On-line Guide with Exercises & Additional Museum Exhibits For

Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose


Presentation versus Description

Classic style is not descriptive style. The word “description” covers so much ground that Pascal could be said to give a “description” of the Jansenist position and Liebling a “description” of the modest threshold in the passages quoted below as exhibits in the Museum, but I want to narrow the meaning of “descriptive style” to a stand in which the writer is a delivery device, a videocamera, a conduit passing salient and canonical features of what he perceives through to the reader. Sometimes the description is cast as a running account of the writer’s perceptions. Sometimes it conforms to a general template (“Suspect is a 5' 10" male, white, medium-build, with short brown hair, tattoo on left forearm, last seen wearing baseball cap and track suit”). In descriptive style, the writer is not responsible for including an element in the description, in fact has no obligation to present but merely to report or describe. The writer’s justification for including an element in the description is simply that it is a salient or canonical feature of what is to be described. The writer is no more to blame for including something in the description than the videocamera is for the image it relays.

The classic stylist, by contrast, first perceives an interesting, not necessarily grand, truth that is worth presenting. This perception almost always involves conceptual nuance—the classic stylist would otherwise have no reason to speak, since there is no call to point out what everyone already sees. The classic stylist then presents the truth she has perceived. She does not simply report it, pass it along, hand it over. The chef who perceives in the lettuce, endive, grapefruit, and olive oil a combined taste does not plop them in front of the diner. Instead, she works invisibly to make that taste perceptible to the diner, gives the salad a presentation on a plate, and hands it to the waiter for its complete presentation to the diner. The restaurant takes full responsibility for the quality of the dish and the appropriateness of the presentation—it has no excuse for presenting something not worth eating.

If I ask for a description of a car accident I can object if you don’t tell me the point of impact and the nature of the damage. If I ask for a description of a building I can object if you don’t tell me how many floors it has. But a presentation of the car accident or the building has none of these obligations. A description of a wound and a presentation of the same wound come with different requirements, different scenes, different motives, different justifications, different responsibilities.

A classic presentation can recruit, partially, from descriptive style, as when Liebling tells us that someone has long hair and white teeth, is about six feet tall and dressed in rags, but in such a case Liebling is presenting rather than describing because Liebling is responsible for having selected these elements, feels no obligation to meet the standards of canonical description—indeed might leave out everything a description would be obliged to include and instead provide us with features that would never have appeared in a description. It is possible that an excerpt from a classic piece could count as an adequate description, but its adequacy as a description would be accidental. It would not have been motivated to be adequate in that way.

A description of a chair cannot omit the fact that it is brown or has no legs, but a presentation of the chair might present nothing except the superb, nearly invisible craftsmanship evident in the way its back is sculpted to fit the human body. Can you “see” craftsmanship? In the classic stand, of course you can: everything that can be presented is assimilated to the model of perception. Vision is the prototype.

The descriptive stylist conveys what you would see if you were in his position. He is a substitute pair of eyes. By contrast, when a classic stylist presents, say, the interior of a store, although she takes the stand that of course what she presents is actually there in the store to be seen, it is not automatically assumed that you would have seen any of it had you walked into the store on your own, or that you would have known where to look for it, or even that you would have known that it could be found anywhere. The classic stylist takes the stand that you could not fail to perceive what she presents once she has presented it to you.

This assignment is intended to draw the distinction between presentation in classic style and description in descriptive style. Choose a concrete, definite, visible object; present it in classic style. Then treat it in descriptive style. Repeat the assignment for different subjects, advancing along a gradient toward invisible concepts. A typical scale might be: a pencil, a chair, a tree, a bird, a dress, the way a particular animal moves, the way a particular person talks, a place (Mount Vernon Square in Baltimore), a city (Washington, D.C.), someone’s character, a legal concept like perjury.

Practice your scales.

