Keywords

    • Anaphora
      • A rhetorical/poetic figure in which the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of sentences or lines (in the case of poetry) creates emphasis. In nonfiction prose, we might think of this as a way the essayist can create rhythm or even rhyme at the beginning. John D’Agata employs this figure frequently in the essay in Lifespan of a Fact.
    • Counterargument
      • A rhetorical element of the essay in which the logic of the argument would seem to turn toward contradiction, or some basic form of logical fallacy. What makes it rhetorical and not a logical fallacy is when this seeming contradiction is deliberately explored. A good counterargument then highlights the sort of tension/conflict/complication that makes for a good argument and essay (aspect of the dramatic qualities of the thinking and writing). It also enhances the pathos (another rhetorical element) of the essay, since the writer is admitting that there are other views out there (views that her/his reader might have), possible objections, and rather than dismissing them, is willing to explore them. In Emerson’s essays find good examples of counterargument as the dialectical tension or electromagnetic energy of his writing–moving between polarities. A counterargument that is opened but not resolved is problematic–that is closer to run of the mill contradiction. Consider this discussion of counterargument turning away from the thesis and then needing to turn back.
    • Dramatic character of the essay
      • The essay, we see, has dramatic elements. As Jeff Porter puts it: “essays are more dramatic than we might suspect.” Porter points to several elements we can associate with drama:
        • crisis: when conflict reaches a turning point in an essay.
          • in the academic essay: think of the “thesis”–a comparison that one can make between an essay and a screenplay (as I argue here).
        • persona: the narrator as character, the “I” as performed
        • recognition: as Porter suggests, “the essay’s payoff is recongition”; an insight into both the familiar and the strange. Think of this as a key rhetorical element of the essay: where readers are led by the essayist into thinking differently.
        • scene: this is a point Gutkind emphasizes as crucial for creative nonfiction–building around scenes for showing (not telling) information; the exposition that is important for nonfiction narrative. See Gutkind’s yellow test.
        • staging: ideas and arguments and topics in essays are re-presented (not just presented) in written form. Not everything can be included. So, the staging of an essay, or of a particular section or passage in an essay, means not just that it might be artful, but that (just as with the dramatic stage) what is not in view is also part of the story–and part of what the writer needs to consider. Kenneth Burke’s basic definition of what makes all thought and writing rhetorical, and thus dramatic, speaks to this: “Every way of seeing is a way of not seeing.”
    • Ekphrasis
      • A rhetorical device in which a visual work of art is represented in verbal form–or more broadly, verbal description of visual phenomena. A famous example: The “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by the poet Keats; also, consider William Carlos Williams, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” In nonfiction, you can think of the verbal description of an image, a painting (Kaysen, Girl Interrupted), or a photograph (Flynn’s descriptions of the photographs in The Ticking is the Bomb that he never reproduces) or Dillard and her focus on the total eclipse (by way of photographs) and on lenses. You may not necessarily include in your nonfiction a description of a visual work of art; however, you may well need to be more ekphrastic  (the adjective form) in your writing in places, particularly as a strategy for exposition, for witnessing, and for bringing more figuration into your work. Since the relation between how we see and what we say is often in conflict, ekphrasis can introduce tension into the writing worth exploring.
    • Enargia: rhetorical figure of vivid, lively description; writing that provides the reader with a mental picture of what is being discussed or argued. Think of Eric Schlosser taking his reader into the slaughterhouse.
    • Essay
