MLit/DLit 905/The Art of the Essay.
Sandra Jamieson--Spring 2000

Class will meet: Thursdays 7:00-9:30 in S.W. Bowne 121. Format: Writing workshop. 
My office: S.W. Bowne 118 
Office hours: Tues. 3:00-5:00pm; Wed. 1:00-4:00pm; Thurs. 6:00-7:00pm; & by appt. 
Telephone: Office: (973) 408-3499. Home: (908)757-1051 (Please call between 10am & 9pm only!). 
E-mail: Office:        Home:

The Course:

The wonderful thing about the personal essay is that it requires of you something that no other non-fiction writing requires: it requires that you write your subjectivity. In the personal essay there is no myth of objectivity, no attempt to "distance oneself from the subject," or support a thesis. The personal essay is your voice speaking your perception of the world. This is also frightening because it requires absolute honesty to yourself. You can invent situations, even people, but you can not invent the emotions they engender because you have invented the other details solely to provide a vehicle to better articulate your feelings. By the end of your essay readers should feel as if they have experienced what you experienced and felt what you felt. Ideally they should have done that as part of the process of forming an opinion about the subject.

To help you practice this art, the course will be run as a writerís workshop. This means that in every class we will both write and read the writing of other members of the class. In addition, in most classes we will briefly discuss the writing strategies adopted by the professional writers I have selected. Those essays are intended to provide you with ideas, not models. They address different topics and adopt different styles, and they have already been critiqued and edited, so they will provide us with an opportunity to assess the success of their strategies. You might suggest some of those strategies to your classmates, or decide to try one yourself. Either way, you should think of them as glimpses of the possible as you develop your own voice and discover how to read and respond to the writing of others.

The Texts:

Required (available at the Drew University Bookstore):
Phillip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay
Richard Marius, A Writer's Companion
Recommended (available at the Drew University Bookstore):
Susan Burack (ed.) The Writer's Handbook
William Zinsser. On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Non-Fiction 

The Writing:

You must write every week (every day if you can). The specific requirements for the course are as follows: 1) First drafts of 8 short essays. All of which will be workshopped by the whole class giving you immediate, oral feedback, and at least 3 of which will also receive written comments from another member of the class. 

2) Each student will write at least 3 critiques of other studentsí essays (see schedule for dates).

3) Select 5 of your essays for second revision, handing them to me on the dates shown on the syllabus.

4) Revise 4 of those essays for your final portfolio. 

5) Write brief Writerís Journal entries in response to the readings (at least one in response to each batch) and your experiences as a writer. Try to write every day, but select 15 entries to type up for me (5 due on March 2; 5 on April 6; and 5 on May 4). Bring your Writerís Journal to class each week, and be prepared to read it to the group to help us begin to think about the genre at hand.

Writer's Workshops--a Partnership in Learning:

This class is run as a writer's workshop.  Each week, three or four students will present an essay to the class for discussion and revision advice.  We will begin each class by discussing the published essays read in preparation for the class, looking in particular for strategies that we find powerful (or not), and discussing how those strategies might be adapted to our own writing.  Our discussion of each student essay will likewise focus on successful strategies, and our advice may draw on features of the published essays that seem appropriate.  Students who do not present their essays to the class will hand a copy to me and to a group of other students, and we will all write comments on the papers and return them the following week.  These multiple readings allow each writer to attend to the needs of his or her readers during the revision process.  Over the course of the semester you will develop a greater sensitivity to the needs of readers--and you will also strengthen your ability to critique written texts.

Grades and Ground rules:

Because this class is designed to help you develop your essay writing skills, I will only grade final drafts of essays (the four essays in your final portfolio). The grade will be determined once the course is over and I have read your final portfolios, and it will be a holistic grade based on the quality of those four papers.  I will be happy to discuss grades and potential grades with any student who would like me to do so, both as you work on your essays over the course of the semester, and after I have assigned a final grade.

Work MUST be handed in on time because the workshops depend on your preparation. I assume I can trust you to do so without the threat of punitive grades, but if I find that my assumptions are incorrect, rest assured that I will dream up some dire and awful punishment! 