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Assumed Stand versus Real Situation

Classic style is defined by its assumed stand on the elements of style, not by the actual situation. In the real situation, it may be that there is no symmetry between writer and reader, that the reader is incompetent, that the scene is formal, that the writer is terrified, that the purpose is persuasion or defense or fraud, that the motive is ambition or vanity. The real situation can be anything. The classic writer nonetheless assumes the classic stand, complete with classic scene. It may be that Liebling was principally interested in getting you to admire Liebling rather than boxing. No matter. His writing takes the stand that fame is not the motive, persuasion not the purpose; on the contrary, the motive is truth, the purpose is presentation. It may be that in fact we read a classic piece for its style, and even that the writer’s real purpose is to lead us to admire the style rather than the subject. No matter. The classic writer adopts the stand that we are not reading for the style but rather for what he presents, and certainly that he is not writing for the style but rather for what he presents. Almost no one alive cares in the least about the dispute between the Sorbonne and the Jansenists that so motivated Pascal to write Les Lettres Provinciales, but the book is immortal because people read it for the writing. The real situation does not matter.

Often, a real setting will require a writer to represent a group or speak to a group; hence the prose may have surface marks of the actual scene—words like “we”; references to the audience as a group; a formula at the beginning and another one at the end marking the occasion. E.g., “The trustees of the museum invite the members of the audience to meet the actors at a reception following the performance.” This does not make the prose any less classic, because a style is defined by its assumed scene, not its real situation. As long as the voice presents itself as a single voice, not the rumble of bureaucracy, and sounds as if it is speaking for itself, not at the will or direction of some other authority, and sounds as if it is speaking to another classic mind, even if in reality it is speaking to a wide and diverse audience, the classic scene stays intact.

In the paragraph you have just read, I am in fact speaking for all teachers and analysts of classic prose; I represent my group and its accumulated learning. We teach classic prose, and I am presenting what we teach. I am also speaking to an audience of at least twenty or so students, some of whom I have never met and whose names I do not know. You know who you are. The facts that I represent a group, or say “we,” or speak to a wide audience, or even call you “students” does not make the prose any less classic. These are merely surface marks required by the real situation. Does this paragraph sound like one person talking informally to another? Is the assumed relationship between writer and reader symmetric? (It does not matter at all that I am actually the professor and you are actually the students.) In the assumed stance of the prose, is the writer competent? the reader competent? the language adequate? the motive truth? the purpose presentation? Does the prose have a clean onset and a clean dismount? The real situation and the surface marks that it imposes on the writing are beside the point. Style is defined by the writer’s stand, not by the moment in which the stand is actually assumed.

It is an invaluable power in a writer to be able to establish the assumed scene, cast, purpose, and motive. The assumed stand can effectively displace the reality. You may be assigned to do a piece of writing, but in fact almost no one wants to read a piece of writing that takes the stand that it is an assignment. You may in fact want something from the reader, but the reader may be disposed to resist, and so it can be much more effective to take the stand that you want nothing at all. You may be terrified and insecure, but by assuming the classic stand, you may hide that from the reader and perhaps even lose your terror and insecurity.

Assignment: Imagine yourself in five real situations, each one further from the assumed stand of classic style. In each situation, assume the classic stand, and write from that assumption.

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The Reading Daybook

(Gift of Todd Oakley)

The reading daybook documents a particular kind of reading. It documents your development as a critical reader of prose style. By the end of this semester, you should have accumulated approximately 30 entries, all of which will vary in detail. Here is the procedure: read two portions of text a week in expository prose. Your reading can be from a textbook, newspaper, magazine, web page, advertisement, pamphlet—any expository piece is fair game. Start small. Read your selection once, and then have the document in front of you as you answer the following six fundamental questions. You may make multiple entries for different portions of one text.

  1. What can be known?
  2. What can be put into words?
  3. What is the relationship between thought and language?
  4. Who is the writer addressing and why?
  5. What is the implied relationship between writer and reader?
  6. What are the implied conditions of discourse?

These six questions, taken from page twenty-two of Thomas and Turner’s Clear and Simple as the Truth, may be hard to find answers to at first, especially questions 1, 2, and 3. Aim to make specific comments for each question (you may not be able to come up with answers to all of them at first) regarding each piece of text. Remember each text has unique properties worth presenting.

The format of these entries should follow these general guidelines. Use a loose-leaf notebook. Tape this assignment sheet on the inside front cover. At the top of each page, provide a citation: author(s), press or publication, date of publication, and page number. Date each entry. On the page itself, provide numbered answers to the six questions. As the entries grow, so should the level of specificity and insight of your responses. I will check this daybook three times during the semester and grade it at the end of the course.

