Teaching José Orduña: Ekphrasis and the North American Essay


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, Screenshot 2018-04-09 08.26.52and 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

  1. 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.

  1. 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

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.

“Le Badaud” (meaning “the idler” or “the onlooker”). The sculpture is in Sarlat, France, birthplace of Montaigne’s dear friend, Étienne de la Boétie. I am persuaded this idling, onlooking badaud has centuries of essays on the mind as he gazes upon the passing people. The sculpture is by Gérard Auliac.

Happy Accidents: Family and Place Writing in Creative Nonfiction

I’m usually compelled to blog about a sequence I’ve carefully constructed—one I’ve thought about in depth, struggled with, and streamlined. But today I’ll look at a sequence that wasn’t planned at all. This is because I’ve located an underexplored area in my own pedagogy: the happy accident.

Not that my teaching is particularly accidental: on a scale from haphazard to organized, I’d say I’m pretty organized. But on occasion I encounter someone superorganized. And I marvel, because the superorganized are impressive and humbling.

On the other hand, teaching a course that is fairly organized—a couple notches down from extraordinary and a bit shy of superorganized—has its perks: sometimes I discover a gem… a happy accident. Where I hadn’t envisioned a clear transition between lessons, now I discover they are not only connected, but that one is actually integral to another. As if I had planned it (which, technically, I did).

The Big Picture

This happened recently in my introductory course on the creative nonfiction essay. With a cluster of weekly topics planned for the first half of the semester, I wasn’t particularlyworried about how those topics would build: I envisioned an inventory of basic tools. This would give students the necessary foundation for an outside research progression and an ekphrastic writing project during weeks 7-15 of the course. I paid more attention to the strategic arrangement of the second half of the semester.

But sparks are flying between two topics early on: Writing the Family and Place as Character. It looks like studying family gives students (particularly students who are learning to read like writers) a foundation for place. Why didn’t I think of this myself?


Beginning creative writing students often struggle with setting. They tend toward no-place on one hand, or toward elaborate—and stagnant—descriptive passages on the other. The initial attitude is often some variation of how/why make place come alive? It just sits there. And while much of the place-based writing tradition in American literature does involve imagery and description, it is a fallacy that “good place writing” = “long descriptions of place.”

Students of the novel learn, for example, that Balzac’s lush descriptions of a drawing room simultaneously function as a sophisticated socioeconomic study of nineteenth-century France while also situating his characters in precise positions within that stratified society. Setting in contemporary creative nonfiction essays work the same way; the key is to get students invested in understanding the work that a description of setting or a passage about place is doing in the essay as a whole.

I notice that even if students overall don’t tend to harbor curiosity about place writing, they are concerned about the ethics of nonfiction family writing. In general, they don’t want their own writing to sell anyone out or burn bridges—many are living on their own for the first time and miss their families more than they expected to. Learning to read like writers in this context means, among other things, learning to find the sweet spot where compassion, respect, and honesty all coexist on the page.


Texts and Classtime

I’ve paired the Tell It Slant chapter, “Writing the Family,” with three essays: David Sedaris, “Forgive Me”; Rebecca McClanahan, “Interstellar”; and Dinty Moore, “The Son of Mr. Green Jeans: A Meditation on Fathers.”

David Sedaris’ essay centers on his sister, Lisa. After gathering reader responses in a few minutes of personal reaction-based discussion, I introduce the term “characterization” with a very open-ended definition. Characterization is any passage or element of the text that reveals one or more of the following: personality, mood, inclinations, preferences, history, desires, motivation, conflicts, gestures, the body, the mind, the spirit. We take a few more minutes for open-ended discussion in which students interact with this definition and the text. Then, I have students work individually. They create a two-column table and select the three passages they consider to be “most revelatory about Lisa” for the left column.

All essays named in this post appear in this anthology.


Once this column is filled out, I introduce the heading for the right-hand column: “what exactly the passage reveals about Lisa.” Students work individually to get initial ideas down, then we open up the activity for collaborative analysis.

What’s valuable about this series of steps is that it sets students up to pass through several stages of precision. A passage they had initially agreed was “funny” in the first

Writer David Sedaris; photo from davidsedarisbooks.com

round of class discussion becomes, for one student working individually, a passage that reveals Lisa’s guarded sense of lurking danger. When that student shares this insight in the second round of discussion, others chime in. They agree line reveals Lisa’s wariness, but it’s still funny. Why? Well, it also reveals the narrator’s perspective on Lisa (it reveals that Sedaris finds Lisa both charming and overly reactive, giving us a window not only into Lisa but to the sister-brother dynamic). We repeat this with other passages students have chosen, and find a repeating pattern: powerful characterization often tells us more than one thing about a character.

In the End

I’m sharing a deceptively simple insight: students negotiating their own autonomy/independence and family ties tend to be invested in understanding characterization—its methods, its risks, and its power—particularly in the context of writing the family. Thinking about characterization as an assemblage of meaningful

Writer Diane Glancy; photo from the Poetry Foundation

revelations prepares beginning students to approach setting and place as an assemblage of meaningful revelations as well. For example, the discussion question, “what does detail XYZ reveal about the character?” is valuable beyond family writing because it demands that students make the same mental moves they need to make in order to parse a text’s construction of place. For example, Diane Glancy’s essay, “Sun Dance” involves “the low, rolling hills of South Dakota under the sky that lidded them.” The same close reading approach we took to Sedaris’ essay will reveal a degree complexity and importance in Glancy’s treatment of place very similar to what students found in Sedaris’ treatment of his sister.

The experience reminds me, as a teacher, of the importance of audience: I can probably never know my students well enough. This places a very particular kind of pressure on my pedagogy—it comes in large part from my academic training, but it also depends on continually ethnographic observation of the student population I’m immersed in. With every window I get into their lifeways (happily accidental or otherwise), it becomes possible to understand their learning more clearly, and—I hope—to teach them a little better.