, such as point of view and pacing, versus the strengths of the graphic novel, which all three identify as the stunning artwork’s depictions of violence in the Antebellum South. Goldberg describes the panels as “unbelievable….I felt sad and I felt angry and I felt interested and entertained and amazed, all at the same time.” The rest of Goldberg, Pistell, and Strong’s conversation, especially their exploration of Butler having, as Pistell states, “a deep intellectual understanding of how empathy and compassion work, but how they can be forced and uncomfortable and so violent at times,” is one that anyone who is considering assigning this adaptation of Kindred should listen to before making a final decision.

Literary Disco and The New York Public Library Podcast are only two examples of podcasts that can serve as resources for instructors. Now, not surprisingly, I am always interested in getting recommendations for new podcasts, so I would love to hear about others that can serve as inspiration for creating new classroom activities or finding new texts.

*Featured image is “Serial Podcast,” by Casey Fletcher, from Flickr.com.