I assume, also, that I can trust members of the workshop to treat each other with the respect and empathy that all writers need. That means both that each member respects each other memberís writing, and that each member does whatever is in his or her power to assist the other members of the workshop in revising their work. If you are not in this class to learn to be a more effective writer, I hope you will leave rather than forcing me to design exquisitely appropriate tortures for those who transgress the rules of normal civility and writerly trust.

The Schedule, Spring 2000 (Class meets on Thursdays):

Feb 3    Feb 10    Feb 17  Feb 24  Mar 2  Mar 9  Mar 16 
Mar 23  Mar 30  April 6  Apr 13  Apr 20 Apr 27  May 4 

Feb. 3 (Thur): General introduction. The forgotten art of reading and writing essays. A discussion of tactics and books to help you get started writer's block, and other such terrors. 

Topic: What is an essay? Read and discuss the first few pages of Michel de Montaigne's "Of Books" (p.58) paying particular attention to strategies, tone, style, and structure. Then read and discuss extract from Virginia Woolf: "[The essay] should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake, refreshed, with its last word. In the interval we may pass through the most various experiences of amusement, surprise, interest, indignation; we may soar to the heights of fantasy with Lamb or plunge to the depths of wisdom with Bacon, but we must never be roused. The essay must lap us about and draw its curtain across the world. . . . What can the essayist use in these short lengths of prose to sting us awake and fix us in a trance which is not sleep but rather an intensification of life--a basking, with every faculty alert, in the sun of pleasure? He must know--that is the first essential--how to write. His learning may be so profound as Mark Pattisonís, but in an essay it must be so fused by the magic of writing that not a fact juts out, not a dogma tears the surface of the texture. . . . [and] if the voice of the scold should never be heard in this narrow plot, there is another voice which is as a plague of locusts--the voice of a man stumbling drowsily among loose words, clutching aimlessly at vague ideas . . . the essay must be pure--pure like water or pure like wine, but pure from dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous matter."  (Virginia Woolf "The Modern Essay" Collected Essays Vol. 2, p. 41). 

In preparation for next week's class:
Abraham Cowley's "Of Greatness" (116-121)
Adrienne Rich's "Split at the Root" (640-655)

Draft essay # 1:  A meditation.

A meditative essay focuses on something and then uses that as both a jumping off point and an organizing principle for the essay. Look at the way Cowley quotes others to help him consider the question "What is Greatness?" and the way he manages to emphasize its negative qualities by focusing on his preferred identity. Consider the way Rich meditates on ethnicity and identity by focusing on moments throughout her life when she has been forced to face the question "Am I a Jew?" These two examples are very different. Your task is to find the essence in them both, the thing that makes them work and keeps us focused on the question. Then, wait at least 24 hours and write a meditation of your own. You could try starting with a word, a question, or a quotation, or you could meditate on an event (death birth, birthdays) or an action (writing, learning, driving), but remember that your purpose is to take your reader along on your meditation and leave us exactly where you end up yourself.  Bring six copies of this essay to class next week.  

Feb. 10 (Thur):  Discussion of the art of writing meditation essays and of Cowley's and Rich's essays as examples of professional, and already edited, works. 
Workshop of meditation essays. In preparation for next week's class:
Ivan Turgenev's "The Execution of Tropmann" (p.306-324)
Joseph Addison's "Nicolini and the Lions" (p. 122-126)

Draft essay # 2:  Reportage/Book reviews

Book reviews and news/current affairs essays do not seem very "personal" at first glance; however, if they are to be effective (interesting, readable, influential, etc.) they must reflect and reveal an active and thoughtful mind at work. In a very broad sense this is another kind of meditation--albeit less leisurely. To make reviews and news essays come alive for the reader, the author must reveal a strong opinion and then support it with careful description and detail. The book or event is best placed in a larger context, and that context can be historical, cultural, geographical, etc., but it is always also personal. Turgenev leaves us in no doubt about his opinions on capital punishment, yet he also tells a powerful story. Addison adopts a very different style and yet also provides a clever review while also expressing an opinion on theatrical matters. Your task in this essay, then, is to paint a detailed and accurate picture, yet influence our opinion about the topic by your word choices, emphasis, and commentary. Bring six copies of this essay to class next week.

