GUMP/College Writing: A Few Words About the Five-Paragraph Essay

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I routinely begin my English 101 classes by asking how many students have been practicing their Five Paragraph Essay skills for the past several years in preparation for this day. On average, twenty-three out of twenty-five hands reach confidently into the air.

“How many of you like to write?” I ask.

Most of the hands go down. On a good day, I’ll get three or four hands in response to that one.

“Of those of you who don’t like to write, why don’t you like it?”

The responses are predictable and almost all run along the same basic theme: It’s boring.

I say, “OK—how many of you have never heard of the Five Paragraph Essay?” With trepidation, one or two students hesitantly raise their hands. Their eyes tell me they’re certain I’m going to say they don’t belong here, and to please move to a remedial class.

I don’t.

“Good,” I say to the minority. “You’re the lucky ones.”

Some form of bedlam generally ensues. Most college freshmen in the United States were first introduced to the five-paragraph essay in the fifth or sixth grade and have been practicing it with varying degrees of diligence and dedication ever since, having been warned over and over again that they will need this skill in college.

This is a lie.

In fact, the five-paragraph structure is simply inappropriate for most college writing assignments, and I’ve spent the past twenty years un-teaching it.

It’s endemic these days, but some of you may be wondering what it is. A five-paragraph essay is an essay that begins with an introduction containing a three-part thesis, followed by three body paragraphs that correspond to the three parts of the thesis, followed by a conclusion that reminds the reader of the thesis and the argument’s three main points.

Yes, it’s true that some instructors, even at the college level, require it. I tell my students that’s fine; if that’s what an assignment requires, then of course that’s what the students will produce. They already know how to do it. They can do it in their sleep. They’ve been doing it for years.

But what if they’ve been presented with an assignment that asks them to explain Newton’s Theory of Relativity and relate it to a personal experience? What if they’re presented with a writing prompt that asks for a ten- or fifteen-page response? How can they stretch five paragraphs out for ten pages?

They can’t. And if all they know how to write is a five-paragraph essay, they’re going to be in trouble.

Don’t get me wrong. The Five-Paragraph Essay has its place. It’s useful in teaching elementary arrangement, and it’s useful in teaching students to have, and stay focused on, a central idea or thesis. It helps students understand the basics of topic sentences and paragraph development, and it’s often useful in in-class essay exams where time constraints are a major factor.

But it limits creativity, it limits the writer’s ability to address the complexity of the issue being addressed, and it undermines a writer’s ability to revise at the global level. Worse, it encourages knee-jerk responses to complex issues, it requires that those complex issues be divided into three superficial and largely unrelated categories of “analysis,” and it simply does not have the flexibility or the range to adapt to the intellectual demands of most college-level writing assignments.

It also insults the reader’s intelligence by repeating its thesis and main points after a span of only five paragraphs, suggesting that the reader isn’t bright enough to recall what she just read.

It’s like riding a bike. Most of us start with training wheels, and that’s fine. But nobody rides with training wheels in the Tour de France. It would be ludicrous to even imagine scores of athletes showing up at the race with training wheels on their bikes.

And yet this is what happens every September when my English 101 classes begin. Confident students showing up, training wheels oiled and firmly in place, thinking that’s all they need to win.

And they’re wrong.

When my eldest son was in the eleventh grade, I went to Back to School Night. Six or seven other parents had shown up to hear what his English teacher had to say.

The first thing she did was introduce us to the course’s primary text. She handed out a booklet to each of us, and I read the cover with a hovering sense of dread.

“How to Write the Five-Paragraph Essay,” it said.

I raised my hand, and the teacher looked at me in surprise.

“Yes?”

“Um, you don’t really teach this, do you?” (I confess, I would not have made a great diplomat.)

“What? Yes! Yes, of course I do! Why wouldn’t I?”

“I spend my life UN-teaching this.”

“What? What do you do?”

I told her.

“Well,” she said in obvious relief, “Most of my students don’t go to college. If I can get them to do this, I’m thrilled.”

I could see her point. But all of my students do go to college.

And it’s no wonder so many of them hate to write. Wobbling around on a set of training wheels is boring. Nothing is more exciting than seeing them whipping around a tricky course with increasing confidence once those training wheels come off.

That’s what thrills me.

WIP: Bending the Rules

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Aristotle, in his Poetics, argued for what are frequently referred to as the Unities. There are three:

• The unity of Action, which argues, in essence, that a work should trace the development of a single central action or purpose. It’s like the argument that an essay should stay focused on its thesis: Every part of a work should contribute to the development of its central idea, and there should be no subplots that are not directly relevant to the central action.

• The unity of Place, which decrees that a work’s action will occupy a single geographical location.

