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

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Writing Craft: Beginnings and Endings

This week, I've seen rough drafts from my 150 class and the first round of stories from my 252 class. Oh, the potential held in these drafts. I love my job. Of course, they're drafts , so there's work to be done, but there's something so elementally thrilling about seeing students trying to work through the skills and concepts and ideas we've been talking about for the past five weeks. I love my job. In my 150 drafts, I love that when I give my students a prompt like "an aspect of a place you're connected to" that out of a class of 21 students, nobody writes the same essay. It does my little teacher heart good to see all that creativity, all that unique attention, all of the ideas that they come up with. Mostly, the biggest problem with these drafts is that my students are--as they admit out loud--still unsure of themselves, still not willing to trust what they know, but I know that this is a semester-long process to teach them to trust that their ideas are valuable. But this is a good start.

Today in class, we're talking about Beginnings and Endings. I love this particular activity, which I shamelessly stole (well, after asking permission) from the indomitable W. Scott Olsen at Concordia College. I've photocopied the first page of various nonfiction books and essays and the last page of various books and essays (not the same first and last pages) and we'll talk about the rhetoric of beginnings and endings. I have beginnings from Tim Cahill, Bill Bryson (the best opening line ever: "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to."), Jon Krakauer, and more. We've already talked about starting an essay from a place of energy--and what constitutes energy--and so today we're going to talk about rhetoric.

What does it mean that Brian Doyle starts "Joyas Voladoras" with "Consider the hummingbird for a long moment"--what do readers do with an imperative? What about starting with some startling observation, stunning in its tone and voice, like Tim Cahill's "This Teeming Ark," which starts with "It was like trying to drink a beer on the subway at rush hour"?

And when we switch to talk about endings, we don't talk about conclusions, like we would when writing a more formal argumentative piece. We'll talk about not putting all the exposition and ideas at the end of a piece, since an essay (to quote Scott again) is "the witnessed development of an idea." We'll talk about what might be right for an essay, to come to some sort of answer (like Lopate in "One Man's Abortion") or leave things ambiguous, like Linda Hasselstrom in "Buffalo Winter."

Since we've been talking about Noah Lukeman's book A Dash of Style, which looks at punctuation from the perspective of a writer and the effect that punctuation can have on the pacing and emotional effect of a piece (rather than rules about how and when to use commas and such), we'll talk about the way these writers put their sentences together in their first and last pages. What's the effect? What are they trying to do? And how are they using their sentences and punctuation to do that?

Yes, indeed. Days like this, I just love my job.

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