Beyond Beginning: Teaching the Contemporary Essay

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This blog was originally posted on February 15, 2013.

Most of my LitBits blog posts have been focused on exercises or discussions aimed at motivating or inspiring the beginning writer. I’ve written craft exercises designed to help students mine their memories and interrogate their own lives. I’ve talked about helping student writers get over “writer’s block” and figure out just what they might write about. What I haven’t focused on, so much, is the intermediate or advanced nonfiction writer—the student who already has ideas and knows the basics of the genre, and who is ready to move on from “just getting started.”

In future blog posts, I hope to share some revision exercises, which I think are frequently overlooked when we talk about teaching creative writing (although I’d like to point out that some of the contributors to the recently-released text, Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction offer  some really cool exercises designed to help the writer who has already started to refine her writing—and many of these ideas can apply to nonfiction of any length, not just the short-short stuff).  First, though, I have to come up with some of these exercises.

Today, though, I thought I’d tell you about a class I’m teaching for the first time this semester.  I call it “The Contemporary Essay”—although I had wanted to call it “The 21st Century Essay” at first, until I realized that a few of the pieces I wanted to teach were first published in the late 90s.  In my head, I still call it “The 21st Century Essay,” historical publication facts be damned.

I began to think of this class several years ago, as it became apparent to me that, over the past few decades, we’ve slowly begun to build a canon of great essays, memoirs, and works of literary journalism. I’d become quite comfortable teaching the works of Joan Didion, George Orwell, James Baldwin, E.B. White, Annie Dillard, Phillip Lopate, Maya Angelou, Tobias Wolff, et al.  Comfortable to the point of complacency, I feared. Sure, I could occasionally sneak an essay by the likes of Eula Biss or Ander Monson onto the syllabus, to give my students a sense of where nonfiction seems to be headed, but I felt like I couldn’t really focus on where this genre was going until the students got an idea of where it has been.

This year, though, I’m fortunate enough to be teaching at St. Lawrence University, which has about half a dozen faculty members in the English Department with really strong backgrounds in nonfiction forms, and who teach these forms to undergraduate students in workshops that always seem to be filled to maximum capacity. I figured, “If I’m ever going to be working with students strong enough in the history of this genre to teach this class, that time is now.” So, with the enthusiastic blessing of my chair, I began to design the course.

I cheated a little bit—we spent the second week of class (the class meets for three hours every Wednesday evening) discussing some of that canonical stuff I said I wasn’t going to teach—Orwell, White, Didion, and Lopate’s introduction  to The Art of the Personal Essay. I decided, in the end, that I wasn’t comfortable starting with the present until we’d talked a little bit about the past. But beginning with the third class—last night’s class, to be precise—we’re focusing on the current scene entirely.

So, how did it go?

We wound up discussing work by Cheryl Strayed, Bob Cowser Jr., Pam Houston, Jill Talbot, and Eula Biss. The Strayed piece—“The Love of My Life”—seemed to be a particular favorite, as she writes about grief and sex in just brutally honest ways (if you’re offended by brutally honest depictions of unpleasant sex written by talented writers—and I know some people who are—don’t click on that link; otherwise, read it. It’s amazing). We also spent a long time discussing Talbot’s observations about the construction of self in the age of social media: “Everyone now,” Talbot writes, “not just writers, creates a written, published persona on a daily (hourly) basis.  Artifice abounds.”  We even wound up relating these ideas to Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt’s idea of self-fashioning during the early modern period.

How did it go? It was awesome.

I imagine we’ve all had those moments in the classroom where the discussion went so well, where all participants seemed so engaged, that the time flew by and you felt like the discussion should really go on over beers or coffee. It was 10 p.m., and I had to be up to teach at 8:30 the other day, and I don’t drink coffee, and I don’t drink with students, but… well, it was that kind of night.  It was the kind of class that makes one glad to do this for a living.

Will we be able to keep up this type of intense engagement?  It’s hard to say, of course—I can’t predict the future. All I can tell you is what’s on the syllabus—Steven ChurchJenny BoullyIra SukrungruangRyan Van MeterKristen IversenAkhim Yuseff Cabey.  E.J. LevyJohn D’Agata and Jim Fingal. And lots of other thought-provoking practitioners of this form.

I can’t say for sure that this class is going to be a roaring success based on how well things went last night, of course, but my feeling is that our students want to know more about the contemporary nonfiction scene. I walked into class worried that I might have trouble filling three hours; I walked out regretting that we didn’t have five hours to devote to discussing these authors and their work. So, as I usually am in pretty much all things, I find myself cautiously optimistic.

I’ll keep you updated with how things go with this class, and what I learn along the way.  In the meantime, I’ll try to think of some revision exercises. If you have some, please leave a comment.  For that matter, if you can think of an essay or writer I ought to include on the reading list for a contemporary/ 21st century essay class, let me know in a comment.

About the Author
William Bradley’s nonfiction and commentaries on nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and journals, including The Missouri Review, The Normal School, Brevity, College English, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is the Assistant Editor of the magazine River Teeth, and he teaches at St. Lawrence University.