• And the unity of Time, which decrees that all of a work’s action will take place within a 24-hour period.

Eighteen Crossroads defies all of these “rules.” For starters, there are eighteen protagonists. Not one. Eighteen. Nearly all of the stories are written in the first person, and they all involve a variety of subplots that are not always clearly relevant—in fact, are quite often, and quite intentionally, not clearly relevant—to the novel’s central theme. That’s Strike One.

Strike Two: There is no apparent Unity of Place. The stories are set not just in New Jersey, Michigan, Florida, and California, but also in Poland. The “Unity of Place” in this novel is not a geographical location.

And as for Strike Three, there is also no Unity of Time, as the novel’s action (or rather, actions, since there are many) take place over a span, not of twenty-four hours, but of a hundred years. To make things worse, third-generation characters are quite often older than first-generation characters, and the youngest person in the book, so far, is a second-generation character.

All of this seeming confusion is intentional, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t spent some little time worrying about my work’s failure to adhere to Aristotle’s Unities.

I console myself with the reminder that Aristotle also said, “the structural union of the parts [must be] such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed” (http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/ari/poe/poe09.htm).

None of the parts of the book can be displaced or removed without disjointing and disturbing the whole. Each story matters, as each member of any family matters to that family. In that sense, it adheres to all of the unities–and so it is from this position that I justify the existence of this novel in its present seemingly dis-unified form. I’m not actually breaking the rules–just bending them a little.

I always was a bit of a rebel.

Pot Luck: Confessions of an Unrepentant Pack Rat

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I should probably start by saying there’s a difference between a pack rat and a hoarder.

We’ve all heard of hoarders. These are the people who can’t find space to walk in their own homes, or who have aisles arranged in their living and dining rooms so they can. They amass piles and piles of stuff that to normal people appears to be worthless trash.

Hoarders make the news. When their collections create a health hazard or a public nuisance, the Health Department comes in and condemns their homes and hires a crew to come in and clear out all their belongings. Hoarders sometimes wind up in court, and in worst-case scenarios, mental wards. People laugh at them.

I’m not a hoarder.

Yet.

But I am a pack rat.

I come by it honestly. My parents, both children of the Depression, were also pack rats. My mom, raised on a farm where nothing ever went to waste and nothing repairable was ever thrown away, was mortally offended by the idea of planned obsolescence, and she used appliances until they were irreparable. Radios, toasters, electric mixers, TV sets, VCRs, microwave ovens—all, in her mind, could and should be repaired, not replaced, if they stopped working. She used the same hand-held mixer all my life, and it still works. I have it here somewhere.

She also hung onto a wide variety of paraphernalia related to the numerous projects and hobbies in which she involved herself over the years: A set of resin grapes she and her sister made in 1968 and the rock tumbler she bought in 1971; candle-making supplies from the early 70’s; a couple of tennis racquets in wooden frames; gold leaf from her cloisonné period; a set of golf clubs from the 50’s; a pair of wooden skis and poles from the 40’s, and skeins and skeins of yarn she used for knitting and crocheting afghans, as well as several of the afghans themselves. She kept it all because you never know when you’re going to decide to come back to an old hobby again. But she kept it all neatly stashed in closets and in the garage (which also held her car), so it was all out of sight if not out of mind.

The only thing that wasn’t out of sight was her art. Paintings on every wall. Easily a hundred of them. Some of them quite good.

My dad was also a pack rat, but for different reasons. He had a lot of space at his house—the garage, a rec room, a horse stable that in later years was empty of horses, and closets galore. He had plenty of room for stuff, which was a good thing because whenever a member of his or his wife’s family passed away, their stuff found its way to his house.

The way my dad saw it, if nobody else in the family wanted it, or if there was nobody left in the family to want it, that didn’t mean it didn’t have value—and it was up to someone to keep it safe. So he appointed himself as Someone. The Caretaker.

He had it all fairly well organized: My stepmom’s Uncle Jimmy’s stuff was in the entry hall closet; her mother’s was in a front bedroom (which was mine as a child); her Aunt Margaret’s was in the attached two-car garage, along with mountains of boxes from his own earlier years, containing, among other things, some of my great-aunt’s china, an assortment of architectural pieces from the house his grandfather built in Redlands, CA in the late 1800’s, and all of his grandfather’s now-antique tools.

I understood my mother’s need to save things just in case, and my dad’s need to archive everything. My parents are gone now—my dad in 2003, my stepmom in 2005, and my mom in 2010—but I have all of their stuff, including everything I rescued from my dad’s house after it burned down, very little of which has any value as nearly all of it is either burned or smoke-damaged. Why do I have it all? Because it’s now my turn to be Someone.