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The Sketchbook

(Gift of Todd Oakley)

Like an artist who keeps a sketchbook of her attempts to present something pictorially, you will keep a sketchbook of attempts to present something verbally. This sketchbook should be used every day. By the end of this course, you should have accumulated approximately 105 entries. Each entry should be legible and dated. Begin by dividing your sketchbook into five sections: objects, scenes (events), persons, abstractions, and class work. Our course will begin with you presenting concrete objects and events as well as people and will move toward presenting abstractions, which in classic style are presented as if they were concrete objects. You will have more entries under the concrete heading; however, by semester’s end you will have accumulated a significant number of abstract presentations (about 25). Bring this notebook to class every day. The work you do in it will provide material for your portfolio assignments. I recommend a loose-leaf notebook.

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Contrast, 1

(Gift of Michael Schoop)

Contrast the styles of the following two passages.

Annie Dillard
An American Childhood. New York: Harpercollins, 1987, page 47.

He chased us silently over picket fences, through thorny hedges, between houses, around garbage cans, and across streets. Every time I glanced back, choking for breath, I expected he would have quit. He must have been as breathless as we were. His jacket strained over his body. It was an immense discovery pounding into my hot head with every sliding, joyous step, that this ordinary adult evidently knew what I thought only children who trained at football knew: that you have to fling yourself at what you’re doing, you have to point yourself, forget yourself, aim, dive.

Albert Gore, Jr., Vice-President of the United States
Kyoto Climate Change Conference, December 8, 1997

So let us press forward. Let us resolve to conduct ourselves in such a way that our children’s children will read about the ‘Spirit of Kyoto,’ and remember well the place and time where humankind first chose to embark on a long-term sustainable relationship between our civilization and the Earth environment.

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Contrast, 2

The exhibit on page 129 of Clear and Simple as the Truth is a classic presentation of a portrait of Terukatsu. Constrast the style of that presentation with the style of Walter Pater’s presentation of the Mona Lisa, analyzed and quoted by Denis Donoghue in the following passage:

Denis Donoghue
“The Practice of Reading,” Ideas 5:2, 1998, pages 82-84

The most celebrated or derided record of an impression, as something not entirely subjective but more subjective than objective, is Pater’s commentary on La Gioconda of Leonardo da Vinci, the Mona Lisa. It is not a commentary in any strict sense; it is a reverie. Pater does not examine the painting for its formal qualities. He does not lead us through the painting as Leavis leads us through “Surprised by Joy,” helping us to “live through” the poem. Pater’s main concern is to divine the particular sensibility, the structure of feelings, which he thinks of as Leonardo’s, or at least Leonardesque, and then to respond to that with his own. The painting embodies a distinctive psychological type which Pater identifies as Leonardo’s. By looking at his works, or works deemed however inaccurately to be his, Pater gradually senses a type of human being, a particular discovery among the possible ways of being alive. Then, since he is an aesthetic critic, he lets that sense of the Leonaresque exert itself on his mind, inciting it to a new act of sensibility. The particular impression is what Pater’s mind does in return. When he contemplates a particular manifestation of the Leonardesque—say, when he looks at the Mona Lisa— he trusts the impression the painting incites his mind to produce. It is a new act of his own mind, an extension of his creative life. That is what his “reading” of the painting comes to. The critical problem is then to find the right words to convey that impression. So Pater writes of the Lady Lisa:

She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has molded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and the modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.

That passage of Pater’s may sound bizarre, a gorgeous flourish of nonsense, so much the rhapsody of a hedonist that it could not establish a tradition of criticism, but it has done exactly that. Critics have Pater’s authority, if they want to invoke it, when they give more credence to their mental acts in the face of a work of art than to any formal, historical or otherwise objective qualities the work may be shown to have. They have his authority, too, when they assume that the human mind or spirit is so abundant that no sequence of articulations could exhaust it. Critics can express some of that abundance: By divining it in the artist, they proclaim its possibility in themselves. We call that abundance one’s sensibility. Pater responds to it in Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo by trusting to his own provoked eloquence.

