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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

#69 I Teach, Therefore I Essay by Caitlin McGill

Michael Steinberg I will be the contest judge for the Sport Literate creative nonfiction essay contest. $500 goes to the winner. Deadline is June 6, 2018.
For more information, here's the link www.sportliterate.org then click on Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest.


This month’s guest is Caitlin McGilll, a very fine writer who teaches at Emerson in Boston.

In the beginning of her piece, Caitlins writes, “For me, being an essayist is central to being a teacher." She goes on to say, ”perhaps we should view the class period itself as an essay."

In the body of the essay then, Caitlin talks about how the qualities of the personal essay--particularly exploration, discovery, unexpected surprises, and taking risks--inform her approach to teaching.

Cailin’s piece should interest all of us who teach and write personal essays.

# 69 I Teach, Therefore I Essay by Caitlin McGill

(This piece is adapted from my 2017 essay, originally published in Inside Higher Ed)

“Believe it or not,” I said to my very first undergraduate students, “I write essays, too—you know, because I want to, because…well…it’s fun.” I interlaced my sweaty fingers and gazed out at a swarm of furrowed brows.

After a year or two of teaching first-year writing and arguing that students can write essays “for fun,” too, I realized I don’t only enjoy the essay form; I depend on it—in and out of the classroom. For me, being an essayist is central to, if not inseparable from, being a teacher.

When I first attempted to organize my thoughts on this topic a few years ago, I hadn’t fully embraced that notion. I had no idea where to begin. For several days, I thought about starting, but I kept finding papers to grade or assignments to design or personal essays to revise. I put it off. After plenty of procrastination that I now recognize afforded me necessary time to think, I realized I needed to begin as I do all of my work: I needed to employ the very arguments I’m attempting to make now; I needed to essay—to try, to test out, to examine.

Once I realized this, most of my self-inflicted pressure disappeared. Of course, I thought. I should’ve known. After all, the act of essaying leads nearly all of my work.

Just as writing those thoughts into an essay relieved pressure, viewing teaching as an act of essaying also relieved much of the pressure of stepping on stage before students. I realized I could approach teaching like I could an essay: sure, I always have some knowledge when walking into a course, but I don’t need to know exactly where the class will lead us or where it will end; with a few goals in mind, I can wander and question and fumble in the dark with my students, just as I do with the written word.


If essaying demands authentic personae on the page, then it demands we listen to and act on our genuine instincts in the classroom. One’s teaching philosophy, then, is a representation of one’s self.


Now, instead of teaching first-year courses I mostly teach creative writing workshops and literature seminars; I rarely need to convince students of the essay’s merit. But my desire to mimic the essay’s endeavors in the classroom remains unchanged.

Essays offer the freedom to ponder an issue that can’t be proven one way or another, and—whether I’m working with twenty-five first-year pharmacy students or three middle-aged writers wrestling homelessness—that’s what I want to happen in the classroom: I want to elicit free and open discussion; I want to create a space to test ideas, to care and be conscientious of others but to also allow thoughts and ideas to flow freely without fear of condemnation, knowing that we might not necessarily prove a theory but that we can start to unravel our ideas together.

My most exciting teaching moments are often unplanned, unexpected gifts my students and I discover together after meandering down uncertain paths. Moments of unrehearsed discovery that keep us coming back for more.


These early realizations helped me shed many of my new-teacher anxieties and fears. I became more certain of my ability to shape and expand writers who, when I first started teaching, were often less than a decade younger than me. I began to enter the classroom with several ideas of where I wanted the session to go, hoping my students had done the necessary work to inform themselves on the subjects up for discussion, but once conversation began, I allowed us to wind up somewhere new, somewhere I couldn’t have planned for.

Perhaps, I began to think, perhaps we should view the class period itself as an essay.


"The story of an essay or a memoir is really the story of thinking, of your own consciousness," art critic and essayist Daniel Raeburn writes in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Which requires you, as narrator, to be self-conscious, but not too self-conscious. Not completely self-absorbed. You’re walking a tricky balance beam … You have to be confident in your telling of what happened, but not too confident about what it means. You have to have confidence in your own doubts, if that makes sense. They’re what propel personal narratives."


