Teaching Today

Essays That Feed the Soul

Irina Eremia Bragin describes why and how she encourages student to write essays that entertain, engage and elevate.

November 29, 2016
 
iStock/shih-wei

Is it outrageous that writing instructors should expect, along with fair wages and reasonable class sizes, student essays that feed their souls? Rebecca Schuman’s call to arms against the drudgery of grading essays, Martha Schulman’s and Gwen Hyman’s confession that “it’s easy to feel your soul is shriveling” when faced with piles of mindless ones, and John Warner’s discussion of the “disconnections” that produce “boring” and “unpleasant” essays all betray the same sense of entitlement. Writing instructors, unlike other professionals, have a right not to be tortured with tedious texts.

I agree. We work for bubkes. Let the lawyers waste their precious hours reading mind-numbing documents; they made their Faustian bargains when they chose law school over grad school. Idealists who choose teaching writing for a profession can live without money but not without meaning.

I am very up front with my students about this from day one. That’s why I begin my Comp 101 class by reading out loud from my manifesto, an adaptation from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: writing “is an act of the soul” not just “of the intellect.” I wouldn’t be able to return to class each fall if my students couldn’t produce essays that entertained, engaged and elevated our classes year after year.

The greatest discovery I made as a writing instructor is that one doesn’t need to be an English major to have a writer’s soul. Such a soul can inhabit the body of a business major or an engineering student who can revel in the shape of a sentence or has ears that can delight in the rhythm of language. It is my job to acknowledge, awaken and attune that soul.

I learned that lesson in what should have been my last year as a grad student. While struggling with my dissertation and my Comp 101 students, I also decided to enroll in an extension screenwriting course at the University of California, Los Angeles. The instructor was a plain-speaking, straight-shooting, weathered kind of guy who had worked his way up in Hollywood from stuntman to actor to staff writer for a TV series to writing feature films. His passion for his subject was only matched by his passion for his students. For most of us -- people of various ages and occupations -- breaking into Hollywood couldn’t have been more than a pipe dream. But our instructor didn’t seem to know that. He treated us with the utmost respect. “Each of one of you here is a professional,” he said. I was shocked that he was willing to take us all so seriously -- even me, who had no business starting Sugar’n Spice when I should have been finishing The Glove’s Twisted Finger: In Search of Virginia Woolf’s Prose Style. But John Herman Shaner honored the writer within me and created a space for her voice to be heard.

It was a mood that he created in the classroom -- an atmosphere of excitement for each of our projects, support for our efforts and commitment to our success. The emphasis was on the concrete works we were producing in real time, not on the acquisition of a set of abstract skills for some future time. We wrote and read out loud, revised and reread and rewrote. “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting,” he said, quoting Flaubert. I couldn’t help but compare the enthusiasm of his writing students with the apathy of mine.

Did the contrast have to be that sharp? True, he taught creative, and I taught expository; my course was required, and his was elected; mine was graded and his was not. Nevertheless, we both taught writing, and my students, like his, wanted their voices heard. Undergraduate classes at UCLA were large, and the chances for meaningful class interactions were small. My students, too, came from diverse backgrounds, had stories to tell, lessons to share, opinions to voice.

After that, I began to tell my students that, while I know that most of them are not and don’t aspire to be professional writers, I will treat them as such for the 16 weeks of my course. I also tell them that it’s easier to write well, as to do anything well, with a higher purpose. Writing well requires pain and patience, but if their goal is to produce writing that will enrich each other’s lives, they will manage not only to survive this course but even to pass the exit exam.

My powers as a teacher are limited. I can provide them with a few useful tools and share with them some of the ancient rhetorical strategies that I’ve learned -- techniques with fancy names like antithesis, anaphora, asyndeton, polysyndeton, anastrophe and epistrophe that may bring joy to their writing and excitement to their prose. Along with our textbook, I can show them models of how to structure and organize their thoughts. But ultimately, those thoughts -- as well as the desire to shape them into a form that will entertain, persuade and inspire each other -- must originate from the writer in residence within each.

Like most writing teachers, I have experimented with various texts, topics, exercises and assignments throughout the years. The writing workshop environment and the supportive rules of “The Sacred Circle” have remained constant. My students write for each other and read out loud a lot. We often start class with five- to 10-minute warm-ups in response to prompts meant to elicit strong reactions. (For example, why do you agree or disagree with the outrageous statement the candidate made this morning?) They often generate outbursts of eloquence that surprise writers and listeners alike.

My first two essay assignments are always personal: a profile of a classmate that demonstrates why he or she promises to be a valuable member of our community, followed by a personal statement conveyed through a defining person or moment in the writer’s life. I call those pieces their “signature essays” and take much time developing them, because they awaken writers to the power of their own narratives to affect others.

When we move to analytical essays, we discover that the qualities of a satisfying piece are the same -- whether creative or expository, personal or argumentative. In fact, they replicate the qualities of a satisfying life: purpose, focus, contrast, action, reflection, beauty, symmetry and balance. Although English 101 provides a service to those of my colleagues’ courses that still require essay writing, the ancient art I teach has its own intrinsic value. Creating an environment that encourages students to access the writer within will inspire them to write with the passion, conviction and style necessary for success in every field.

Bio

Irina Eremia Bragin is the chair of the English department at Touro College, Los Angeles. She is the author of the memoir Subterranean Towers: A Father-Daughter Story (iUniverse, 2005).

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