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A Suite of Writing Assignments: Introduction

We offer a suite of assignments to help the student distinguish between the real situation of the writing and the assumed scene of the style. Present, in classic style,

  • A visible physical object
  • An animal
  • A place
  • A work of art, particularly a painting or a sculpture
  • A meal
  • The character of a person
  • A person, in the form of an obituary
  • A legal or institutional concept, such as impeachment or monopoly
  • An abstract concept, such as confidence
  • The teaching of writing, as you know it
  • Yourself, in the form of a curriculum vitae
  • Yourself, in the form of a personal web page
  • Yourself, in the form of a college admissions essay
  • A controversial assertion, with evidence

In the classic stand, the writer, on the motive of truth, wanting nothing from the reader, presents something as if it and its features exist objectively and can be recognized once the writer points them out. Interpretations, opinions, judgments, and preferences are folded into the texture of specific facts and presented as if they are no different from specific facts. Some real situations—like pointing out features of an animal—are quite close to the stand of classic style. Other real situations—like presenting yourself in a job interview, or trying to argue the reader into agreement—are very far from the stand of classic style. But all of these real situations can be addressed in classic style. In the job interview, you take the stand that your motive is truth and your purpose presentation, that you want nothing from the interviewer, that you and the interviewer are intellectual equals, and that it never occurs to you that the interviewer will doubt what you point out. You turn a real situation of tension and opposition into a scene of pleasure and collusion by adopting the classic stand. To argue in classic style, you take the stand that you are not arguing at all, merely pointing out what there is to be seen, and that it never occurs to you to doubt that the reader will recognize what you present.

As you proceed through the suite of assignments, if you stumble at some point, break off and go back to presenting the visible, recognizable features of an object or animal. Study again the presentations of the Titmouse and the Northern Shrike in Clear and Simple as the Truth. Those pieces are the model for every other presentation in the suite of assignments. In the classic stand, presenting a controversial assertion, an abstract concept, or the invisible impulses of human psychology is no different from presenting the stripes on the wing of a bird.

Some of the assignments will be hard because you already know non-classic styles in which they are done. You know how to write a contemplative essay of effusive praise for a work of art, an endorsement of a restaurant meant to encourage your friends to dine there, an overtly argumentative essay in which you take one side in an adversarial dispute, and an official-sounding overstatement of your qualifications for a job you want. These automatic styles must be recognized, examined, and locked away, or they will take control of your writing.

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Presenting a Place, Presenting a Self

This is a dangerous assignment: present a place in classic style, and in doing so, implicitly present yourself. The student will typically choose to present a place that she finds psychologically powerful, often a place important in childhood or young adulthood. It is natural for the student to resort to a kind of poetic diction in which the phrases and phrasing tell readers what they are to think of the place—much the way the soundtrack to a movie tells us when to be happy, when to be apprehensive, when to be relieved. It is equally natural to try to make the prose iconic for the writer’s psychology, to enact in the writing the writer’s sensations. These impulses must be resisted if the writing is to stay classic.

The following passage is an example of a presentation of place. It implicitly presents the writer. It is classic in nearly every way, and of course superb in all ways, but its phrasing is so uniformly writerly as to lean away from the freshness of speech that belongs to prototypical classic style. With that exception, it would be a perfect execution of this assignment.

Mount Vernon, Baltimore

Daniel Mark Epstein
“Mr. Peabody and His Athenaeum,” in Tolstoy’s Dictaphone, edited by Sven Birkerts (Saint Paul, Minnesota: Greywolf Press, 1996), pages 165-167.

(Gift of Arthur Evenchik)

As I set out to learn the mysterious art of poetry twenty-five years ago, I got along in Baltimore on a weekly salary of forty dollars from part-time work in a jewelry store. I lived in a third-floor walk-up apartment on Cathedral Street just off Mount Vernon Square. Once H. L. Mencken occupied a lavish suite of rooms just up the street, overlooking the statuary and fountains of that city park he called the most beautiful in America. There the statue-topped pillar of the nation’s first Washington monument passes its shadow over a brick mansion designed by Stanford White, the Greek Revival pediment of the Walters Art Gallery, the columns of the cacophonous Music Conservatory and its venerable, silent neighbor, the George Peabody Library.