Fortunately, I have a big house with a full basement, and not one but two pole barns.

And they have aisles.

The only room in the house itself that so far has been overrun is my office, which still contains boxes and boxes of my parents’ stuff. I have no use for any of it—not in my office, not in the basement, not in the barn—but having my parents’ stuff keeps them close, and throwing any of it away feels like I’m throwing them away.

I’m just not ready to do that.

My husband, whose philosophy is that one’s memories are safe in one’s heart and soul and therefore have no need for physical representation, reminds me gently but with increasing frequency of my promise to go through all of my parents’ stuff, to donate, to throw away, to organize. I approach each summer and winter break with plans to get just one of the areas under control, just to prove that I can.

But summer break passes, and the aisles remain.

It’s no laughing matter.

GUMP Day: Six Tips for Successful College Writing

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Most college writing is persuasive in one way or another. In order to be successful, such writing requires that its author attend to six different skill sets at once:

1. Try to say something worth saying. Don’t just argue that women have come a long way in the past hundred years. We already know that. You can talk about why this observation is important to your argument, but it shouldn’t be your argument. Avoid common knowledge wherever possible.

2. Keep your argument under control. It should progress logically, and it should contain nothing that is not relevant to its thesis (your thesis might or might not be directly stated, but you should always have one, and if your instructor requests that you state it directly, be sure to do so). Make sure your body paragraphs are focused on points that are relevant to, and that help to develop, your thesis.

3. Support all of your claims with carefully-reasoned evidence, explanations, and examples. Be sure to cite any borrowed ideas or material carefully, whether the information is directly quoted or not, using the documentation style your instructor has requested that you use.

4. Try to demonstrate a clear understanding of the complexity of the issue you’re addressing by acknowledging, conceding, and refuting relevant counterarguments wherever necessary.

5. Be aware of who your audience is, what they can be expected to know already, and what needs to be explained to them. Read your work out loud to see how it sounds; your tone and style should be appropriate for the audience you are addressing.

6. Your work should be clean at the surface. Be alert for typos and errors in punctuation, mechanics, usage, and grammar. If your paper isn’t important enough to you to proofread it carefully, your audience will see it as unimportant as well, and you will lose their respect.

Once you have a complete draft, it’s a good idea to read it through at least six times, once with each of these criteria in mind, making revisions along the way. Then, before submitting it, read it yet again. If you’re satisfied that you’ve done your best in all areas, it’s ready to turn in.

Good luck!

WIP: The Dilemma of Arrangement

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I’ve spent part of the past several days putting all of the Eighteen Crossroads stories into a single document. WIP-ing it into shape, you know. Seems like a simple enough task, right?

No.

First, it took me two days to find and collect all of the most recent versions of the stories. I’m an inveterate reviser, so there are multiple versions of each story, and I’m obsessive about saving them all. Fortunately, I do date each one, but this leads to a second problem: Having had to completely re-image my computer not once but twice in the past year and a half, I’m downright phobic about losing content. I don’t ever want to be one of those people sitting with her head in her hands in front of a computer screen blinking “Novel not found.” So I back up my backups, and then I back those up just to be sure. In addition to two different computers’ hard drives, my work is also saved to four different flash drives.

Did I say obsessed? Yes.

And the most recent version of a particular story is not necessarily on the same flash drive as the most recent version of another story. Backing things up, I’m good at. Logical systems of organization, not so much.

Backups can create havoc. I really need a better system.

But I did eventually find everything. I’ve always kept the stories in a folder that orders them by generation: Each document is titled Gen 1, Gen 2, or Gen 3, followed by the character’s name and/or the title of the story (if it has one yet), plus the date of the revision, like this: GEN 1 Aniela 6-15-13. The computer alphabetizes the stories by document name, of course, but I’ve always vaguely planned to order them by birth year, Gen 1 first, then Gen 2, then Gen 3, in the final version.

Key word: VAGUELY.

But the plan seemed logical enough, so I’ve never questioned it. However, in putting the MS together this weekend, I discovered it won’t work. There are spoilers in some of the earlier stories that would ruin the later ones long before my readers got to them.

So OK, let’s try Plan B.

I decided to put the stories in chronological order according to the year in which each one takes place. Again, this seemed logical. But this plan revealed problems of its own, since it will mix up the generations, and it also creates some organizational nightmares. For instance, one story occurs in 2006, but the bulk of its content is a flashback set in 1941. So does it belong chronologically in 2006, or 1941?

Ack!

On to Plan C: Pull a Louise Erdrich. Place the stories in whatever order is most logical to me personally, and let the reader figure out who’s who and what’s what. (But for me, Love Medicine is what author Holly Lisle calls a “throw-across-the-room” book. It’s not that I hate it—it’s brilliantly written—but I still struggle to figure out the relationships and the time lines in that book, and I don’t want my readers having the same reaction to mine!)

