Writing the Essays in ENLT 255

I owe you an explanation of what I mean by "essay," of what I'll be looking for when I pick up and begin reading (and grading) the two longer essays you'll write for this class. I could try to do this proscriptively, give you a list of things a good essay will do. There are, in fact, some things I'll expect every essay to do: have a specific interpretive point it's making and stick to it, develop its argument in a well-organized way, elaborate and explain its interpretative point by repeated acts of close reading -- i.e. quoting the text you're writing about in every paragraph, explaining and supporting your ideas by analyzing specific details in that text, avoiding big generalizations and instead getting deeply into a specific issue, etc. etc. If I just drew up a list, I could keep this short, but I'm not sure how helpful it would ultimately be.
And in any case there is no one model or formula for a good literary critical essay. You each have your own voice and style, and should look for ways to use the papers you write to express yourself as well as analyze literature. But since I have what Austen would call my own "prejudices" -- my own convictions about what a good essay will do -- I owe you that explanation. So here's what I will do in this essay: I'll try to tell you how I'd go about writing an essay for the course, and from that you should get a good idea of how I'll go about reading yours.
To me, the best place to begin an essay is with your own reading experience. Find something that really interested, perplexed, aggravated, excited and disturbed you in one of the works we read -- it could be part of the plot, the role of a character, a pattern of images or thematic concerns, the style, or whatever. If you start with an issue or question that genuinely interests you, then you've got two reasons to write the paper: to get a good grade, sure, but also to explore the issue and try to answer the question in a way that satisfies your own intellectual curiosity. I'm really interested in the idea that "Mark Twain" is a kind of stage name, and the way Huck Finn enacts or stages what "Mark Twain" did for a living, i.e. performing for an audience . . .

Once you decide what you're interested in, the next step is to go back to the text and look closely at how it treats or represents that issue. If I wanted to write on audiences in Mark Twain's novel, for example, I could go back to the scenes where the King and the Duke put on various shows -- or I could look back over all the "shows" that occur in the Bricksville chapters (including the death of Boggs, the lynch mob at Sherburn's and the circus as well as Shakespeare and the Royal Nonesuch) -- or I could just start flipping through the novel to remind myself of what it was about this topic that interested me, and exactly how the text presents characters performing for audiences. As I search through the text, I'm looking for two things: an interpretation I want to develop and the best evidence I can find to support it.
By looking closely at what's there in the text you're writing about, by re-reading parts of it as carefully and thoughtfully as Elizabeth studies Darcy's letter, you're trying to figure out what you think it means. And when you write the essay, you'll want to develop your ideas by quoting and discussing the most telling passages you've found. I'll say it again: a good essay in this class is going to quote and analyze words, phrases, passages from a text in every paragraph. (That's one reason why you'll do a "close reading" exercise before both the longer essays, to keep practicing the act of looking and interpreting; as I said in class the other day, to me this act -- looking closely at what is there, and then deciding what it might mean -- is the heart of a good English major, and probably even a good life! It's how Dupin solves mysteries, how Elizabeth ends up married to Darcy, and the only way Huck could free his mind from the prejudices Twain is writing about.)

As I'm looking through the text, I'm also deciding on my exact focus -- "performing in Huck Finn" is a huge topic; for a 5-7 page paper it has to be limited, and the exact focus should be determined by the aspect of that topic that interests me most; for example, what the King and the Duke's various acts enable the novel to reveal about performance. I'm also be thinking about how to turn the topic into an argument. The topic is what I'm writing about. The argument commits my essay to a specific point -- it's what I am trying to prove, it's the particular meaning I want to get across to my reader. "Performance in Huck Finn" is a topic. What is the most important point to make about that? That the actions of the King and Duke reveal that performance is essentially a con, a deception, based on flattering an audience's expectations -- that is an argument. No one could disagree that performance is an important subject in the novel, but there wouldn't be much point writing a whole essay just to say that. On the other hand, people could disagree with the idea that those con men exemplify performance in the novel. I sometimes feel students are afraid to have a point, because they worry it might be "wrong" (and so end up with a bad grade). But there are no "wrong" interpretations, as long as they are closely supported by the text, and I hope you'll agree it would be a sad thing to write a paper caring more about what "he might think is wrong" than about "what do I really believe and want to say?" You know you've got a good argument for the essay when you're saying something that people could disagree with. Your job is then to show exactly why the text makes your reading a good, illuminating, valuable one. It's what you can add to the world, or at least to the class!

