July 09, 2014

On Tampa! (& Taming the Essay)

This snapshot is misleading--I never got into the pool while in Tampa. Just felt weird, hopping into the water between a morning workshop and an afternoon craft lecture. Which is a shame, because I packed a pretty awesome blue & white bikini.

On the upside, we did enjoy rich plantains at Columbia, and bought a few cigars in Ybor City, and made our way to the speakeasy off Bayshore Boulevard. My favorite restaurants in the neighborhood of the Sheraton Riverwalk, where the low-res MFA program puts us up, are Spain Restaurant & Toma Bar--which imports its octopus and has $4 sangria and live guitar on Friday evenings--and Bamboozle Cafe, which has a great deal on design-your-own rice-paper garden rolls, with ingredients like five-spice pork & pineapple & jicama. Few from the program venture to these spots, which makes them a welcome getaway. Next time: Taco Bus.

In our workshop we talked about prose poems, erasures, haiku and other syllabic forms from Japanese tradition, and the organization of Milk and Filth. We talked about Denise Levertov's theories concerning line breaks, pairing it with a close look at two Mary Ruefle poems: "Rain Effect" and "Mathew Brady Arranging the Bodies." I attended as many of the readings and craft talks as I could. Since I spend most of my year outside academia, I'm still in the position of learning; it's also interesting to see who connects, and who doesn't. A great writer is not the same as a great lecturer (though in the case of Ben Percy, That Voice is so remarkable that it elevates it all to a different place). I felt like students were particularly invigorated by Carmen Giménez Smith's discussion of investigative poetics, and Leslie Jamison's look at Joan Didion and the juxtaposition of internal and external stories in creative nonfiction. The closing night reading with Rick Moody (shown here, reading a short piece from Demonology before debuting new work) and Susan Minot (who read from Thirty Girls) was thrilling, in part because the work was so strong and in part because of a much-overdue change in venue. We should hold more readings in Sykes Chapel. 


Most people come to an MFA program because of a passion for their own creative writing. You have stories to tell. You are not necessarily looking to be a scholar of the works of others. Yet in addition to the annotations in response to assigned readings that are required every term, we ask each student to write a substantial critical essay in their third term. This shouldn't be too big a stretch. The best critical writing showcases creativity of language, and the skills required to conceive and structure a scholarly essay will benefit any writer in his or her own work down the road. 

That said: a 25-page paper is intimidating, especially if you are not coming from another recent degree experience. When you're juggling the needs of an outside career and household, working in 45-minute spurts or 4-hour marathons at 2 in the morning, 25 pages can feel insurmountable. So I've been putting together some notes, just general thoughts on how to make a long critical essay run smoothly. (I almost wrote "come to life," but that's the wrong metaphor--too organic. I'm talking nuts and bolts here.) 

First, a personal note: The most demanding professor I ever had, for a graduate course on forms in poetry, never asked for a paper of more than five pages. But those pages had to be brimming with essential, spot-on analysis tied to close reading. It was terrifying. "Why is this important?" was a recurring test put to every thesis. The introduction couldn't be more than two paragraphs. In comparison, the 55-page paper I wrote as an overzealous undergrad was easy: a clever insight about the "emasculated protagonist," a few sparkling examples, and a bloat of background information and broad assertions. (I also spelled it "Hemmingway" throughout, which my gracious and long-suffering professor marked without rancor.)

I have no doubt that someone who is a talented poet or short story writer can bring all kinds of style and nuance to the page. What I want to push you on is being able to articulate your paper's goals in simple terms. What's the elevator pitch for your reader? A smart, well crafted thesis is key. The better delineated your paper's foundation, the more material it can bear. Readers will enjoy the pleasures of your elegant phrasing, your figurative language--even your humor--only if we're secure in understanding your aims. Never try to hide a paper's confusion under verbiage.