Feb. 17 (Thur): Discussion of the art of writing essays reporting on events or books and of Turgenev and Addison's work as examples of professional, and already edited, essays.
Workshop of Reportage/Book review essays In preparation for next week's class:
Sei Shonagon's "Hateful Things" (p. 24- 28)
Virginia Woolf's "Death of a Moth" (p. 265-267)

Draft essay # 3:  Journal essay

As you can tell from reading Shonagon and Woolf, journal essays can vary in style and content. In many ways they are the most intimate of essay forms because they are written as if for the eyes of the author alone. In fact, journal essays are generally written for the public gaze, although the first draft is, of course, private. The hallmark of a journal essay is the sense of introspection. The reader is almost a voyeur of the thought of the essayist--as if we have stepped into his or her mind and listened to what is going on in an idle moment there. Here are the "bits and pieces" of one's mind. The ideas that float in on the breeze and settle for a while. To get you started on this assignment (if you don't keep a journal already) try sitting at your desk and free writing or free associating for a few minutes. Write whatever comes into your head and then extend the idea and play with it. From such beginnings, great journal essays are born. Bring six copies of this essay to class next week.  

Feb. 24 (Thur):  Discussion of the art of writing journal essays and of Woolf and Shonagon's work as examples of professional, and already edited, essays. 
Workshop of journal essays. In preparation for next week's class:
Plutarch's "Consolation to his Wife" (p. 17- 23)
Seneca's "Slaves" (p. 12-16)

Draft essay # 4: An epistolary essay

Letter writing is all but a dead art in the United States, which is why our examples are so old. We might not even think of Plutarch's letter as an "essay," although Seneca's seems less questionable. But the older meaning of "essay" is to speak on a topic, and these two letters certainly do that. The key is to find a topic about which you feel qualified to speak and an audience that you can address consistently throughout the piece. The topic should be quite important, although it does not need to be--it only needs to be of interest to more than yourself and the recipient. Bring six copies of this essay to class next week.

Mar. 2 (Thur):  Discussion of the art of writing epistolary essays and of Seneca and Plutarch's letters as an example of professional, and already edited epistolary writing.
Workshop of epistolary essays.
In preparation for next week's class:
George Orwell's "Such, Such Were the Joys" (p. 269-302)
E.B.White's "Once More to the Lake" (p. 533-537)
Five typed Writer's Journal entries due in class today.
Draft essay # 5: A Memoir.
William Zinsser (author of On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Non-Fiction --which I highly recommend), says of the memoir, "for me, no other nonfiction form goes so deeply to the roots of personal experience--to all the drama and humor and unexpectedness of life. . . . What gives them their power is the narrowness of their focus. Unlike autobiography, which spans an entire life, memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it. The memoir writer takes us back to some corner of his or her past that was unusually intense--childhood for instance--or that was framed by war or some other upheaval. . . Think narrow, then, when you try the form. Memoir isn't the summary of a life; it's a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It's not; it's a deliberate construction. . . . To write a good memoir you must become the editor of your own life, imposing on an untidy scrawl of half-remembered events a narrative shape and an organizing idea. Memoir is the art of inventing the truth" (99).  I would only add that it is the art of suggesting the essence of a life through the depiction of a seemingly casual event. It is, in other words, harder than it looks. Bring six copies of this essay to class next week.
Mar. 9 (Thur): Discussion of the art of writing memoirs and of the essays by E.B.White and George Orwell as examples of professional, and already edited, memoir.
Workshop of memoir essays. In preparation for next week's class:
Scott Russell Saunder's "Under the Influence" (p. 733- 745)
Natalia Ginzburg's "He and I" (p. 423-431)

Draft essay # 6:  Character portrait

Your goal in this essay is to capture the essence of another person. You may select a formative moment or an incident, the key is to give us a sense of who that person is. Like Ginzburg you may tell us what you have learned about the person and what the person is not, or you might adopt Sanders' strategy and jump right in. As you can see, though, although these essays are purportedly about another person, they also reveal a good deal about the author. As we said at the beginning, you are writing your subjective response to the world, so "the other" can only really be seen in relation to you. You may decide to provide commentary or to make us provide our own explanations--whichever seems most appropriate. 