I say that I lived in the apartment, but the tiny efficiency in which I slept and wrote in the mornings was hardly a space for living. I lived, really, in the neighborhood of Mount Vernon, which twenty-five years ago still kept the serenity and something of the gentility of a southern town. In the summer, businessmen crossed the square wearing seersucker suits, bow ties, and straw hats. They shopped downtown in haberdasheries their grandparents had patronized. This was before the real estate boom and bust filled the streets with brokers, mortgage bankers, and nouveau bureaucrats. Baltimore had a stable middle class that used the public schools. Old women in flower-print dresses and white gloves strolled arm in arm on Charles Street in the evening, without fear.

The old city was quiet and lazy, hospitable to ghosts and visions and reverie, a perfect place for a poet. I haunted the elegant, slightly seedy streets of Mount Vernon. The deserted marble salon of the Walters Art Gallery was my living room, hung with paintings by Ingres, Botticelli, and Monet, the dusky bar of the Alcazar Hotel was my dining room. And the great Peabody Library was my study.

There is no other library like this in America, or anywhere else, excepting the parallel universe of Jorge Luis Borges’s fiction.

From the cobblestones of the Square you ascend marble steps between fluted double columns, pass under the arch of a classical portico and through the cubic vestibule. The loft reading room with its low shelves and card catalogs looks out on the green park through three enormous windows. Like ancient censers, eight ceiling lamps hang on chains, illuminating gilt-framed portraits of long-dead librarians.

In the middle of the interior wall, beneath a high archway of dark wood, an unwound pendulum clock hangs silent under the keystone. Through the doorway under the arch you see the white marble floor shining, set with black diamond tesserae. As you pass under the arrested pendulum into the open space, your eye is drawn up slender columns sixty feet to the latticed skylight with its gilded finials, the pale sky supported by a mountain range of books, two hundred fifty thousand books under the roof’s painted vaults, whispering, humming a mazy fugue, a bibliographic Tower of Babel. Books are shelved to the sky upon five tiers of cast-iron balconies, ladders of lacy grillwork railings running all around the four sides, friezes and columns glittering with rosettes and gold scallops. Double globe lamps hang from the columns on brass stems, lighting oaken library tables in the alcoves of the lower stacks.

Once the globe lamps were gas fueled, now they are electric. Nothing else here has changed in a century. The collection is noncirculating: these books have never left the building. The space breathes such a dignified air of antiquity, it is hard to believe the library has not been here since the founding of the Republic, ours or another state more imposing, more deeply rooted, a Republic of human letters. But the library opened its doors to the public in 1878, as part of the educational institute founded by George Peabody.

A cameo portrait of George Peabody shows the prosperous silver-haired bachelor in his sixties, with muttonchop whiskers, kind, wide-set eyes, broad forehead, a large patrician nose, and a determined mouth that flickers at the corners with wry humor. He was born poor in Danvers, Massachusetts, in 1795. The boy served an apprenticeship to a grocer for five years, then he worked in a drapery shop. Peabody served in the army during the War of 1812, where he met Elisha Riggs, a merchant. In 1815, when the war ended, the men set up a dry goods business in Baltimore under the sign Riggs, Peabody & Co. Peabody, the younger partner, cranked the business up into an enterprise with branches in New York and Philadelphia. By 1829 the firm’s name had become Peabody, Riggs & Co.

In Baltimore George Peabody made the small fortune that would provide the cornerstone for the great one he would pile up later as a financier. The center of the financial world was then London, so Peabody left Baltimore for London in 1837. But he never forgot his home here, or the friends he had made in his youth; and he vowed that someday he would return to do something worthy of the city that had given him his start.

No one could have predicted this tyro’s success in the treacherous world of bankers and bond factors. By the beginning of the Civil War, George Peabody was so rich that he single-handedly rescued the endangered credit of the U. S. government in England. Sensitive to the plight of the working class in Dickens’s London, the energetic American built more than forty thousand housing units at his own expense, and gave them away to needy families. For this heroic act of charity, Queen Victoria offered Mr. Peabody a baronetcy. He declined the title, explaining that it might only come at the expense of his U. S. citizenship, which was dear to him. The philanthropist gave tens of millions of nineteenth-century dollars to Harvard, Yale, Philips Academy, to his hometown of Danvers (now Peabody), Massachusetts, and to the South for public education after the war. Thus he became the prototype for other great nineteenth-century philanthropists—Andrew Carnegie himself acknowledged his debt to Peabody’s example.

