My students are writing definition essays. It’s gotten me thinking about style and interpretation, and about the reasons that we write at all.
If we want definitions, after all, we can find them –in heavy old dictionaries; online, in a mere matter of seconds; and, endlessly, from learned experts all too eager to share what they know. But no one else can tell us just how we ourselves have come to define a term–how a concept emerges, once it filters through our personal meshes. Only we know what facets are held back, which nuggets make it through, what gets caught and needs tugging,–needs a push here and a pull there,–to emerge through the fascinating sieves of our psyches.
As we work to develop our own writing styles, it is nice, sometimes, not to fret about the format and just to worry about the flow. So we teach students forms–modes–ways of organizing thought. These are pre-built structures that we can cover with the multi-colored canvas of our own experiences and perceptions. [No two patterns, blares the ad, will ever be alike!] We can work on the words to use, the stories that illustrate, the images we want to invoke, and, having woven those together, we can stretch them over that sturdy, existing skeleton. When we do that, we create a creature that no one else–not even our identical twin–could breathe into life.
Our style emerges in the interpretation.
These days, I no longer teach full-time; I’m mired in an office, coordinating and facilitating. But this term, a valued colleague, an instructor of English, fell suddenly ill. We pressed two wonderful adjuncts into service; one was delighted to teach a composition course. The other embraced teaching the ‘literature of sustainability.’ But there were two Monday/Wednesday writing classes yet unstaffed, and no good candidates free at just the right times to teach them.
When that realization hit, a couple of heads swiveled my way, and my boss said to me, “Oh, go on. Go ahead. Who else could do it?”
So I agreed, although it’s a lot of extra preparation and a lot of extra time in reading and responding thoughtfully to essays, and although, even in the scant five years since I stepped out of the classroom, there’s new technology to be learned. But I am really glad to help, and it’s nice to again have direct student contact, and I am teaching from a framework created by the instructor, who is also my friend.
My first-year students are picking a concept from a list and defining it for this essay, their Assignment Number Two. They might define fear, or joy, or wealth, or self-respect. They could show, in their views, what it means to be a slob, or what to means to be a hero. They could interpret a new-ish slang term [I felt so trendy when I learned ‘on fleek’ enough to use it intelligently, recently; then, the very day after I heard it, I read an article that said ‘on fleek’ was so last year. Sigh. I define, without trying, what it means to NOT be hip.] And they could, my colleague suggested, make up their own term, and define that.
In selecting a term, and in deciding how to define it, the students’ own unique thoughts, their particular and peculiar interpretations, have got to shine through–that’s an unavoidable result of the assignment.
It strikes me that doing a definition essay is a great exercise in peeling away layers and uncovering style.
Here’s what my students are challenged to do. Maybe…you’d like to try it, too?
—Pick the term or concept. They have the choices above, and as I pondered this, I started to get excited. Think of all the other things one could define, too: true kindness. Family. Friendship. Loyalty. Poverty. Goodness…or evil. Untold riches. Consequences. Thoughtlessness. Comfort. Splendor. Do you have a word, a concept, a value, that, right now, is close to your heart?
—Craft an opening (at least one paragraph, but it could be two, or three; heck, it could be more than that) that contains these elements, in any order:
—A ‘hook’–the device that gets the reader interested and willing to read on.
—Your personal definition of the term you’ve chosen.
—Your ‘road-map’–a preview of the structure that will move you through the essay.
—Write the body paragraphs, the ones in which you really explore. Use examples to show what your definition means. Tell stories that illustrate how you came to believe in your definition. Contrast what you know to be true with what is, you see so clearly, patently false. Quote experts (and attribute the quoting.) Invoke the wisdom of the ages, or the unsullied clear-eyed vision of a child. Paragraph by thoughtful paragraph, use the ideas above, or use other techniques that seem right to you, to detail your definition.
–And then, definition complete, conclude. Wrap it all up nicely, so neatly that,even if someone thinks quietly, “That’s not at ALL how I define happiness,” that person still totally gets what you are saying. He or she may not have had the same experiences, the same reactions, or the clear and startling revelations that you have had, but you’ve explained it all so succinctly and so well that the reader thinks, “I understand. I know I would think the same if X and Y had happened to me!”
(Remember, as long as all these elements are there, the order in which they are written matters not a whit. You could write the body, then go back and write an opening that fits those uncovered thoughts. You could write what you think is a bang-up opening, and decide, once you’ve written the body of your essay, that the opening is a much better conclusion. As long as the elements are all there when you hit ‘publish,’ the process and the pace of writing are immaterial.)
The concept you choose to define tells us something about your style. The stories you tell about it go even further. Did you pick a hilarious story about the time you tried to hide the broken watermelon, and Uncle Edbert sat on it, to illustrate the lost joys of childhood? Did you write about the time your mother spent three days straight, never sleeping, at the deathbed of her father, to explain devotion? Did you tell a fall-down-laughing story about your crazy high school chemistry teacher to show how much fun learning can be?
Only you would choose to blend the examples you invoke in the precise way that you invoke them. Only you would select those particular words, in that particular order, to make your point fly home, straight and true, to the heart of our–the readers’–understandings. Only you would wrap it up, your definition essay, with that fillip or flourish, that nice little satisfying flash of finesse.
Ironic, isn’t it, in the nicest possible way? We set out trying to define a term; we end up striding toward a definition of our own unique styles.
If you do decide to write a definition essay, I hope you’ll share it; I would purely love to read it.
Happy blogging my friends!