Ultimately, I left the document in its Plan B stage, but I know it won’t stay that way.

I realize that no one who hasn’t read all of the MS (and so far, nobody has, because the first draft isn’t complete) can give me advice on how to order the stories, but I am REALLY FRUSTRATED right now and I just needed to get this off my chest.

Nothing worth doing is ever easy, right?

What problems have you run into as you write? How do you solve them?

Pot Luck: Happy Father’s Day

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In the United States and many other countries, this Sunday is Father’s Day. The brainchild of Hallmark or some other greeting card company a century or so ago, and entirely commercial from its inception, the day has become iconic. Millions of Americans from coast to coast will get together with family if they can, barbecuing, exchanging cards and gifts, and generally honoring the men who gave them life.

For most Americans, Father’s Day is a happy occasion. If you haven’t bought a card or gift yet, a phone call on the day itself (before ten or eleven pm, please) will sometimes suffice.

But many of us don’t have that option. For many of us, Father’s Day is a day we look forward to with tears in our eyes.

My tears decided not to wait for the big day itself. This morning, browsing my Facebook feed, I ran across the following video:

(OK, it’s not loading. It’s a one-minute video that shows a crowd of people on the beach with about five large airline kennels. The kennel doors are opened, and a young elephant seal emerges from each one, looks around, and then makes its way into the sea. As the last one heads into the waves, there’s applause from the spectators. It’s very touching.)

My father lived in Malibu, on Point Dume, mere steps from Paradise Cove, where this video was shot. We fished from the pier you see in the video clip, and once took a deep-sea fishing trip that embarked from there. I grew up riding my horse on that beach.

As I watched the video, with every frame, my vision grew a little blurrier and I slid farther and farther back in time until I was ten years old, scavenging in the Paradise Cove tide pools at low tide:

me paradise cove age nine

You can just see the Paradise Cove pier in the background.

Everything about Malibu–the beach, the sand, the tides, the wind, the salty air–is about my dad, who taught me to be independent and self-sufficient, to revere family, to be fascinated by history, philosophy, poetry, and science, and to never be afraid to try something that only boys were supposed to be able to do. My dad was awesome. Here I am with him when I was three:

dad and me, 1962

My father passed away in 2003. This will be the ninth Father’s Day I haven’t been able to hear his voice resonating across the two-thousand-mile distance I now so regret having put between us when I chose to make a life in Wisconsin. Of course I still hear it in my mind—I can imagine what we might say, if I could call him, and I can still hear his voice as if we had spoken only yesterday–but it’s not the same.

Others struggle with Father’s Day for other reasons. Perhaps there’s been a family feud of some kind, and you and your father are no longer speaking.

If, like me, you’ll spend Sunday missing and celebrating the life of a man you can no longer call on the phone (for whatever reason), you understand the bittersweet nature of Father’s Day.

But for millions of others, the day continues to be what it was meant to be: Commercial, yes, but for once, commercial in a good way. My eldest son will celebrate his very first Father’s Day this weekend, his son having just been born in March. And my youngest son will also be a father before the year is out.

IMG_1295

The Circle of Life must continue, with all of the love and hate and pain and grief and joy that accompany it. Father’s Day is a day of contrasts.

So I wish a Happy Father’s Day to all of you dads out there, but especially to my own dad, and also to my sons, with whom the cycle now begins anew and for whom it will continue until their own little sea lions swim out to sea.

How do you celebrate Father’s Day? Is it a happy day for you, or a difficult one?

Welcome!

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Hello, and welcome to my blog! This is definitely a learn-as-you-go proposition, and I’m still figuring out how everything works and trying to feel my way around, but I’m very glad you’re here!

The blog has two primary purposes:

The first is to share my journey as I finish and publish my first novel, which I’ve been working on much too sporadically during my summer and winter breaks since 2006. With this section of the blog I hope to connect with other writers, sharing tips (please, please share your tips with me!) and keeping each other motivated during the slow times. I have a lot of slow times!

The second purpose of the blog is to develop a community for high school and college students and instructors. If you’re stuck or struggling at any stage of the writing process, this page might be a good place to go for tips and encouragement. Please feel free to ask questions and share your own experiences and ideas!

My plan is to blog twice (or maybe three times) a week, once for each purpose, though along the way, I’m likely to throw in a few curve balls that have little or nothing to do with either my own writing or teaching. It’ll be pot luck!

I hope you’ll keep checking back to see what’s new!

Evelyne Holingue

Chronicles, Stories & Books by a French-American Writer

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