Sunday 7 February 2021

The Joy of Essay Writing

Happy Sunday, most faithful readers! As usual, I have been writing all the time, which leads me reluctant to blog. Sometimes I get a good blog idea and then remember if I write it for work, it counts as work. Work, work, work. 

However, I did a little more writing than usual last week, getting up early every day to work for up to 3 hours on an essay for a Catholic literary magazine. An up-and-coming young translator recommended me for an upcoming "Poland" issue, and so I found myself rereading a fat Polish novel (in translation, but frequently checking the original) over one week, and then writing my essay in the second. 

I hadn't written an essay about a novel in this century, and I thought briefly of myself turning them out like  clockwork for my Bachelor of Arts.  My secret was the "hamburger" form of the essay*, which I learned at 15 or 16, and used ever after as a model of structure. At its most basic, it looked like this.

This sentence grabs your attention[!] This next sentence states my thesis, X. I shall prove X with Arguments A, B, and C. This next sentence forms a gentle bridge to Argument A.

This sentence restates Argument A's significance for X. This sentence describes evidence in the text. "Illustrative quote."   This sentence describes another piece of evidence in the text. "Second illustrative quote." This sentence describes another piece of evidence in the text. "Third illustrative quote." Concluding restatement of Argument A that forms a gentle bridge to Argument B. 


But it has been some time since I did that, so before I began to write my essay, I read through someone else's peer-reviewed essay about another Polish novel. It was really very good, and after its long detailed introduction to the author and his works, it began an argument about the novel itself. Carefully buried under the verbal flesh was the good hard skeleton of Arguments A, B, and C. 

This cheered me greatly, and the next morning I sat down with a clean notebook and a mug of coffee and, after staring out the window at the dark sky and even darker trees, I wrote almost half of my own essay. 

The biggest difference between my days of writing undergrad essays and now, besides being twice as old and having a full-time job, is having someone in the house with time to read the drafts. To my initial chagrin, Benedict Ambrose didn't like my original introduction, which was a merely a plunge into the novel. However, after 40 minutes on the stationary bicycle in the kitchen, I thought of a solution, which was to introduce the author of the novel through a personal anecdote. B.A. liked the result, and I did too.  

Yesterday I had the interesting duty of taking my pupils through their most recent persuasive essays--one against idealising pirates and the other an argument that losing the Kaiser was bad for Germany. The latter hung rather more flesh on the skeleton than the former, but the structure was quite clear in both, so I was satisfied. For their next assignment, they will write about a theme of a novel, using the structure I used for my own recent paper. Although an essay skeleton is absolutely crucial, an utterly skeletal essay sounds a bit stilted: 

If the Land of Nod has a prison, Goldilocks should certainly be locked up in it. She is a criminal character. Her housebreaking, thievery and outrage upon the domestic intimacy of the Bear family illustrate that she is a public menace. Our society's outdated and suspect privileging of children with blonde ringlets should not blind us to the corrupt character of a girl who would enter a stranger's home uninvited.

To enter an unfamiliar home uninvited is pure and simply housebreaking. Etc.

Actually, that's not terrible. My pride prevents me from writing something dull, but you know what I mean: "Goldilocks! What a bad person. Her housebreaking, thievery and bed-trying shows she is bad. Even just going into the Bears' house is proof of her badness. On to the next paragraph!"

Of course, not everyone in the world knows who Goldilocks is, and so an introductory paragraph, filled with the fruits of research, would be necessary in some circumstances. Wikipedia has produced a rather good one. What a surprise that Goldilocks is a Victorian creation and actually started out (1837) as an elderly lady. She's British, rather than German or Danish, which is also a revelation. She might be a dirty housebreaker, but she's our dirty housebreaker.

*Hamburger essay: the introductory paragraph is the top half of the bun, the body of the essay is the meat, and the concluding paragraph is the bottom half of the bun. I suppose the "gentle bridges" between intro and body and between body and conclusion are the ketchup and mustard.

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