by Steffanie Triller Fry
During this 2014 Month of Writing Challenge, I’ve spent much of my time penning something my Creative Writing MFA program calls a “craft essay.” It’s an essay of 5,000+ words that analyzes the way a writer performs a particular aspect of her craft.
But it’s not the craft in the essay that I’ve been struggling with this month; it’s the craft of the essay. I labored over the first draft: I revised over and over, printing it out to scribble handwritten notes over the entire document, rewriting my introduction, only to have my instructor come back with this: “What’s the original angle / approach of this essay? Does its author have her own ideas, or is she only going to call forth old chestnuts? Trust yourself. Use your own expertise.”
But I did! I thought. I drew together the ideas of numerous experts and, I thought, made some interesting and enlightening connections between their ideas. What was missing?
Then, about a week later, one of the students in the Write Now class gave his required “Pep Talk,” a 500 word reflection on how to effectively write at least 25,000 words in one month. His talk included the following message:
“We can’t always pick our topicsand genres of writing outside of this class, but we can try personalizing everypaper or report by adding ourselves to actually become part of the story,instead of just telling it.”
Oh, I thought. That's what was missing from my essay: Me. In trying to communicate my analysis in my essay, I failed to communicate even my main message. My writing became overly academic.
So the spirit of the Month of Writing, I set my essay aside. I opened Microsoft Word and clicked open a blank document. I wrote my introduction again. I decided it was still too impersonal. I opened another blank document. I tried again. I thought of my daughter’s favorite toy: a set of stackable rings. I had them, every kid’s had them. The rings fit onto a cone-shaped tower. The blue goes on the bottom, then the yellow, green, orange, and red. When she first received the toy, my daughter loved the red ring: it’s also a rattle. She would dump all of the rings off the cone, and then put just the red one on. Of course, then none of the other rings would fit. She’d get frustrated. This is what I was trying to do with my essay: jump to the top ring without building the foundation of blue, yellow, green, and orange for my reader.
As the author of my essay, I need to build that foundation of blue, yellow, green, and orange. Now in my final draft, I use a short personal narrative about my daughter (much like the one in the previous paragraph) to illustrate the main idea of the essay. I state my purpose briefly but completely, and I even include an example of a time that I attempted to use an object to evoke emotion in a short story, and failed. This time, as I worked on what felt like the 500th draft, I felt like I was building and supporting my own idea. I had found my expertise in the topic. I appreciate the Month of Writing for giving me the courage to turn to the blank page, and to turn to it again. Without the blank page, I might never have found myself in this essay.
We would do well to remind our students and ourselves that we have a place not only to craft our writing, but to write about ourselves as part of our craft. As my student said, it’s not enough to tell the story. We need to become the story. Next year, the School for New Learning will partner with the University Center for Writing-based Learning to hold the 2015 DePaul University Month of Writing Challenge. Encourage your students to participate. Offer extra credit. Participate yourself! The Month of Writing can be a wonderful time to extend the invitation of the blank page, and to invite students to bring themselves to that page.
And, if you’re interested in the complete text of my student’s talk above, or to read more Month of Writing Pep Talks written by SNL students attempting the Month of Writing Challenge, see the Pep Talks page of the Month of Writing website.