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

#86 How You State the Obvious: Encouraging Reflectiveness in Students and Their Writing by Guest Blogger Ioanna Opidee

# 86  How You State the Obvious: Encouraging Reflectiveness in Students and Their Writing by guest blogger Ioanna Opidee




In Ioanna Opidee's essay on "How You State the Obvious: Encouraging Reflectiveness in Student and Their Writing" Ioanna talks about the value and importance of teaching the informal, reflective essay, especially to young writers. It's a problem all nonfiction writers will at one time or another face.




I have not watched the show, nor read the book, but I've heard enough about the (to some circles) notorious Marie Kondo to know that she believes in holding an object long enough to determine if it brings you joy, and removing it from your life if it does not. She is particularly infamous for her stance on books: that one does not need more than thirty.


As a high school English teacher, at the end of the school year, I employ a Kondo-like strategy as I shuffle through materials that have accumulated on classroom shelves and tables, in particular with books that either need to be stored or carried home. Some I immediately and thoughtlessly shove into cabinets, while others I hold in my hands for a few moments as I consider the next couple months without them. Will I suddenly want to reach for this text on some sweltering afternoon in July while my kids are running under the sprinkler in the front yard? Is that risk strong, or consequential, enough to make the effort to carry the book home worthwhile? I'll flip to a random page and read a couple lines, hoping it holds the answers.


This past June, one such book I performed this trick with was Stephen King's On Writing, and its answers were yes and yes. The paragraph I flipped to reads:


Informal essays are, by and large, silly and insubstantial things; unless you get a job as a columnist at your local newspaper, writing such fluffery is a skill you'll never use in the actual mall-and-filling-station world. Teachers assign them when they can't think of any    other way to waste your time.


The irony—or serendipity—of my encountering these lines was that I had been contemplating all morning the value of the reflective writing—essentially, "informal essays"—I'd asked my students to undertake in the past year, and I was thinking of new ways to formalize the process and add more opportunities in the one to come.


King's book, I know, is rich with useful insight from one of the most prolific and admired American writers. This paragraph, though, gave me pause; actually, it made me want to drop the book onto the badly-in-need-of-a-deep-cleaning floor, but then it made me smile, because it reminded me of all that I am up against when I ask students to bring their own experiences, ideas, questions, and memories to bear in writing,  expecting that I—but, more importantly, they—will find gems. When I ask my students every year to write about what King calls the "most notorious subject, of course" (emphasis added)—"How I Spent My Summer Vacation"—the last thing I'm thinking is, "What a great way to waste my students' time!" What I am primarily thinking is, "Good thing they have a place to reflect on this. Good thing I'm able to give them the opportunity."


The type of reflective writing I ask students to complete regularly in my classes are inherently essayistic in the spirit of the essay as "attempt." When I ask my students, in the first week of class, what they did and learned in the past summer, I am asking them to try to parse out the significance of their experiences; to take stock so they can retain and utilize what matters most. I want them to look back on and list the things they've done, and then see what that list adds up to, or dive deeper into a specific moment or observation that rises immediately to the surface of their memory, and then ask themselves why it did so. It is our first exercise in what I hope will become a regular practice, which will eventually lead to a skill, and to what my former colleague and mentor Cinthia Gannett likes to call a reflective "habit of mind"—the type that can lead them to deliberately choose to limit their technology use after recognizing the benefits of their month at summer camp; the type that can lead a student to draw a line between a conversation they had with an employee at the vacation resort they visited with their family, their reading of George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant," and their studies of the residual effects of imperialism in the Caribbean.


The essay, ideally, is—as Phillip Lopate writes in his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay—a "mode of inquiry" in which the writer "attempts to surround a something—a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation—by coming at it from all angles . . . taking us closer to the heart of the matter . . . eliminating false hypotheses, narrowing its emotional target and zeroing in on it" (xxxviii). There is, in Lopate's words, a "vertical dimension" to the form; a tendency to "delve further underneath" (xxv). The formal, thesis-driven, analytical essays I—and, I'd guess, many other teachers—often receive exhibit the opposite: an anxiousness to preserve the initial hypothesis by polishing it up, keeping it air-tight, and sequestering any potentially disruptive elements. This, I've come to believe, is because we don't consistently offer enough formal space and time for reflection. Or, what King might call "informal essay" writing.


