A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Category: On Writing

The Bourne Identity: The Best Action Flick There Is

This is my example for the best movie ever essay my sophomores are working on. I have invited them to argue what they think is the best, but clearly I’m a biased reader. I posted this essay as a Google Doc with comments pointing out to students what I was doing.

In a dark theater, in an intense moment of  The Bourne Identity, my mother-in-law clutched her popcorn in a death grip. A man was sneaking behind the amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne, and it was not clear whether Bourne was aware of his presence. Unable to watch him die, my mother-in-law broke down the fourth wall and called to Jason: “Watch out behind you!” The moment created one of the great memories of our family’s history added one more anecdote proving that The Bourne Identity is the greatest action movie ever made.

Part of what makes The Bourne Identity so  good is the way it is full of regular people doing amazing things. While Matt Damon has immortalized the role, Brad Pitt was actually offered it first but turned it down because he was busy with other films  (“Bourne Identity Trivia”). This was good for the film because Pitt, while a great actor, would not have brought the same Everyman sense that Damon brings to a role. With Damon, viewers are able to believe (for a couple hours anyway) he is a normal guy who is surprised to discover he’s a trained assassin. But the sense of regular people carries into the other characters.  Critic David Edelstein argues that Marie, the innocent bystander who gets wrapped into Bourne’s adventures, “seems to be having the time of her life,” which is precisely what the viewer is doing even as they imagine themselves in her place. It is the juxtaposition of these normal-seeming people with extraordinary situations that creates excitement a viewer can imagine being a part of.

Yet while the everydayness of the characters adds a sense of believability, one could definitely argue that Bourne’s amnesia, which continues throughout the film, is hardly realistic. Bourne doesn’t know who he is but he knows everything he’s ever learned about being a modern spy and soldier. Would a person’s memory really work like that? This is part of what critic J. Hoberman is getting at when he describes t he “general superfluity” of the film. But while this rejection of the amnesia’s premise has validity , it does not necessarily follow that the amnesia ruins the film. With the height of the excitement in The Bourne Identity, who cares whether there are any cited cases of this kind of amnesia? Viewers are given the key quandary with an immediate  inciting moment, as wonder with Bourne himself why he is floating on the sea with bullets in his back. From there the movie never relents, piling mysterious complication upon mysterious complication, withholding the climax until the last moments of the movie. With such nonstop intensity, critic David Edelstein claims, “it doesn’t give you time to reflect on the inanit y . . . of its premise.” It moves so fast, in fact, that viewers are likely to miss even fundamental mistakes. In the opening scene, when the fisherman cuts open Bourne’s wetsuit to reveal his bullet wounds, Bourne is wearing only the wetsuit (as is normal). Yet for the first half of the film following the boat-scene, Bourne wears a sweater with b ullet holes in the back–a preposterous situation since he was not wearing the sweater when he was shot (“Bourne Identity Goofs”). Does a viewer mind such things? No, because the pace of film’s action is so quick few of them will even notice such basic mistakes.

Not that the film is full of such mistakes; in fact, the film’s flawless and creative chase scenes are what sets it so far apart from other action movies. In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, Jason Bourne escapes from the United States embassy in Switzerland. The  paradox of a man escaping from such a highly secure building (dozens of Marines are sprinting to catch him the entire time), single-handedly and without running or looking stressed, creates a thrill. And the directors have made sure nothing interferes with the thrill. For example, to ease the feelings of any conflicted viewers who would not want to see innocent American soldiers or security guards harmed, Bourne never kills any of them, only knocking them cold and leaving them behind. Thus, part of what works in this film is it “summons up a thriller era when the only people who ever seemed to die were spies, counterspies, and the odd, overweening dictato r” (Edelstein). In fact, by the time the movie ends,  only eight people die (“Bourne Identity Trivia”), showing blood and gore is not the essential ingredient to a great action film.

W ith such creative action occuring at such an intense pace to seemingly regular people, The Bourne Identity succeeds as no other action movie has. My m other-in-law might have enjoyed worrying over Jason Bourne’s safety, but she need not have. His spot as the ultimate action hero is still secure.



