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


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.


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.)

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.

…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.

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?

Waiting for Godot and “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo”: Genre Pairings

“Bare” by John Benson

I watched Waiting for Godot in undergrad, I think. It was in a theater class. I think? I don’t have a vivid memory of it, but I do remember how it made me feel. I felt frustrated and trapped when watching it. I didn’t really “get” it, and I certainly did not want to read or see it again. I can’t remember the details and did not want to repeat the experience, but I never forgot how it made me feel.

At the beginning of this January more than ten years after first encountering Waiting for Godot, I was putting final touches on my syllabus for a course in modern drama. I had the feeling that something was missing from the syllabus, which I had crafted in an attempt to span the time period of the course while representing a diversity of voices. What was missing? Well, Waiting for Godot, of course. This realization gave me pause because I didn’t remember exactly having a pleasant time with it in my first encounter. Did I really want to teach Waiting for Godot? Would it be a slog for me and my students? I decided that it just might be, but that it would probably be worth it nonetheless given how much it is still referenced in our larger cultural sphere and how many of the playwrights coming after Beckett were influenced by his work. I put it on the syllabus, and it was worth doing so not only because of how it helped us read the rest of the plays on the syllabus, but also because it gave us a new light within which to read the works we had already encountered. In many ways, it became the center of our semester—the piece that illuminated the rest of the texts.

When I hesitated to put Beckett on the syllabus, I almost violated one of my own teaching rules. One of my rules for reading literature is that you don’t have to like the literature to have something to say about it.* People often think that professors teach literature that they love, and we do sometimes, certainly. However, I also think that liking or loving literature is not really the point in an individual reading of a text. I want my students to learn how to read texts; it doesn’t really matter if they like those texts or not. In fact, liking can often get in the way of critiquing a piece—the literary critic equivalent of kill your darlings—, and we are fundamentally in the literature classroom to analyze texts.

I ask my students to push away from their desire to like texts, but I do recognize that their aim in liking something is often predicated on how I introduce texts (especially with lower level students). One means of getting students into the discussion of a work is to ask them basic questions about their reactions to the text. What did you like about this? And what didn’t you like? Our reactions are the basis for how we interpret and analyze texts, so it is not wrong to ask students these things to get them into a close reading of a text. However, sometimes this approach narrows this response and teaches them that what is most important is if you liked a text or not. In my own teaching, I need to work on making it clear how we shifting from liking to analyzing when interpreting literature. This is important to me because as a literary critic, I fundamentally do not care if I like something that I am working on. And as someone who studies non-canonical texts historically and culturally, I’m not really looking for “good” works of art. I am asking what that work tells us about a moment in time, either within the literary tradition or in a wider cultural sphere. So, sometimes I give my students the, “It doesn’t matter if you like it speech” when they seem particularly unmotivated by a text.

When I was gearing up to teach Waiting for Godot, I had to give myself the “It doesn’t matter if you like it speech,” but I also had to examine why I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to teach Waiting for Godot because of how it made me feel. As an ambitious American who has absorbed the tenants of the American dream (even if I know better, it is still with me), I hate feeling stuck in one place. I want to go, to move forward. I want to know that my work is worth it. That I am working towards a larger goal. The feelings I had about Waiting for Godot are largely the point of Waiting for Godot. The play makes you feel the ennui of waiting—of asking for more—and knowing that not only will it not come but also that you will be in the same place tomorrow waiting and asking, asking and waiting.

Yes, Waiting for Godot gives me my own existential crisis. Once I had this realization, I was left with how to approach this with my students. Would they have a negative reaction to the play? And if so, would that reaction be insurmountable in terms of their desire to engage with the text and interpret it in class. My students this semester are advanced, so I don’t know if we would have struggled with the text regardless of how I approached it. I did find, though, that Susan Sontag’s “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo” made for an excellent pairing with Waiting for Godot because it took the play that exists nowhere and showed how applicable it was to real experiences. Even if my students weren’t as skilled as they are, I imagine that this would be a very good way to begin a lesson on the play.

American Intellectual and Writer Susan Sontag

I stumbled upon “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo” when I was looking for literary criticism to pair with Waiting for Godot. I wasn’t looking for a nonfiction text, but when I found it, I thought it might make for an insightful pairing with the play. As the title suggests, the article is about Sontag’s experience directing Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo while it was under siege in the 1990s. This pairing did several things for our class in terms of helping us understand the text. I’m going to outline a few important aspects in the following paragraphs.