The charity Mr. Peabody is best known for today, however, was his endowment of the cultural institute in Baltimore that bears his name. The founder’s letter dictated that the Institute should have four elements: an art gallery, a lecture series, an academy of music, and a library “which I hope may become useful towards the improvement of the moral and intellectual culture of the inhabitants of Baltimore. . . .” The fastest-growing city in America in 1857 had no university, no library, no art museum—Baltimore was a cultural wasteland. It took the ex-grocery clerk, who had not the leisure to read fifty books in his lifetime, to see the need and provide the basic elements for a civilization.

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The Vita

This is an assignment for the mature student.

At first, it may sound odd to think of writing a vita in classic style. The classic scene is one person talking to another, but the vita is mostly a list. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to imagine the classic stylist sitting down to compose a vita. The classic stylist wants nothing from the reader; there is no task at hand; prose is perfect performance; writer and reader are intellectual and aesthetic equals; writer and reader are competent; thought and language match; the motive is truth; the purpose is presentation.

Classic style, because it is a style of informal presentation, always has a clean onset and a clean dismount. It is never pushy. These are particularly important points to remember in composing the vita. The classic vita typically has ample white space and a pleasant font. The writer never appears to be trying do anything to make the writer look better.

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The Admissions Essay

In the early part of the course, assignments call for a real scene not far from the assumed scene of classic style: present a bird, a building, a restaurant, a movement, an action in a sport, an abstract concept, to someone competent who was not there or who does not have the needed accidental knowledge, in an informal moment, in perfect speech. Once students can inhabit classic style for these limited scenes, the assignments begin to call for a real scene increasingly far from the assumed scene of classic style. It is a power in a writer to be able to assume a scene that obscures or displaces the real scene. It typically takes maturity and discipline in the writer to resist the influence of the real scene. What follows is an assignment not to be given during the early part of the course.

A high school student applying to college is typically asked to submit a “college application essay,” sometimes referred to as an “admissions essay,” or “statement of purpose.” In the real scene that goes with this task, the motive is something like ambition to enter college and the purpose is to persuade the admissions committee to grant admission. Students who want financial aid or other help have other motives as well. It is assumed that there is absolute asymmetry between writer and reader, and that the occasion is formal.

Members of admissions committees recognize certain kinds of essays that inevitably result, with a dreary repetition, from the conditions of this real scene. First, the nearly vacuous statement that glues together general, formulaic phrases: “My purpose in attending college is to . . . My interests have always been interdisciplinary. I am interested in both history and languages, as well as mathematics and computer science . . . If admitted, I will simultaneously pursue studies in . . .” Second, the splashy, look at me essay: “I have always set high goals for myself, and, supported by my family, have often achieved them. I was lead whistle monitor for my high school band at the same time that I assisted the track team in raising money to purchase new hurdles.” Third, the I-am-a-character essay: “I can be recognized on campus by my characteristic red backpack. No one else wears red, but I have not specialized in following the crowd. . . .” Fourth, the pity-me essay: “My parents will not let me apply out of state and I want desperately to obtain my degree from your university.” And so on. They are painful to read and drift to the bottom of the stack, unless the reader is able to see past the unfortunate style to locate a worthy, obscured candidate. These styles present the candidate as either a faceless cliché dedicated to absorbing more clichés or an anxious supplicant trying to find some way, any way, including bluff and arrogant flourish, to handle the pressure of writing the essay. They are unleisurely, uncomposed, uncalm, insecure, inappropriately formal. They are unpleasant to read, unflattering to the writer, and, for all their easy sycophancy (“It would be an honor for me to gain admission to your university . . .”), they usually paint a picture of the writer that is unappealing to the reader.

A real scene of application or supplication can be treated in classic style, by substituting the classic scene, in which the motive is truth, the purpose presentation; writer and reader are intellectual and aesthetic equals; writer and reader are competent; one person is talking to another; language is adequate; language matches thought; prose is perfect performance; of course the reader is interested; the occasion is informal; the writer speaks for himself or herself; and so on.