      • The noun you are familiar with, perhaps too familiar with from schooling: a piece of nonfiction writing, usually with some sort of thesis statement or argument. The verb form “essay” might surprise you: to attempt, to try–as in, to experiment, to explore. As Montaigne, the “father” of the essay puts it: I portray passing. Since the essay tradition, from classic to very contemporary, has long been interested in the verb more so than the noun, in essaying, we will give our attention to the less familiar aspects of the ‘essay’–yet recognize the ways that our understanding of the essay can strengthen our reading and writing across the curriculum and beyond the academy.
    • Exposition
      • In terms of rhetoric, exposition is a mode of discourse that focuses on information, an argument or essay that focuses on informing or explaining. We certainly engage this in our focus on the “rhetoric of the essay,” in the more documentary oriented work of Schlosser as well as the expeditionary essays of Dillard. In terms of fictional and film narrative, exposition refers to the way information is introduced into the narrative–particularly regarding plot, character, themes. One of the problems evident in film narrative regarding exposition: the information dump. This is when the information is provided by being told explicitly to the viewer, artificially dumped upon them; think of the character in a film who thinks out loud so as to tell the audience information; think of prose that reads like a resume–and then, and then, and then. The sort of autobiography we are reading, or as it is called, creative nonfiction, combines elements of both types of exposition–the rhetorical and the fictional. I think of this as “critical reflection” where personal narrative (information regarding characters and scenes and ‘plot’) reinforces the critical narrative–the argument or focus of the text. This is particularly evident in Toby Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s life. Think of all the “scenes” and moments in which things are being communicated by way of implication, shown us, but not told to us–and more to the point, shown to us as partial or fragmentary understanding. In fact, I would say we learn from that narrative’s style of exposition that Toby lives in a world of implication, of partial communication and understanding. White’s “Once More to the Lake” provides a good example of effective exposition. Gass notes that Emerson’s essays have exposition, but he lets it drift into more poetic effects. As you explore your own essay writing, you will need to think about exposition and work on avoiding information dumps.
    • Irony
      •  A rhetorical figure in which the writer explores and puts to use some separation between appearance and reality, some sort of multiple meaning–saying one thing and meaning something else. [an ironic phrase would be considered poetic; irony used to organize a larger portion of an essay or an argument would be rhetorical] Since irony derives from the Greek for “dissimulation,” we would tend not to associate it with nonfiction, with narratives based in fact (see it more in fiction and drama–the most famous case, the dramatic irony of Oedipus). But in nonfiction, which has we see is also dramatic in its effects and interests, irony emerges as some level of distance between the writer/essayist and his or her topic/subject. Susan Sontag emphasizes the significance of irony in the rhetoric of the photographic portraits of Arbus–and suggests its absence in the portraits of a photographer such as Walker Evans. We can ask the same question about the rhetoric of the essayists portrayal: is there distance between what the writer (or narrator–another possible mark of distance, if the persona is not the same as the writer) says about the subject and what she thinks. The characteristics of the Alanis Morisette song “Ironic” are not, by the way, good examples of irony. However, the fact that a song about irony gets the examples wrong is wonderfully ironic. This reminds us that irony is a powerful rhetorical tool when–like all other matters of rhetoric and poetics–used deliberately; irony by accident is problematic for the writer. Just ask Oedipus.
    • Lyric Essay
      • A category of creative nonfiction–and possibly, a synonym for the notion: for nonfiction that crosses boundaries of fact into imagination, creativity, fiction, poetry. For a discussion of the ‘lyric essay’ of the poet Claudia Rankine, see my post on lyrical autobiography.
        • John D’Agata, a contemporary nonfiction writer and scholar of the essay (we read him at the end of the course), expresses several of these qualities in his definition:

