For Teachers and Students
An Idea Worth Sharing
The Humble Essayist is mainly a teaching and learning tool. My goal is to introduce readers of the site to the voices and ideas of engaging and provocative nonfiction writers, an educational goal indeed. After more than forty-years of teaching at secondary, college, and now at the graduate school level, I can’t seem to kick the habit. But, as often happens, the teacher is the one who learns the most.
I have found in writing for THE that the Paragraph of the Week is a great device for getting inside an author's work. Selecting the paragraph, thinking thematically, carefully supplying context, and commenting on craft choices require hard thinking into the author's obsessions. It has been both fun and illuminating for me. Also sharing the discoveries and getting feedback is rewarding and illuminating as well.
So I would like for my readers who teach to consider assigning The Humble Essayist Paragragh (THE-P) as a way to teach essays, essay collections, and essayistic memoirs. I suppose that the idea could be extended, too, to poetry and fiction. It teaches wonderful lessons about thoughtful, concise literary commentary all packed into one paragraph—which can cut down on grading time!
Students might try the assignment on their own. Writing a THE-P gives them considerable command of the ideas and texture of a piece of writing and is great preparation for papers and tests. It requires a kind of sorting of material that leads to a more complete understanding of the work and burns essentials into the memory.
My friend, the essayist Jill Christman, who was herself featured in The Humble Essayist on July 25, 2014, uses the assignment with her writing classes at Ball State University, and she is glad to share her version with other teachers. Here, slightly edited, is what Jill wrote to me:
Here's the (deceptively simple) assignment I'm requiring of my students--seriously, it's working like a charm, for all the reasons you identified when you conceived this project, of course:
THE HUMBLE ESSAYIST PARAGRAPH (THE-P): Inspired by the work essayist Steven Harvey has been doing on his blog, The Humble Essayist () , we will be selecting (carefully) paragraphs from published essays (you may choose from any essay we’ve read) and writing our own polished, condensed, right-to-the-heart-of-the-matter, one-paragraph critiques.
I think Jill’s assignment says it all—and there are certainly many models for students to follow in the Archive pages of the site. Use her assignment or create your own—and let me know how it goes by sending a tweet to @THEsharvey or an e-mail from the “Contact and Links” button at the top of this page. Thanks for reading The Humble Essayist and have fun with the assignment.--THE
THE Archive of Student Paragraphs
The Humble Essayist is pleased that teachers have begun assigning THE paragraphs to their students. The work below comes from students that my colleague and friend Bob Root and I taught during the year in the Ashland MFA. I’m proud of what these students have accomplished and happy to give the page over to them. You can scroll through it if you like or click on the names below to go directly to a particular author. All of the books that the students wrote about were done by THE this year as well, so you can see a different take on each by going to the archive. We hope to add more students to this page in the future.
Kathleen Cadmus on Suki Kim
from Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite
by Suki Kim
“The emptiness runs deep, deeper with each slowing day, and you become increasingly invisible and inconsequential.”—Suki Kim
Suki Kim is the Korean-American author of the award-winning novel The Interpreter. Born in South Korea, she moved to New York with her parents when she was thirteen-years-old. She has been traveling to North Korea as a journalist since 2002. In her memoir, Without You, There Is No Us, she writes about the six month period she spent teaching English in North Korea in 2011. I discovered this memoir when I read the February 6, 2015 paragraph on The Humble Essayist. I was drawn to reading it because of my own Korean-American daughter’s return to her birthland of South Korea to teach English in 2009. My MFA thesis is structured around my own three-week visit to South Korea during the year my daughter is living there. Even though my daughter was in South Korea, much of the isolation, feeling invisible, and looking back at her culture that Kim expressed, echoed what my daughter experienced.—Kathleen Cadmus