While college admissions essays typically assert qualities of the applicant (“I have a strong interest in sociology and have always been absorbed by local details of human interaction”), the classic application presents the candidate as having those qualities. The classic application, often meticulously planned, sounds spontaneous. The following, for example, could begin an application whose actual agenda is to convince the reader that the writer is an interesting, articulate, poised, amateur sociologist:

I knew the restaurant I used to work in only from the back. I parked in the gravel lot and walked up the back steps into the kitchen. It was a small kitchen, tiny really when you consider that it produced the best food in the city. And while the customers never saw it, part the of restaurant’s charm was in the kitchen. The ice machine was upstairs, the storage room downstairs. The door to the walk-in didn’t shut tight and the cash drawer opened if you bumped against it. If something broke, the owner’s husband fixed it, or tried to. The paint peeled off the walls and the tiles off the floor, and the dish pit was more like a platform. The radio played country or oldies, depending on the cook, and rap after the cooks left for the night. The kitchen was open during blizzards and ice storms. More than one afternoon we worked without electricity.

(copyright © Kate O’Leary, 1998; used with permission.)

Assignment: pretend you are back in your senior year in high school, and write your application essay in classic style. Once you have done this, try to dig up your original application essay. Turn them in together.

We note that this assignment is calculated to be soft, unthreatening. The student is only counterfactually in the difficult situation.

And here is a student piece written to fulfill this assignment:

I had a great friend in grade school, and, exactly unlike me, she had the whitest of blond hair and blue eyes the color of a cornflower Crayola. Her fair skin mimicked a pale champagne rose. My blackened hair, tar pit eyes, and bronzed complection made us cosmetic opposites. In guitar class in high school, the two of us used to stow away in the band and color guard room to practice. High on life one day, we dressed, her hair tucked into a white plastic band hat and polyester jacket, my feet crammed into black rubber boots with an orange pull, and a porous, polyester, pleated jumper. Fully clad and unable to quiet our giggles, we swung open the wide door and faced twenty-five pairs of eyes, two belonging to a steaming instructor. That moment was one of the best in my life, and I later tried to recall it with her. I found out I was the only one high on life. She was just high, so high she didn’t remember most of that year. Ever since then I have had a need to document things. That is why I want to be a journalism major.

(copyright © Lea Pasternak, 1998; used with permission.)

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The Art of the Classic List

Classic style is exceptionally receptive to the art of the list. In the classic stand, a list is a presentation of what is there to be recognized, the prose is a perfect and perfectly transparent window on that reality, and the writer takes no credit for listing what is to be seen. Actually, of course, the tight constraints of the genre of the list may pose a difficult challenge to the artistry of the classic stylist. Georges Perec is celebrated in large part because of his absolute mastery of the art of the classic list. The assignment is to write perhaps five hundred words of classic prose that include several classic lists. Here is an example,

Lawrence Weschler
“A Reporter At Large: Deficit,” The New Yorker, May 11, 1992, page 41.

The Stadium of the Tenth Anniversary rises from the flatlands of Warsaw’s Praga district. Late this past December, when I took to visiting the stadium, the iced-over playing field at its center and the hundred thousand seats on its interior slopes were regularly empty and chillingly windswept. All the action was occurring outside, for it was there that, day after day, tens of thousands of merchants and traders and smugglers and shoppers converged for the largest open market in Eastern Europe. The variety of goods offered for sale was astounding, but even more astounding was the variety of those doing the offering: Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Armenians, Afghans, Serbs, Croats, Romanians, Lithuanians, Albanians, Bulgarians, Gypsies, Kazakhs, Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks. There were Mongols hawking sheepskins and Chinese vending calendars and pocket calculators, North Koreans flogging jewelry and Vietnamese mongering shirts and leather jackets.

Some of the booths were wholesale operations—bales and bales of cellophane-wrapped knockoff jeans, for example, with busy entrepreneurs distributing calling cards in an effort to drum up more ambitious orders. (Items from the Warsaw stadium, I was told, quickly radiated to all the towns and villages of the former Eastern bloc.) Here and there, I came across a lone bedraggled peasant sitting on his battered suitcase, with a pathetic array of trinkets spread out across a grimy rag before him. The vast majority of sellers seemed to have come from the former Soviet Union, and they seemed to have brought with them everything they owned or could conceivably forage. After the Second World War, it had appeared to the Poles—with some justification—that every possession of theirs that was not physically battened down had been transported east as plunder by the Red Army forces going home. Now it all seemed to be coming back.