          The lyric essay, as some have called the form, asks what happens when an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem. What happens when an essayist starts imagining things, making things up, filling in blank spaces, or–worse yet–leaving the blanks blank?What happens when statistics, reportage, and observation in an essay are abandoned for image, emotion, expressive transformation?… What’s a lyric essay? It’s an oxymoron: an essay that’s also a lyric; a kind of logic that wants to sing; an argument that has no chance of proving anything. [D’Agata, The Next American Essay, 436-7]

    • Metaphor

    ◦  A poetic and rhetorical figure or figure of speech–that is, a figurative or symbolic use of language–in which an idea or concept is expressed by comparing or transferring it to another idea/concept that is different from it, but has some resemblance or similarity to it–usually a visual similarity. For example tears are not raindrops, but resemble raindrops. One could write: Their eyes rained a monsoon (simile, related to metaphor, would be: their eyes were like monsoons.) In addition to being a specific figure of speech, metaphor can be viewed more broadly as a way we conceptualize the world in language, by way of making comparisons and analogies based on similarity. In terms of imagery, metaphor works something like a surrealist painting, or a montage in film. In literature, it tends to be associated more with poetry and symbolism.  Examples: Wilbur’s house as ship, the injured bird (starling) in “The Writer”; Woolf’s moth.

    ◦  A poetic and rhetorical figure or figure of speech–that is, a figurative or symbolic use of language–in which an idea or concept is expressed by renaming it with another idea/concept that is related to it in terms of context or (usually) some sort of physical or temporal connection or association. A classic metonymy: to refer to or discuss a writer or his style in terms of the “hand” or “pen” of the writer–that is, a tool of writing, related to the context of writing and physically connected to the writer .  In addition to being a specific figure of speech, metonymy, like metaphor, can also be viewed more broadly as a primary way we conceptualize the world in language, name it, by way of words connected to, or part of, what we are talking about. In this sense, where metaphors can be very effective in being abstract (we might think of that as being highly symbolic), metonymy often works by way of concrete or realistic images. In terms of imagery, think of cubist painting or a close-up in film. In terms of literature, we tend to find metonymy more in realism. Examples: Williams’ car wheels (and everything else in that song); White’s lake (and its related, contiguous elements).

    • Nonfiction
      • representation of a subject, in writing, film, art or other form, that the author bases on fact; in some sense, anything that is not fiction. Important and related categories of nonfiction are: autobiography, biography, documentary, memoir–and perhaps as the bedrock for all, the essay. More recently, to characterize the emergence of nonfiction writing that was literary and that borrowed tools from fiction (figurative language, narrative techniques) even while remaining based in fact, the term “Creative Nonfiction” (with related terms: literary nonfiction; New Journalism) emerged.
    • Persuasive Appeal: Ethos, Logos, Pathos
      • A method or device for discovering (inventing) or analyzing the ways a writer appeals to or rhetorically organizes the attention of her/his audience. That appeal can be based on one of three things: the credibility or standing of the writer (ethos); the evidence the writer presents and argues (logos); the emotional and imaginative connection the writer makes with the reader (pathos). A persuasive argument or essay has elements of all three, in strongest cases, working together.
    • Specificity
      •  It is something of a truism of writing advice to “be specific.” The gurus in this are Strunk and White, who say: “If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is this: the surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers — Homer, Dante, Shakespeare — are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.” The key to being specific is particularity; think particulars. Another writing teacher, Natalie Goldberg, describes being specific as giving things the dignity of their names. A good example of writing into, and through, specificity: N.Scott Momaday’s The Names. And even though Nick Flynn lays great emphasis on bewilderment, on the confusion of getting lost, we recognize the specificity with which he reads and writes his way into that bewilderment. We can add Annie Dillard to the list. Specificity immerses readers into the material. Immersion, one of Lee Gutkind’s 5 R’s of creative nonfiction (real-life experience) thus emerges from the writer’s work in being specific.
    • Style
      • In studies of literature and writing, we generally think of ‘style’ as the characteristics of a piece of writing that distinguishes the writer, that in some way identifies the writer. In this sense, style can be thought of as a marker of the writer’s identity, his or her autobiography, so to speak. However, style at the same time carries implications of conformity–characteristics or conventions of writing that a writer must follow or conform to. You know these the best with reference to citation formatting: MLA or APA style. And by extension, style can also be somewhat of a synonym for styles and conventions of editing, grammar, usage. A famous book by Strunk and White is titled The Elements of Style. The word itself derives from stylus, a tool used in early writing–for making marks on clay tablets. So, there is a tension and contradiction between style as unique and style as conventional. Style will be an element in considering the poetics as well as the rhetoric of essays–and to some extent, it will also factor into the philosophy of the essay.

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