The Niche Future of Handwriting

My handwriting has never lived up to the Romantic achievements of my parents. My mother’s unique script, a print-and-cursive hybrid, is round and smooth, filling the space between lines as if it were all canvas for her use. My father’s is notable for the way the extension of the capital G on my first name made a small end table. My own handwriting has always served me well, as it is legible, but neither has it left me feeling distinguished, or mature: it is a pragmatic riff on standard elementary print. I round the e’s a bit more than Mrs. Spaulding said we should and I’m inconsistent with the size of my letters, but if I’m attempting to be neat, it’s basically what she taught me.

To confirm my suspicions, I learned from Anne Trubek’s The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting that Edgar Allan Poe would have loved my parents and thought me a bore. “Poe,” writes Trubek, “felt those who wrote as they had been instructed were less original than those whose handwriting departed from what they were taught in school.”

Trubeck would chastise me for my self-consciousness, defending me for the same reasons and in the same way she defends her son, whose penmanship drew the ire of his elementary teachers. Her central thrust is that attitudes like Poe’s are sentimental associations, that examining handwriting is not a window into a soul.

But my problem is I like my sentimental associations.

I’m not alone. We might think of Poe as an eccentric and slightly irrelevant ancestor, but some of our ideas about handwriting are closely related to his. Take Dyana Herron’s thoughts about the beauty of a handwritten letter as an example:

There’s something great about receiving a letter, even just the tactile materials, the ink or graphite on paper, and the author’s handwriting, not just their words in Times New Roman or Arial. There’s something powerful, too, about reading words that were created by hand just for you, not for anyone else, and sent off to be read by your eyes only. It’s like receiving a gift, an act of love.

Herron captures how our love for this kind of letter is difficult to express: “there’s something great” and “wonderful,” but we can’t say precisely what. Yet we do interpret it as love, and we see the handwriting as more intimately part of the author than “just their words” are.

David Foster Wallace taps into the same notion in a drafted preface for The Pale King: “Author here. Meaning the actual author, the real human holding the pencil, not any sort of abstract narrative persona.” Since Wallace wrote his manuscripts by hand the comment may have been a simple description of the scene, but even then, “holding the pencil” builds a firmer image of a real person than “the real human tapping the keys.” A person with a pencil makes the words more intimate, more personal, more real.

Ideas like these are why I advise my students to handwrite thank you notes, yet this ultimately is perception, a sense of a cultural symbol, and despite its associations, Trubek asserts that “medieval scribes proved that handwriting does not, in and of itself, reveal personality or the self.”

She further demonstrates this by revealing our shifting sentiments. Take, for example, the theory of cursive evangelist Austin Palmer, who claimed “penmanship training ranks among the most valuable aids in reforming ‘bad’ children” and that penmanship “is the initial step in the reform of many a delinquent.” Would anyone declare that today? Nor would anyone declare that typewritten correspondence, as opposed to handwritten, is insulting or unprofessional; but that is what people believed at the turn of the 20th Century. If our opinions about handwriting as a revelation of our intimate selves didn’t surface until the turn of the 19th Century, as Trubek asserts, can we really stand by them?

Trubek’s thesis is that we live in an era of transition from one technology to another, that handwriting’s dominance is finished and that, with time, the sentimental attachments people like me assign to it will dwindle and become like Socrates’s argument against writing: an intriguing artifact.

Yet even as I recognize the merits of Trubek’s case against handwriting as an expression of psychology, I find myself questioning her confidence in handwriting’s demise. Her focus is the longform world of handwriting–the letter, the business correspondence, the novel. These forms have migrated to digital media, but does that mean that handwriting is an obsolete technology?

I’m slow to admit it, which isn’t surprising, since in my left pocket I carry a 3.25”x4.5” notebook, and in my right, a pen. Neither are fancy, and I don’t protect them from damage, but they’re useful to me, because if I have an idea, if I hear something interesting, if I think of something I need to do, I can jot it down. My students, in contrast, typically write such things in the notes app on their phone, or they take a picture of it. I’ve written a single due date on the board in a classroom and had students snap a photo rather than write the date in a calendar app or a planner. Judging by the excuse parade every due date, it’s a no better than the old technology; but it’s the dominant way, so should I adopt their method? Should I abandon pen and paper in favor of digital devices?