[When writing about others, you should always consider how this person might feel about the piece being "published"--presenting to the class constitutes publication in this respect--and refrain from writing anything that might get you into trouble later unless it is worth that trouble to you. In other words, it is your judgment call, but make sure you make a very conscious judgment.]

Bring six copies of this essay to class next week.  

Mar. 10-19--Spring Break:  No class March 16 (don't stop writing though...)

Mar. 23 (Thur):  Discussion of the art of writing character portraits and of the pieces by Saunders and Ginzburg as examples of professional, and already edited, character portraits. 
Workshop of character portrait essays In preparation for next week's class:
Richard Rodriguez' "Late Victorians" (p. 756-770)
Hubert Butler's "Beside the Nore" (p. 388-392)
Richard Steel's "Twenty-Four Hours in London" (p. 129-133)

Draft essay # 7: A portrait of a familiar place in its larger context.

Your goal in this essay is to describe a place in relation to its history, geography, physical surroundings, psychological or sociological significance, or some other larger context. Like Rodriguez and Steel, you may select a whole city (or even a state, region, or country), or you may consider a smaller place like Butler's house beside the Nore, an apartment, an apartment building, a dorm room, or a school. The key here is to make us think of the place in its dynamic relationship to the world (or at least a part of it). If it is a place we know, you should help us to see it in a new light; if it is a place we don't know when we begin reading, we should feel that we do know it by the end of the essay.    Bring six copies of this essay to class next week.

Mar. 30 (Thur):  Discussion of the art of writing essays about places and of Steel, Rodriguez, and Butler's essays as examples of professional, and already edited, prose.
Workshop of place essays In preparation for next week's class:
James Baldwin's "Alas, Poor Richard" (p. 604-622)
Carlos Fuentes' "How I started to Write" (p. 432-453)

Draft essay # 8:  Significant Influences

This topic is hard to define. In many ways it is an extension of memoir, except that its focus is on a significant person or event, a turning point or moment at which you began to be essentially what you are today. The essay may have some features of the character sketch, and it certainly shares characteristics of the meditation essay and the memoir. It may also discuss a place. It could be written in an epistolary style. In short, this essay allows you to draw on the skills you have developed writing other essays in this course, but asks you to focus on a significant influence of some kind.   Bring six copies of this essay to class next week.

  Bring six copies of an essay that you've already revised, too.


April 6 (Thur):  Discussion of the art of writing essays about significant influences and of the pieces by Baldwin and Fuentes as examples of professional, and already edited, essays.
Workshop of essays about significant influences.
In preparation for next week's class:
Read and write responses to your classmates' essays
Five typed Writer's Journal entries due in class today.
  Revise one of your essays.
  Bring six copies of a revised essay to class.  
April 13 (Thur):  I will be absent this week. Select and work on revisions ó class may meet as a group to continue revisions. I will read revisions and answer questions via electronic mail ( ).
In preparation for next week's class:
Read and write responses to your classmates' essays

  Revise one of your essays

  Bring six copies of a revised essay to class.

April 20 (Thur): Discussion of the art of revising essays.
Workshop of first revisions In preparation for next week's class:
Read and write responses to your classmates' essays

  Revise one of your essays

  Bring six copies of a revised essay to class.


April 27 (Thur):  Discussion of the art of revising essays. Workshop of first revisions

In preparation for next week's class:
Read and write responses to your classmates' essays

Draft Introductory essay:  Write an essay that functions as a preface to the 

collection of essays you hand in to me. The preface should introduce your essays, trace connections, comment on growth and development, acknowledge help, and discuss frustrations. In short, it should place the essays in the context of this course, your life, and each other--in any way you would like to do that.     Bring six copies of the introductory essay to class.  

May 4 (Thur):  Last class. Final workshop sessions before the portfolio is handed in.
Five typed Writer's Journal entries due in class today.

May 11 (Thur): Final Portfolio due at my office by 9pm today. 
Please indicate which essay should be included in the class publication and enclose the signed form giving me permission to publish that essay (we'll discuss this in class May 4).


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Last updated, January 24, 2000
Sandra Jamieson
Drew University, Madison NJ 07940