The first thing it did was simply introduce the play and its themes. I had students say that they skimmed through the play while reading Sontag’s piece, so they could better understand her point of view on why she decided to stage the play in Sarajevo. Sontag also introduces details about the play that help the reader understand the way the plot of the play works. For example, she notes that because of choices she made in the casting and practical concerns of the theater in Sarajevo, such as the lack of electricity, she decided to only perform the first act of the play. Sontag writes that this decision would work because the second act of Waiting for Godot repeats much of the first act and, in fact, starts and ends in the same place as Act I. Sontag notes, “For this may be the only work in dramatic literature in which Act I is itself a complete play.” This is an interesting concept to ponder. How can half of a play be a complete play? If it is so, what does that mean about Act II? How do we approach reading Act II? Sontag’s words give students a heads up as to how to read the play. I imagine that my students might have been less frustrated by Waiting for Godot than I was because they understood that the meaning of the play was not as closely linked to the plot. They weren’t not as focused on what happens next because they already knew it was more of the same.

Interspersed throughout Sontag’s texts to mark the sections of her piece are quotes from the play. The first quote is “Nothing to be done,” which is the opening line of the play. Even without reading the play, students can think about this line. Why would you start a work of art with this sentiment? Isn’t any work of art about what is done, about what is coming in the work? If there is “nothing to be done,” then why are we reading this at all? The quote also applies to what Sontag was doing in Sarajevo. She had previously visited the city while it was under siege, and she felt she wanted to return, and that if she “went back,” she would find a way to “pitch in and do something.” Sontag got a lot of questions from media in Sarajevo and from friends and colleagues when she was home about what exactly she was doing there and what effect it had. The second paragraph of her essay answers this quite succinctly; she helped make something “that would only exist in Sarajevo, that would be made and consumed there.” Yes, that is a simple achievement, but it was still an achievement for the actors she worked with and the audience that came to see their production. Estragon and Vladimir’s games and skits in Waiting for Godot, seem much more futile, but they still help them cope and if not make sense of, then make use of their situation. The gift of expression is not the biggest gift in the world, but it can help people persist. One of the takeaways of Godot is persistence in the face of lack of clear answers about the future. Maybe Sontag just helped her actors mark time, but even those moments of reprieve “do something.”

via Adam Muszalski

Waiting for Godot could seem like it is about nothing. Nothing really happens. It ends where it starts and then starts over again. The dialogue is repetitive and hard to make sense of. What could this have to do with anything? Sontag’s piece helps us see that the questions of Waiting for Godot are the questions of humanity. No matter who we are or what we are doing on earth, humans ask themselves questions about their circumstances and situations and try to make sense of their world—even if no one ever gets closer to the truth. The play can ask us to think about these things in a disorientating way, but Sontag helped my students see themselves in the play because she helped them see themselves in the citizens of Sarajevo. One of the questions that people often asked Sontag about her experience was if Waiting for Godot was too depressing to put on in Sarajevo. Sontag replied that people didn’t just want a reprieve from their lives; she writes, “In Sarajevo, as anywhere else, there are more than a few people who feel strengthened and consoled by having their sense of reality affirmed and transfigured by art.” My students went into a reading of the play with those thoughts bouncing around in their heads, and I think it made them more receptive to the play and the lessons it has for its readers. Beckett’s lessons delivered in exchanges, such as, “I can’t go on like this/That’s what you think,” are not lessons in the traditional sense. He does not give us hope to end on, but he does give us two characters who have each other and who work together to fight off despair. That isn’t much, but it is something essentially human.

A lot more could be said about teaching Waiting for Godot, but I wanted to emphasize some of the prep work that went into my approach to the play. I would also love to hear about how people incorporate introductory material and critical essays into their lessons, especially with upper-level students. How much do you prepare your students? What do you let them figure out? How do you see literary criticism working in your classroom? I never really considered a pairing like the one I just described until I happened upon it. What are your best pairings?

*When thinking about liking literature, I looked back to see if I had written about this point in any other PALS post. I don’t think that I have. Perhaps it feels so familiar because I have thought about the point a lot and explained it to many students. However, that I can’t remember if I have written about this before while writing about a play about not remembering is not lost on me. Not for nothing, Waiting for Godot alters your thinking.