How better to describe the essaying instructor’s responsibility in the classroom? The flexible self-awareness and humble conviction that invites students’ unique voices and interpretations?

Self-conscious, but not too self-conscious. Confident in your telling, but not too confident about what it means. You have to have confidence in your own doubts…


Now, I don’t only allow but also hope that classes essay into darkness, knowing that as we fumble we can manage to stay on a path, however obscure.

I admit this might not always work. Some classes yield more fruitful conversation and discovery than others. And that’s okay. (I have to keep telling myself it is.) My own essays frequently find themselves knotted up and incomprehensible and just plain old unremarkable; but usually that means I’ll stumble onto a new writing path soon, maybe two or three drafts down the road. And so, too, a class can get back on track or happen upon a new one. We teachers and essayists are not perfect.

Doesn’t our form demand such imperfection?


Each time I taught first-year writing, I began with a cliché: I discussed the etymology of the word “essay.” I knew this was far from novel if not taboo, and that many other instructors were making this move, too, but it felt absolutely necessary then. Can it be clichéd to students if they’ve never heard it before?

I told my students one writes an essay to try to figure something out. And then I told them the part that’s often hardest to sell: we don’t always find an answer after the essay is written; sometimes we find new questions, or something we hadn’t been looking for. And when I told them this is the beauty of the essay, of essaying, I was reminding myself, too.

Now that I rarely have to lay such persuasive groundwork, my most difficult task isn’t beckoning young writers to the genre but instead constantly facing the reality of the genre’s answerless pursuit. How to disseminate advanced techniques without guaranteeing their efficacy? How to tell writers that their devoted time and energy usually doesn’t lead to publication and success? That, more often than not, it leads to rejection and disappointment?

Perhaps most importantly: how to acknowledge this reality while continuing to encourage and inspire?

I can’t guarantee a writer much. But I can and do argue that as long as we possess the extraordinary privilege to write freely, and safely, we can and must continue to essay.

And so I am met again with the essay’s intoxicating irony: the thrilling act of trying on ideas and pursuing unanswerable questions is the very act that often fails and frustrates and disappoints. But now I find myself thinking: doesn’t such failure and disappointment reflect the realities of which we write—and the genre in which we write? Doesn’t that mean, then, that when essaying fails or reveals failure, the pursuit is also necessarily a success?


Despite how I might wish every one of my workshop students would fight their fears of failure and brave the lifelong pursuit of writing and publishing, I don’t expect they all will. But I do expect that my allegiance to essaying will ignite a curiosity they sustain beyond our course. That, whether they declare themselves essayists or not, they’ll wander through the world more vulnerable and curious, less anxious about the unknown, and more excited for what they might uncover.

“Get lost and take risks,” I tell them, myself, and my fellow teachers. “Embrace missteps instead of fearing them. Embrace failure as if it’s the goal.”

Caitlin McGill is a St. Botolph Emerging Artist Award winner and Bread Loaf Writers' conference scholarship recipient. She was also the 2014 winner of the Rafael Torch Nonfiction Literary Award. Her essays and flash fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Blackbird, Consequence, Crab Orchard Review, Iron Horse, Vox, War, Literature, & the Arts, and several other magazines. She teaches at Emerson College and is a creative writing workshop facilitator for Writers Without Margins, a non-profit organization intended to expand access to literary arts for everyone, including those marginalized, stigmatized, or isolated by the challenges of addiction recovery, disability, trauma, sickness, injury, poverty, and mental illness. Currently, she is working on a memoir about her family's hidden past, intergenerational trauma, inherited survival mechanisms, immigration, race, class, addiction, and the cost of ignoring our histories. One essay from her book was named a Notable in The Best American Essays 2016. For more information, follow Caitlin on Twitter @caitlindmcgill or visit her website
Caitlin McGill

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