Valuable informal essay "freewrites" (as I like to call them in classes, for simplicity purposes) move well beyond the initial "what did you do this summer?" prompts and are not always related to personal experience; they might stem, instead, from observation, knowledge, opinion, information, or, most potently, questions—likely, from a combination of all of the above. These "freewrites" can reach into and across the personal, social, cultural, and political all at once because the objective is to remain open to digression, whose chief goal, Lopate explains, is to "amass all the dimensions of understanding that the essayist can accumulate by bringing in as many contexts as a problem or insight can sustain without overburdening it" (xl). The prompt might be a quote, or a fact, or a snippet from a podcast. Sometimes the prompt is directed by a question; other times, it is intentionally left open. With practice, students become more skilled and comfortable with the digressive mode, which allows them to synthesize what they know, think, and feel with what they've learned, are learning, or are still in need of learning. When students are invited to digress, to linger, to pursue a line of questioning, and to (as Lopate puts it) "scoop up subordinate themes" along the way, they learn to open up their subjects through inquiry, analysis, interpretation, application, and all the other strategies that move them toward critical response, and away from superficial assumptions and arguments.


I encourage students to identify the essayistic process of writing these reflections as something other than the tightly-packed, thesis-driven product called an essay that I am inclined and obliged to assign and assess at the end of almost every unit—even though it is not completely other than it; even though, in the end, I want them to see it as fundamental to it. The "trick" might be to not tell them this at the start, but rather to show them. (I believe even King could agree with that "show, don't tell" method.) I try to show them this systematically, rather than by chance, by asking them consistently to stop at the end of a freewrite, reread what they wrote, underline what stood out the most, and then save that freewrite for later. Often, I will collect all the freewrites they've done during a unit and hand them back toward the end. When they review those freewrites, they can reannotate them and recognize the progression of their thinking, rediscovering and building on their earlier ideas in a more formalized manner. They don't need to start from scratch, and ideally, they'll realize that they never actually do.


Reflective writing has a place beyond process, though, and can be skillfully incorporated into formal analytical essays when students learn how to do this well. Most commonly (and perhaps effectively), reflection is found in the introduction and conclusion. As teachers, we sometimes joke (or complain) that student essays open with obvious, lofty reflections, such as, "Every person in the world has his or her own point of view." We might roll their eyes at statements like this and encourage students to leave such claims out. We might encourage them to skip reflection all together and "get to the point." But it is easy for us to forget that we are often teaching the same readings continuously. We are encountering, in our careers, countless students at roughly the same point in their educational development, writing about many of the same topics. So yes, while we may have heard an idea reiterated hundreds of times before, it might be the first time that student has ever articulated the point in writing. The truth that every person has his or her own point of view is indeed a profound concept that we might fail to consciously recognize in our daily lives. If a student wrote a sentence like that as an opening, it might be worth writing in the margin: "Yes. And why is this significant? What are the implications and effects of this fact? What conflicts can this create?" Their answers to these questions might just teach us something new about this "obvious" truth.


A few years ago, I overheard a student in the hallway memorizing facts from flashcards for a test, saying, "The death penalty is related to issues of…" She flipped the card over: "Race and class." I was stopped in my tracks. "Yes, the death penalty is related to issues of race and class!" I wanted to call. "Do you realize what you're saying? Do you realize what you're memorizing? To what extent is the death penalty related to issues of race and class? How so? How has this played out in cases throughout history? What do you think of this fact? Does it surprises you? Upset you?" All of these questions could be addressed essayistically, by engaging with what, to so many of us, seems obvious.


As a graduate student working toward a Master's in English, I took a Great American Novels class because I had been focusing mostly on nonfiction and so-called "alternatives" such as Holocaust and Caribbean literature. I hadn't tackled the "big," canonical works since my undergraduate days, so novels by Joyce, Faulkner, Nabokov, and Fitzgerald became my "gaps"—a term the professor defined as the essential areas of English studies that we lack in our own training. My most vivid memory of the course relates to a paper I wrote about Henry James's The Ambassadors. While reading the book, I was struck by what, apparently, "everyone" who reads James is struck by: the deliberateness with which he crafted his narrative, the way each sentence in the five-hundred-plus page novel pulsates with significance, meaning, and provocation for the reader. I wrote an elaborate paper describing the experience of reading James's prose, and it was returned to me with a comment at the top, written largely, in red marker: "How you state the obvious!"