“Time there seemed to pass differently. When you are shut off from the world, every day is exactly the same as the one before. This sameness has a way of wearing down your soul until you become nothing but a breathing, toiling, consuming thing that awakes to the sun and sleeps at the dawning of the dark. The emptiness runs deep, deeper with each slowing day, and you become increasingly invisible and inconsequential. That’s how I felt at times, a tiny insect circling itself, only to continue, and continue. There, in that relentless vacuum, nothing moved. No news came in or out. No phone calls to or from anyone. No emails, no letters, no ideas not prescribed by the regime. Thirty missionaries disguised as teachers and 270 male North Korean students and me, the sole writer disguised as a missionary disguised as a teacher. Locked in that prison disguised as a campus in an empty Pyongyang suburb, heavily guarded around the clock, all we had was one another.”—Suki Kim
The one-paragraph prologue of Suki Kim’s memoir sets the tone for her telling about her experience teaching English to the sons of the elite in the secretive, confined, and controlling environment of North Korea. Before we dive into her first chapter, we know that living and teaching in North Korea has worn down her soul. The words she chooses—toiling, emptiness, invisible, relentless, vacuum, wearing—all fit the way she later describes the campus and surrounding area of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) where she taught English. Her repetition of the word “no” gives emphasis to the deep emptiness of her environment. James Kim, a very wealthy evangelical Christian Korean-American, recruited thirty missionaries to teach in the school he had raised $10 million to support. The missionaries went as English teachers (although they were forbidden to share their faith). Kim’s goal in going was to write about life in the most unknowable and secretive country in the world. She was a writer “disguised as a missionary disguised as a teacher.” Suki Kim states that her obsession with North Korea “had its roots in the year 1945, decades before I was even born.” That was the year when the kingdom of Korea was divided and liberated from Japan. But she also thinks her obsession “became inevitable when I was a child growing up in South Korea.” Suki Kim returned from her six months of teaching a changed person with an intimate knowledge of her divided country of origin. Kim secretly kept notes about her every day experiences, with constant fear that they would be taken from her. “”I had a secret, many secrets,” she wrote in reference to her notes. “I copied the documents onto three USB sticks, hid two in my room, and carried one with me at all times.” She also copied the documents onto her camera’s SIM card. They contained her beautiful and brave and raw language, giving the reader a unique and personal look at living inside North Korea.—Kathleen Cadmus
Kathleen Cadmus is a psychiatric Nurse Practitioner in a private practice in Central Ohio. Life, motherhood, and decades devoted to her nursing profession—from mental health, to pediatrics, to OB, to prison work, to hematology, and back to mental health—have offered up many opportunities for reflection and rumination. Kathleen is midway through the Ashland University MFA program in creative nonfiction.
Michelle Shappell Harris on Jill Kandel
from So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village
by Jill Kandel
“Jill Kandel, poetic in other passages, is almost mute before the beauty of a world so different than her native North Dakota.”—Michelle Shappell Harris
Jill Kandel is the winner of the 2014 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Prize for So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village. In 1982, she and her husband traveled as newlyweds to Zambia. She gave birth to two children, bridged a cultural divide with her husband from the Netherlands, and was emotionally devastated by a car accident that took the life of a Zambian child. For years Kandel struggled to find her voice and herself, a struggle that her book records.
