We spent the entire class period Wednesday doing roundtable critiques of the reported essays. For the handful of you reading this blog way outside of room 301, this is where we’re mostly going to have to leave you out of the fun. When it comes to this part of the process, what happens in room 301 stays in room 301.
I split the class into two groups last week: Group A read all of the essays in Group B; and Group B read A. They were encouraged to mark them up like crazy. For the critique sessions, I put the essays in random order. We spent roughly six minutes on each — and we still have a few left to do on Monday, before we try to figure out George Trow.
Borrowing another smart idea from my visits to Glenn Moomau’s nonfiction writing courses at American U., I asked students to simply knock once or twice on the table when they heard a comment they agree with. That keeps everyone on their toes, but it also eliminates redundant comments. I was pleased with how it went, but, of course, Generation Sunshine could always be a little more critical.
With their permission, I’d like to share short excerpts from some essays that I thought were very good.
Brooks Johnson on the corndog:
“Corndogs are the new apple pie. I know this, because the Governor of Oregon told me. Well, told the world really, in a document riddled with whereases and therefores. It was the proclamation of National Corndog Day, March 17, 2012.
Listen: ‘The undeniably delectable taste of golden brown corndogs, tasty tater tots and a cold beverage is the perfect complement to the excitement of tournament basketball.’
Without realizing it (unless he’s actually very subversive) the governor just gave us an update on American Values. Wholesome isn’t holy any more. No one has to set the oven to 350 when they have $3.50. We are fat, fried, and fearless. …”
Heather Jurva on orange earplugs:
“If you don’t wear your earplugs, it’s a SAFETY INFRACTION because the sound level in the mill is a RECOGNIZED HAZARD. You will be WRITTEN UP. Too many infractions and your job is on the line. And with twelve other electricians, millwrights and green chain pullers in line for every one spot in the mill, you are a throwaway employee. Work as hard as you like, when you ignore the safety regs you’re out of the game.
Then the little orange foamy bits will slowly start to disappear. Find them in the laundry, throw them away. They won’t be replaced by the next day’s pair. They won’t be coming back. …
One or two, however, will linger for months after the job is gone. You’ll notice them, glance over them, pretend not to see them so you don’t have to throw them away. No one will ever pick up on the ruse, because at one point you really didn’t see them, no more than you noticed the scratches on the table or the junk mail near the door. Every time you pretend not to see them, you are reminded of times both better and worse, days of grease and exhaustion and weekly dinners out at the local Applebees. They have become little orange beacons of hope, a nagging reminder that you are still searching for a job. Above all else, they are a sign that a working man still lives in this house.” …
Carli Krueger on Chacos:
“If every city were a shoe, then Nashville is a faithfully-worn cowboy boot with aspiration stitched into the conditioned leather. New York City is a sexy, sleek Louboutin stiletto pump with a red sole and power in every clacking step. San Diego is any sturdy brown flip flop that got you to the beach without burning your feet. But Missoula, Missoula is the thick-soled Chaco. Webbed with patterned, polyester straps and a yearning for adventure. …
Chacos are shoes with a culture. There’s a pride that seems to come inherently with owning a pair. Many people don’t just like Chacos or wear Chacos. They love them and they live in them. They are Chaconians. They wear their striking foot tan lines like a badge of honor and could care less what you think about them. They usually go hand-in-hand with all varieties of Patagonia, a Nalgene clad in bumper stickers, an unleashed but well-trained black lab, and firm belief in organic food. But not always. Sometimes comfort mixed with obsession means the multicolored straps shamelessly partner up to clash with a sundress. If Chacos are lucky enough to make it past date two, sometimes they get to go to the wedding. On the bride’s feet.”
Eben Keller on cowboy hats:
“What about the time you were in the gift shop of that small town outside of Denver, and on top of the cheesy hat rack, in all of its glory, was a cowboy hat, decorated with a red bandana, and already wrinkled and flimsy. Twelve dollars. Maybe people would think you had worn it since you were a child, back when you had a small saw-horse, flannel shirt, and a little pair of shit-kickers (cowboy boots for the layman) that went up to your knees. Maybe it would be mistaken for a worn down symbol of your blue-collar upbringing. You slip it on your head (perfect fit!) and glance at yourself in the vanity mirror before your friends can see you. “God, no” you laugh, and quickly remove it before anyone notices. But it’s already under your skin, and you’ll be thinking about it for the next 30 minutes as you drive out if this town, imagining simpler life of turquoise jewelry, and that dusty, never-ending summer.
They are the real one-percent: the people who actually look good in cowboy hats. You see them in passing, walking down the street or on television (put one on Harrison Ford, and we’re talking business), and they rekindle that hope that was lost when you saw yourself wearing one. ‘Well maybe I was just wearing the wrong one.’ You weren’t.”
Candace Rojo on neglected guitars:
“I’m sure when you bought it you told yourself you were going to learn to play. How hard could it be? If Justin Bieber can do it, so could you! I’m sure you were going to take lessons and strum the daylight out of Stairway to Heaven, but then your mom called. And then your grandfather got sick, and then you got a puppy, and then, and then, and then. Who has time to learn to play the guitar?
So Diane, or Loquisha, or whatever you call her gets shoved in a corner, or under your bed, or mounted on the wall. She’ll fade with time and maybe when you get dumped she’ll get some action again.
She lives for those poorly composed moments of heart ache.
‘If you leave me now, you’ll take away the biggest part of me OOOOHHHH NO Baby please don’t go!’
For used-to-be rockers, she is a monument to the memories of the distant past. She sits there on her pedestal and begs to be played just one more time and the rocker’s fingers itch to callus above the steel frets once more.
When he picks up his guitar he is taken back to roaring crowds, bright stage lights and the smell of a summer breeze wafting off the Pacific Ocean.
He is a legend again.”
In all 17 essays, mission accomplished: Some piece of ubiquitous culture was considered, researched, ruminated upon and written about. The point was to notice details. And in many of the essays, the authors kept a consistent voice, clear organization and thought process. Some meandered. And there was a struggle for some to get past the restraints of “feature story” and lift the material a little higher. In several cases what we got was a hybrid — a little bit essay, a little bit opinion column, and a lot of feature writing 101. It’s not easy. That’s why we tried it.
For Monday’s class: Hold on to your cowboy hats and your corndogs and everything else for WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF NO CONTEXT.