"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

English 150: You Are Here

Yesterday, I taught W. Scott Olsen's "The Love of Maps" and two Paul Gruchow essays, "Rosewood Township" and "Naming What We Love" out of his 1995 Grass Roots. The purpose of the class was to explore what it means "You Are Here" and how many possible ways there are to be somewhere. We talked about how many ways Olsen answers the question he poses in the first sentence: "Why are you here?"--and we talked about philosophical, historical, physical, theological, historical, and other answers to that question. We talked about how the two authors fit together, how they both wrestled with the question of what it means to be somewhere, what is necessary to know a place, what is necessary to call a place home. We discussed that Olsen is writing what amounts to a place essay through the vehicle (pun intended) of a road essay. We wondered if it is true, as Gruchow argues, that you cannot know a place unless you know the names of the things that surrounds you.

Here's the writing exercise we did, designed to reinforce the elements of essay I want them to learn (narrative, exposition, high exposition) as well as start to think about their first writing project.

1. Describe a place you connect to--any place, could be home, could be a place you've been once--with every sense except sight.

2.What significance does this place have for you? Why is it important? What do you like or dislike about it? (If you connect to the place because it holds memories, dig deeper: why do you want to hold onto those memories, what do those memories represent for you?)

3. How long did it take for you to form this attachment?

4. How does what you know about this place play into your connection?

5. Now: how would you tell someone else about how amazing and special this place is? How would you make someone else care? (This is the "so what?" factor.) Why should anybody else care about your place? Why do you want them to feel the same way about it as you do?

I want my students to learn about writing details and descriptions, as well as beginning to articulate why a particular place has any sort of meaning--but that's only half the battle. The other half, as they will soon learn, is in making anybody else care about what they're doing. Without this exposition and high exposition, what they're doing is a basic journal entry and everybody has journals and nobody cares about yours. But making something that is personal relevant to readers takes practice. And there's no better time than the present to start.

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