I do not yet know the power these rivers will hold over me. They will become my way out of Kalabo Village and they will be the barriers that prevent me from going out. For the next six years, for the most part, these rivers will be my highway. My trips out will vary, from a one-time speedboat bonanza two-hour whirl, to a fourteen-hour stagnant water boat with thirty-four other people and all their katundu, in the rain, and in blazing sunshine. I will swim in them, and they will give me the gifts of bilharzia and giardia. My neighbors will fish in them, wash in them, have arms bitten off by hippos in them, be killed by crocodiles. They will become my one source of beauty as I learn some of the names of the hundreds of amazing birds that fly, nest, hatch, fish, and die along their banks, and just above the waters.—Jill Kandel
In So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village, Jill Kandel delves into the first six years of her marriage, when she and her Dutch husband lived in a poor rural area of Africa. Her husband is a volunteer for a successful agricultural project sponsored by the Dutch government. His skills are making a tangible impact in the lives of district farmers and communities. Jill’s American nursing degree is of no use in this former British colony; she is not allowed to work or volunteer at the local hospital. Unable to communicate with most people who speak one of five Bantu languages, her world becomes small. “My life in Zambia is tedious. Fork by fork, cup by cup, my life is becoming a monotonous repetition of survival. All my days come down to the same thing: food, water, and clean clothes.” Near the beginning of her book, as she writes about the rivers, Kandel communicates themes that she will return to in short, lyrical chapters We read of her utter isolation. Her small village is, “a fourteen hour stagnant water boat with thirty-four other people,” away from the nearest large town. We are given a hint of the damage that Africa inflicts on her in the exotic sounding tropical diseases. We read of the everyday centrality of life on the rivers, fishing and swimming, and of its horrors—arms bitten off and people killed by crocodiles. Kandel hints of later connections, describing the Zambians as her neighbors. Kandel ends the paragraph with a glimpse of the almost incomprehensible beauty of Africa. Notice her hesitancy here. “I learn some of the names of the hundreds of amazing birds…” Jill Kandel, poetic in other passages, is almost mute before the beauty of a world so different than her native North Dakota.—Michelle Shappell Harris
Michelle Shappell Harris is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Ashland University. She often writes about belonging and place, drawing on her experiences living nineteen years in France and Gabon, a country on the west coast of Africa. She and her family have now settled in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Elizabeth Dark Wiley on Charles D’Ambrosio
by Charles D’Ambrosio
“Charles D’Ambrosio’s ‘By Way of a Preface’ is an ode to the personal essay.”—Elizabeth Dark Wiley
The paragraph I’ve chosen comes from the preface (which he calls “By Way of A Preface”) of Charles D’Ambrosio’s book Loitering. D’Ambrosio’s paragraphs tend to be extremely long, and only the second half of the paragraph is transcribed here.—Elizabeth Dark Wiley
Elizabeth Dark Wiley lives in Mount Vernon, OH where she teaches writing courses at a local university and works at Paragraphs Bookstore. She is also a Contributing Editor for Windhover. Her essays have appeared in Ruminate Magazine, The Curator, and Blue Bear Review. Her essay "If You Want It to Last . . ." was runner up for Ruminate Magazine's 2015 Vandermey Nonfiction Prize. Currently she is pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Ashland University.
One of my earliest ideas about writing was that the rhythms of prose came from the body, and although I still believe that, I still don’t know what I mean. I would discover, eventually, that some of [M.F.K.] Fisher’s love of food was a celebratory rebellion against a similar tyranny at home, a rejection of the dulling rules and sumptuary restrictions of the dinner table set by her grandmother. Prose moves so mysteriously that I believe I heard this unstated fact in the rhythm of her sentences long before her biography confirmed it. It came to me sotto voce, whispered on a lower frequency, a secret shared between intimates. And so, while the superficial subject of Fisher’s essays may have drawn me in, offering a fantasy world in which foie gras and Dom Perignon mattered, soon enough it was language itself, and more specifically, the right she assumed to be exact about her life, that won me completely. More than the wonders of Provence or advice on how to serve peacock tongues on toast, it was her prose that taught me how to pay attention, and it was the essay, as a form, that was the container, the thing that caught and held the words like holy water, offering the gift of awareness, the simple courtesy of acknowledgement, even to a life as ordinary as mine.—Charles D’Ambrosio