If my suggestions for constructing a critical essay feel formulaic, that's because they are. We tend to offer up examples of critics at the height of their prowess--talking about beloved stories or poems they've read and re-read, making assertions based on years of practice in the field, occasionally meandering into personal recollection. Those models can be inspiring, but also overwhelming. The goal of my notes, in tandem with those available elsewhere, is to keep you grounded while you get started. 

[Note: these are notes toward a proper essay, in progress.]


We often talk about the thesis in terms of expressing your main point in 1-2 sentences. But this is a fairly vague definition, and offers little prescriptive advice to those struggling to define their "main point." Often, where we truly begin is with an undifferentiated swirl of literary interests. 

A table that rests on three legs is a steady table. A strong thesis has three elements: the WHO (which author or authors, which books), the WHAT (the craft principles demonstrated by this/these author/s or in this/these book/s), and the WHY (the real world consequence, whether aesthetic or cultural). One way of fine-tuning your thesis is to recognize that two of these three elements should be relatively stipulative--focused elements that you can define in a succinct way. The third should be the expansive element that constitutes the body of your paper's argument. The expansive element can typically teased out into the discussion of three sub-elements or examples.   

Don't expand each of the three main elements of your thesis. You'll deluge readers with information, and the level of literary critique will devolve into summary. Authors can start with approximately the same three elements of interest, but--based on what they choose to expand--end up with very different critical essays. 

A few examples:

If you want to write about William Carlos Williams, and specifically his use of the triadic stanza, describe THREE major ways this stylistic innovation affected his contemporary readers and fellow poets; or, write about three localities of impact across time and place (a specific who and what, an expansive why). Alternately, write about THREE different WCW works that use the triadic stanza at length (an expansive who), but with a somewhat simplified treatment of the overall impact. Or, describe how Paterson is WCW's "breakthrough" work not just in terms of the triadic stanza, but in terms of two other craft techniques as well (an expansive what). 

If you want to write about F. Scott Fitzgerald AND William Faulkner AND Ernest Hemingway, consider writing about how they used the same prose technique, and the common way in which this technique reflected American social instability in their post-WWI era (an expansive who, a specific what and why); or, write about how Fitzgerald's character development in This Side of Paradise reflected three distinct social trends in its characterizations (an expansive why). Or write about William Faulkner's fiction, distilling three distinct craft techniques he uses consistently in his books to evoke racial unrest in the American south (an expansive what). 

Do you see how we're turning the prism here, using one set of interests to generate multiple effects? Your thesis is where you throw open the doors to the light of new ideas. It can and should be a place where you generate excitement about your topic. But the subtle (often missed) balance is that the expansive element is only one part of a thesis; the other two parts should be as specific as spotlights. 


The introduction is where you provide identifications, define necessary terms for your readers, and offer historic or cultural context. The intro is also where first drafts tend to run long--five, even ten pages devoted to what needs to be acommplished in 2-3 pages. Resist cramming everything into the introduction that made you want to write this paper in the first place. Do not announce your intent ("this paper will demonstrate that...."), which is a kind of meta-language is only approriate when wording an abstract for an academic paper, or a patent application. 


Given a 25-page assigned length, I'd think in terms of drafting three sections, about 6-7 pages each, each of which comprehensively covers one part of the elaborative element of your thesis. I'm a big fan of using specific quotations from text, with commentary that directs reader attention to thematic elements and/or analyzes how the author is executing his or her craft. Close readings should make up the majority of the text, with periodic summary observations and ties back to the thesis. 


I've seen folks title sections, or offer periodic epigraphs as points of reference; or just insert breaks when the attention shifts, without comment; or some find witty segues, eschewing hard breaks in the text. Usually there's 3-5 sections (plus intro and conclusion, though they should not be labeled as such), which roughly corresponds to the shape of your thesis. But I've seen cases of effective "mini-sections," which offer a paragraph or two of tangential commentary in an otherwise tightly organized paper; these sections can be opportunities for the voice and passions of the author to come through. I'm open to whatever works for you, as long as the reader doesn't feel lost or exhausted. Please pace the reading experience for us. 