How I state the obvious. At some level, it gonged against one of my greatest intellectual fears: that my ideas were nothing more than cliché reiterations of what has been said by others, and for the first time so long ago that their restatement becomes utterly trivial. At some other more remote and mysterious level, I took this as a compliment. It wasn't that I'd stated the obvious that seemed remarkable to my professor; it was how.


After all, it was how Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior stated the obvious that made him the catalyst for positive change. In the introduction to the 1997 edition of Best American Essays, Ian Frazier calls King his favorite essayist and describes the experience of watching a video of King speaking. Earlier in the piece, he compares an essay to a golf swing, admitting that the outcome is often like hitting balls at a driving range, where even the best results can get lost in a mass of others. Of King, Frazier writes:



                  What he has to say is so simple: I have a dream that white people

                  and black people can live together in peace. But the purity of his

                  swing—its sweetness and the manifest fact that his whole life

                  and a people's history are in it—causes every syllable he speaks

                  to hit bone . . . The world is a little different after each sentence

                  than it was before . . . I watch the video every so often to remind

                  myself that the swing we work on when we write has the power

                   to do such a thing. (xix)



While "swings" such as Kings are rare indeed, Frazier reminds us that the "simple" truths are not always so simple for us, as a collective society, to understand; they are not always so obvious. And it is "how" we state and call attention to them that will bring them to that all-important light.


The problem with labeling anything as "obvious" is a matter of perception at best and prejudice at worst; what is obvious to you is not necessarily obvious to me, and what's obvious to you is not necessarily more valid or valuable than what is obvious to me, and vice versa. Also, what is obvious today may not be so obvious tomorrow. Assuming something is obvious conjures myths of "common knowledge" and "common sense" that have oppressive implications when value and other judgments are made according to them.


But perhaps that's an essayist's point of view—the point of view of someone who believes, as Vivian Gornick puts it, that "penetrating the familiar is by no means a given" but, rather, "hard, hard work" (Truth in Nonfiction 9); and that, as Sydney Lea reminds us, with respect to Robert Frost, by writing with a sense of spontaneity and discovery, "we discover what we didn't know we knew" (336). That's also my conviction as a teacher—that we learn by writing, sometimes about those things that seem most obvious to us, and by challenging our notions of obvious, in order to empower our individual existences and perspectives.


As a teacher and writer, I try not to fear the obvious, often branded as cliché; instead, I fear silence. Or worse, I fear the reality of voices being drowned out by those that are louder or more well-endowed (with status, power, and other forms of privilege). Because of this, I encourage my students to not just state the obvious, but to get inside of it, interrogate and challenge it, destabilize the very notion of it, by essaying their lives and what they see.  Like Montaigne, they should ask, "What do I know?" challenging the oft-heard lament of some of their disillusioned elders, "What do they know?"


King's On Writing was published almost twenty years ago, and I believe much—if not enormous—progress has been made since then in terms of the academic value attributed to nonfiction writing, both literary and informal. Still, there is more work to be done; more potential to activate; and more of a need to value and foster student's voices and reflective capacities. We can do this by sharpening our own.


Frazier, Ian. "Introduction." Best American Essays 1997. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Print.

Lea, Sydney. "What We Didn't Know We Knew." The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on

Creative Nonfiction. Eds. Michael Steinberg and Robert Root. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon,

1998. Print.

Lopate, Phillip. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present.

Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1997. Print.


Ioanna Opidee is the author of the novel Waking Slow (PFP, 2018), which was named a finalist in the multicultural category of the Foreword Indies Book of the Year Awards and called an "arresting, timely" take on sexual assault by the Boston Globe. She has worked as a freelance journalist, taught writing and literature at various universities, and is currenty a high school English teacher in Connecticut. Her other creative work has been published in The Huffington Post, Talking Writing, Lumina, and Spry literary journal, among other venues.

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