Charles D’Ambrosio’s “By Way of a Preface” is an ode to the personal essay. In the first half of this particular paragraph, he describes his first experience with an essay collection. It was a book on food by M.F.K. Fisher. He admits a great deficiency in his consideration of food up to this point, sharing that his upbringing involved no reverence for the subject, “it was at family meals that we learned indifference to our bodies, but it was in prose, particularly the kind I found in the personal essay, that a relationship to that body began to be restored, at least for me.” In the second half of this paragraph, the portion here, D’Ambrosio explains the connection he felt with Fisher’s writing before he even knew of their shared past with food. And this connection came not so much through her subject matter, but rather through “the rhythm of her sentences,” through which he witnessed her claiming the “right to be exact about her life.” He credits her with teaching him how to pay attention, and all through her way with words about food! The subject was clearly secondary to the lessons in awareness through form that she taught him. “The simple courtesy of acknowledgement.” And so, for D’Ambrosio, the act of writing became a “celebratory rebellion” against the rules and restrictions he perceived around him. I take great comfort away from his explication of her work and the richness she offered him through her careful articulation of the ordinary. He notes how, through her holding the details up in the "container" of the essay, she elevated them from ordinary to holy.—Elizabeth Dark Wiley
Denise Wilkinson on Lauren Slater
from Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir
by Lauren Slater
“. . . perhaps there was no snowstorm or falling nuns, but the essence, that she learned to fall and what that means, is so clearly communicated that I don`t care if there was a literal snowball fight.”—Denise Wilkinson
The paragraph of the week comes from Lauren Slater’s Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir. This paragraph screamed to be shared the first time I read it, but alas I was alone, tucked away in the corner of a gym reading and trying to avoid being hit by errant volleyballs while my son and his team practiced serving. I am thrilled The Humble Essayist has offered me the opportunity to point it out to readers who will appreciate it! THE featured a paragraph from this befuddling book earlier this year, but this paragraph makes it worth coming back to. I love metaphor. Like, total and complete Dork-Geek Love. And, while some of the book may be exactly what it is called – a lie – the metaphor part is not false advertising; Slater knows how to capture her readers in a web of metaphor.
The Paragraph of the Week
And then, just like that, still laughing, maybe giddy on the excess of weather, Sister Maria pushed at Sister Agnes, who in turn threw a scoop of snow at Sister Katherine, and in the snap of some of the strangest seconds I`ve ever seen, this holy place became a beach party, a white-water fight, waves of snow hurled left and right, and habits flapping, and laughter, and laughter, and laughter, it caught, was fire, and I felt the glow in my chest, like my heart was Jesus` heart on the outside of my skin. I sprinted out the door and whooped with delight, it was war, it was peace, it was wet, it was warm, I pranced with the silly nuns, and to this day I don`t know which sister it was who pushed me down, but down I went, the holy hand moving me down, falling onto ground, and all the snow was singing.
In the summer of 2014, Robert Root and Steven Harvey (THE’s alter-ego) delivered a craft session at the summer residency of the MFA in Writing program at Ashland University titled “Sentences and Sequences: Crafting Prose by Touch and Sound.” The idea was to take sentences from the greats, write them with your own hand – touching them to learn their secrets – and pay attention to the way the words are arranged and how they sound, in order to learn how to write by touch and sound. When I read the paragraph of the week, it begged me to deconstruct it in such a way. This delightful paragraph is not only full of apt contradictions – “it was war, it was peace,” with a beach party of snow – but contradictions to the rules of grammar itself. The entire paragraph is only two sentences which run-on like the content, full of many things but especially “laughter and laughter and laughter” like waves on a shore. Listen some more: the sentences rush yet the hard consonants and long vowels make you slow down when you read it aloud. Consider the alliteration of “scoop of snow at Sister Katherine, and in the snap of some of the strangest seconds I’ve ever seen.” Who puts that many s’s in one sentence and pulls it off? Slater does. Then she ends it with the beautiful, soft vowel Dylan-esque line that rolls like a gentle wave on the tongue: “and all the snow was singing.” Oh, the metaphor. Never mix your metaphors, I was taught as an undergrad, yet here we find a whitewater fight beach party with waves of snow and it works – boy, does it ever. And to this day, I don’t know if the snowball fight really happened; perhaps there was no snowstorm or falling nuns, but the essence, that she learned to fall and what that means, is so clearly communicated that I don`t care if there was a literal snowball fight. This paragraph demonstrates what she later writes: “secretly each and every one of us longs to fall, and knows in a deep wise place in our brains that surrender is the means by which we gain, not lose, ourselves.”—Denise Wilkinson