You gotta have them. MLA Citation Style works well and seems efficient; here's a simple guide~  https://www.library.cornell.edu/research/citation/mla

Because your tone is conversational, keep endnotes or footnotes to a minimum. 


Your 25-page paper is a lot like a chicken.

Stay with me here.

You've got a dinner party coming up, and you're all about this chicken. You went to the grocer, got the perfect size. You have a recipe.

But it's not easy, roasting a whole bird. On the morning of the meal, you realize you have to prep. Where's your onions? Where's your rosemary? You reach up under the skin to spice for flavor, creating a tent between skin and flesh. Gross. Feels vaguely disrespectful to the spirit of the fowl. You stuff the cavity with lemons, then groan.

You'd forgotten. First, you gotta discard the innards which--while crucial to the chicken's original function--are not relevant to this meal. You pull everything out, reach up inside, find the gizzards. You stuff it again. 

Do you know how to truss this thing? You tie several bows, hoping for the best. 

The oven seems unable to hold its temperature. Maybe you should have baked lamp chops, but it's too late to change the menu now. You're committed.

In the meanwhile, this chicken is not the only thing going on. Potatoes are boiling over on the stove, waiting to be mashed (annotations!); asparagus is charring in the grill pan (workshop drafts!). Periodically you have to pause, pull the chicken out to survey its progress, and baste the damn thing with its own juices. You accidentally burn your wrist on the lip of the oven. You need three hands, and you only have two. 

Right around the hour mark, it might be hard to remember you even like chicken. 

Sitting at the table are your dinner guests, waiting. One might favor dark meat. One might crave nothing but the white meat. Another might judge the whole bird by the crackle of its skin. These readers (er, guests) are a picky and by no means uniform lot. 

OK, OK. The chicken is going to be good. Trust me. You wouldn't be worrying about it so much if you weren't a cook in the making.

And the guests, well, you are not in charge of their taste preferences.

Here is what you are in charge of: giving the chicken enough cooking time. As you carve, consider take care with the portions. You want to fill everyone's belly, and yet you always want to leave the promise that there's just a bit more meat on the bones, waiting. Enough for tomorrow's sandwiches. Enough for next week's soup stock. 

I've always disliked chicken Milanese, in which the breasts are prepared paillard style, pounded flat and quickly sauteed. Sure, it's tender enough, easy to cut, because you've beaten the beast-iness right out of it. But the illusion of breadth on the plate quickly resolves to a lingering hunger; when you're done, there's no reserve. No tender hiding beneath the bone.

When someone takes a topic that would make for a decent 15-page paper and stretches it to fill 25 pages, you're serving your readers a paillard. And we can tell, because your conclusion will be a tasteless scrap. There's an art to presenting 30 pages' worth of ideas in a 25-page paper--a much finer, more impressive art than presenting 35 pages of information in, say, exactly 35 pages of paper.

A great conclusion whets the appetite. The reader notes his or her satisfaction, but is aware of something more. A concluding gesture could come in the form of noting a congruence between a literary work and the author's biographical life that, while it is not appropriate to presume a connection as a supporting proof, provides a pleasing echo in the reader's understanding of the two. Or perhaps, given the accomplishments of your thesis, there is now an important question that needs to be asked for a future paper. Or the conclusion could bridge between a book or author's past impact to the present day, with a suggestion of future ramifications. 

Whatever it is, leave us wanting more. And be sure to wash all your cutting boards thoroughly when you're done. 


Tampa clicked this time. Maybe it was having my new husband (!) for company; maybe the schedule was a tad less grueling; maybe it was finally understanding how to get my copies made ahead of class; maybe it's the indulgence of having only four students, and all of them poets. Whatever it is, I'm truly excited for the term ahead. 


the coffee philosopher said...

You're making me miss Tampa Bay!

Dr. kold_kadavr_flatliner, MD, the Roamin' Cat said...
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