I saw Red Army gas masks, helmets, binoculars, infrared night-vision goggles, military medals. “Kalashnikov?” one vender whispered conspiratorially. I came upon bicycle chains, fur coats, fur caps, bonsai plants, Lenin busts and Virgin Mary icons, boxloads of Estée Lauder perfume, panoplies of porn, tuxedos and other formal wear, puppies, computer games, computers, waffle irons, checkerboards, lingerie, car-seat covers, lipsticks and eyeliners, Washington Redskins T-shirts, Gucci T-shirts, possibly real Reeboks as well as obviously fake ones, firecrackers, wire strippers, dubious telephones, circular-saw blades, surveyors’ tripods, reindeer antlers, Mickey Mouse plastic molds, fishing tackle, rusty shovels, broken toys, packets of unlabeled medical tablets, towers of cigarette cartons, bottles of vodka, bottles of beer, bottles of a green syrupy goop that advertised itself as “Kiwi Juice,” and bottles labeled “Fresh & Fruity Orange Drink,” whose contents appeared anything but. There were pirated books and pirated videos and pirated audiocassettes. Pickpockets roamed the crowded paths, gruff rogues elaborated sinister cons, pimps rustled up business for teams of prostitutes crammed into trailers rimming the back lots.

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Passages For Analysis

Use the questions on page 22 of Clear and Simple As the Truth to guide your analysis of the following passages.

Annie Dillard
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, (New York: HarperPerennial, 1985 [1974]), pages 102-103.

(Gift of Marjorie Clarkson.)

My God, I look at the creek. It is the answer to Merton’s prayer, “Give us time!” It never stops. If I seek the senses and skill of children, the information of a thousand books, the innocence of puppies, even the insights of my own city past, I do so only, solely, and entirely that I might look well at the creek. You don’t run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets. You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled. You’ll have fish left over. The creek is the one great giver. It is, by definition, Christmas, the incarnation. This old rock planet gets the present for a present on its birthday every day.

Here is the word from a subatomic physicist: “Everything that has already happened is particles, everything in the future is waves.” Let me twist his meaning. Here it comes. The particles are broken; the waves are translucent, laving, roiling with beauty like sharks. The present is the wave that explodes over my head, flinging the air with particles at the height of its breathless unroll; it is the live water and light that bears from undisclosed sources the freshest news, renewed and renewing, world without end.

“New Discovery in the Fine Arts.”
[The announcement in America of the invention of photography] The New Yorker, April 13, 1839.

(Gift of Kate O’Leary.)

Where are we going? Who can tell? The phantasmagoria of inventions passes rapidly before us—are we to see them no more? —are they to be obliterated? Is the hand of man to be altogether stayed in his work?—the wit active—the fingers idle? Wonderful wonder of wonders!! Vanquish aqua-tints and mezzotints—as chimneys that consume their own smoke, devour yourselves. Steel engravers, copper engravers, and etchers, drink up your aquafortis and die! There is an end of your black art—“Othello’s occupation is no more.” The real black art of true magic arises and cries avaunt. All nature shall paint herself—fields, rivers, trees, houses, plains, mountains, cities, shall all paint themselves at a bidding, and at a few moment’s notice. Towns will no longer have any representatives but themselves. Invention says it. It has found out the one thing new under the sun; that by virtue of the sun’s patent, all nature, animate and inanimate, shall be henceforth its own painter, engraver, printer and publisher.

Gina Mercer
“Feminist Pedagogy to the Letter: A Musing on Contradictions” in Knowing Feminisms, edited by Liz Stanley, 1997.

(Gift of Delia.)

And burying our heads in the sands of talk about equality does not erase the reality of the examiner/examinee, and grader/gradee, equation which underpins most of the tertiary institutions in which we are paid to work. So, no wonder I didn’t trust the male teacher’s rhetoric about his openness and “life-long learning” desires, when he was potentially the grader and I was the one to be graded. But more to the point, why should my students believe me if I walk into a class within a patriarchal, competitive institution and suggest that we are equals, that they are free to say what they want? They don’t believe me. I don’t believe the teacher who says such things to me when I am in the role of student. And they/I would be rather naive and foolish if we did. Most of us as students have an intimate understanding of this power dynamic.

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