I think it's more fun to write an essay when you've committed yourself to an argument -- you're not just filling pages, but you're building a case, proving how right your idea is. And I think it's easier to know how to shape and organize such an essay too -- because you can plan it around the rhetorical project of making your point persuasive, leading your reader to your own idea or conclusion, planning each paragraph as a step in that one larger direction, &c. And thinking of your essay as an argument helps you know where the boundaries of your discussion are too -- if something isn't directly relevant to the larger conclusion you want your reader to reach, then it doesn't belong in this paper. For example, should I look at Tom Sawyer's performances too? or Huck's "performance" as Tom Sawyer? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on how well such discussions will help me elaborate and prove the point I'm trying to make about performing as a con game. Or I might even want to include when Huck and Jim are naked and honest with each other on the raft -- that might be a digression, or it might be the best way to develop my point. Or having looked at the way "conning" people is such a huge theme with the King and Duke, and even with Tom (not telling Jim he's free, for example), I might decide to refocus my essay on the question "Is Huck and Jim's relationship on the raft really untainted by acts of deception and con games? What about Jim not telling Huck his Pap is dead? Is Jim too a kind of con man?" That might be the most provocative paper I could write, though it also might lead to a conclusion that makes me unhappy, because I love the thought that Jim and Huck's relationship is the antidote to the hypocrisy and corruption we see almost every else. Of course, Elizabeth loved the thought that Wickham, who preferred her, was also a victim of Darcy's evil pride -- sometimes the thoughts we love are exactly what keeps us from seeing what's really there...
The way I can tell what belongs in the paper and what I should leave out (and a good paper always knows what to leave out as well as what to put in) is to know exactly what my main point is, is to keep reminding myself that the paper is an attempt to develop an argument to a conclusion. Having that one conclusion, the most important thing I'm trying to say, clearly in my mind is crucial.

When I write an essay I don't usually know "what I think" until I see "what I write" -- by which I mean that it's usually only as I write a first draft that my interpretation comes into focus. I wish it weren't so, but I usually start out to write an essay on X (say, the King and the Duke as performers), but then as I write the thing I discover that I've got the most to say about Y (say, the way that Huck is himself constantly involved in performances -- impersonating a girl, pretending to the G-O-R-G-E J-A-X-O-N, playing "Tom Sawyer," etc.). As an academic, I usually write 25-page essays (not "about 6 pages), but to end up with a 25 page essay I typically have to write twice that many pages in the various drafts. I'll get 6 or 10 pages into an essay and realize that I'm really more interested in Y than in X. That means I usually have to throw away the first draft and begin again, because I want to write about what I'm most interested in, and I know the whole essay has to be focused on developing that issue to a conclusion, and it's not until I have a clear idea of that conclusion that I really know where to begin, what to say next, &c. Intellectually, this can actually be exciting -- I think I know what my ideas are, and then I start writing, and it's a bit like a voyage of discovery as my writing leads me to ideas I didn't know I had. Practically, this means I always have to begin writing early -- to leave time for rewriting as a new focus emerges. Emotionally, it means I have to be willing to throw away some pages, and drastically rewrite other pages, once my central point has changed. (And I HATE throwing away pages I've written; it's like cutting off parts of my self. On the other hand, I owe it to my reader to have one point and keep developing it, not to jump around to whatever my mind is interested in. And I owe it to my own main point not to change the subject. It's my main point, I care about making it clear and persuasive, I want my reader to see how much it illuminates and explains: I shouldn't stop explaining, elaborating, exploring, developing it, until I have gotten to the bottom of it.)

You may be better than I am at defining what you're interested in before you begin writing. Or good at writing and revising outlines as you plan your organization. But in any case you should make sure that before you begin your final draft, you know exactly what its argument is. You should be able to tell a friend, in twenty-five words or less, not just the general topic of your essay (say, performance in Twain's novel), but the exact point you're going to argue throughout (say, from looking at the way Huck has to be "someone else" every time he goes ashore, I want to argue that Twain's novel suggests a social self, being somebody in society, is essentially a con like one of the King and Duke's scams; that in society Huck can't be himself, but has to impersonate selves other people are looking for or value). Once I get to this point, once I know what the conclusion I'll be trying to make in my last paragraph is, then I know how to begin, how to decide what to include and leave out, etc.

Once I get to that point, I also know what to call my essay. I may not come up with a great title, but I can come up with something that will let my reader know from the start what my focus is -- maybe something like "Staging a Self in Huck Finn." And you know, once I've figured out what interested me most, and figured out what I wanted to say about that -- once I've defined my question and thought it through to my answer -- then I don't have to sweat so much about what kind of grade I'm going to get (or, since I'm too old for grades, what reviewers might say). I'm not kidding about this. Because I've satisfied my own intellectual curiosity, I'm not wholly dependent on the paper itself as a performance for an audience.

There are abstract terms for the kind of good writing I'm trying to describe here -- focus, coherence, incisiveness, etc. But to sum them up as succinctly as I can: I want your essays to have a point and stick to it, to make good and consistent use of examples from the text to support and develop that argument, to develop an idea that interests you to a conclusion that satisfies you and that is persuasive to your reader. Your reader doesn't have to agree, but should be able to see from your essay and the quotations and examples you've used why you reached that interpretation.
As long as this is, let me go on briefly to describe the kinds of papers I'm not looking for:
  • A comparison paper. If you're really interested in looking at how two of the texts treat a particular issue, you can organize the paper that way -- just make sure your focus is particularly tight. "About 6 pages" isn't much space to talk about any one work, much less two. The problem with most comparisons is that they don't give you time to get to the bottom of an issue. If you really want to compare two texts, okay -- but unless you've got a comparison that really interests you, my advice would be to stick with one of the texts we've read.

  • A research paper. Some topics might require you to do primary research in Alderman (by primary research, I mean other works by an author, journals or letters, say, or contemporary reviews, etc.), but I don't want you to look up or rely on published critics' ideas about the text you're interested in. I know some of your English classes expect you to quote and footnote critical books and articles, but I don't want that in this class. I can find out what other critics have said; only you can tell me what you think. I'll expect to see quotations from your primary text in every paragraph, but I'll be disappointed if I see any quotations from published criticism. A paper should begin in your reading experience, in your heart and mind, not in the library stacks.

  • A paper about "literature," or "meaning," or any other huge, vague topic. Keep your focus on what you can really discuss and support in 5-7 pages. By "limiting" yourself to that, you're actually opening up the chance to really see and say a lot more than big generalizations can express. "How the books we read are about making meaning" -- way too big! "How Jim's 'signs' compare with Miss Watson's and the Widow's Bible as sources of 'meaning'" -- that's a managable, even a good topic.

  • And one last thought:
  • One other starting point for your essay might be something I said in class that seemed to you like a misreading of a particular work. You should never be afraid to interrogate "authorities," you should always assert the right that derives from your own experience as a reader and your own capacities as a thinker to find and prove your own meanings -- in the texts we read and elsewhere. Some of my favorite papers have been the ones that showed me what I missed.

  • SOURCE OF PICTURES: Sunflowers, by Cynthia Overbeck, photos by Susumu Kanozana (Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1981).

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