I don’t think so, partly because when it comes to the tech my students prefer (and to be realistic I should include my peers and elders), I personally doubt my ability to overcome the beautiful temptations of Silicon Valley. What engineer Tristan Harris told The Atlantic’s Bianca Bosker rings in my ear as warning bell:

“You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, . . . “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.”

I don’t need a smartphone, and I primarily see downsides in what my life would look like with one: I’d jot a note about what I need to accomplish later (“Sarah’s recommendation letter!”) but would check Twitter just because; I would see that red circle with a “2” on my Gmail icon, so I wouldn’t be able to black the screen until I knew what was in there. Whatever I had been thinking before I had pulled that phone out would be gone.

So when I began to consider ideas for this essay, I opened a composition book and wrote my ideas with a pen. I thought without notifications. I kept thinking even when I got stuck, since I couldn’t run to Twitter or Feedly while I waited for inspiration.

And I’m not alone in my choice. Alan Jacobs, who has thought about these technologies much more than I have, has moved even much of his longform writing to pen and paper for reasons of efficiency and clarity: “When I am writing my thoughts in a notebook I think better — that’s all there is to it. I have a clearer mind and a clearer prose style when I hold a pen in my hand.” Jacobs is describing not a sentimental image of himself but a focus, a freedom from the structure of screens and the web, a reason related to my own avoidance of a smartphone. Both of us are seeing what Nicholas Carr describes in The Glass Cage, that aspects of these technologies do not “extend our productive capabilities without circumscribing our scope of action and perception.” The trade-offs of the digital technology in these areas are too high.

One trait a handwritten technology has going for it, then, is its lack of distraction. Yet I also find my notebook lends me flexibility of form. As I attempt to shape an idea, before I can articulate it, I find myself able to think more widely, more flexibly, with a pen and paper. I do not have to list ideas in a word processor’s bland outlines but can use indents and margins in whatever ways seem appropriate. I can sketch arrows, stars, and circles without clicking on icons. I recognize there is likely some software to enable me to do such things, but is it standard? Would it be on my phone? When I begin to write the article on a computer, would I be able to spread my plan beside me like I’ve done with my notebook as I type this?

Then, of course, there is every professor’s favorite research, the studies suggesting students who take notes by hand instead of by typing actually retain material longer and understand concepts more thoroughly. This is what Rusty Hawkins, a history professor at the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan, explains to his students each semester when he bans laptops from his classes. “The funny thing is,” Hawkins says, “no one ever complains about the ban. Ever.”

Hawkins notes that irony of his students’ acceptance of pen and paper arises from the assumption of digital’s dominance: “We’ve been bombarded with all this info about the coming digital natives, but my students hate reading things digitally. They all prefer having hard copies of articles or books in front of them.”

I’ve noticed similar ironies in my own high school classes. Each year I tell my AP language and composition students they have to use one of my methods for their research paper’s notes. I then offer the traditional index-card method, Zotero, and a format I’ve created that uses a word processor. This year more than half my students opted for the index cards, despite my introducing the method with a story of why I quit using them myself.

Which all means that despite Trubek’s pronouncement of its demise, handwriting still functions as a uniquely pragmatic technology. We can take freeform notes with it, we can access it quickly (no need to load an app, just open the notebook and click the pen), and if we use a sensible system (like a bullet journal or commonplace book), we can retrieve and review materials easily and with minimal distraction.

I’ll admit I’m still cradling under my vest a romantic attachment to handwriting. I wrote a letter to my aunt recently and used a pen and small stationary, to make it more personal and loving.

But I’ll also admit Anne Trubek has exposed my sentimental notions for what they are and that my wider behavior confirms her central claim. I have not written a rough draft of an essay in 15 years. I started a few but each time grew impatient with my fingers, opting to finish the work on a word processor. Even in the classroom, I rarely use a pen to mark students’ papers for more than a brief moment, choosing instead to type my comments into a Word document, which I attach to their paper as a kind of rubric. For me, where speed and revision are priorities, digital technology wins.

Still . . . I remember my dad’s cool G’s primarily because every morning he’d write my initials in three capital letters on my brown paper lunch bag. No app can replace that. So while handwriting has lost its writing monopoly, it still serves a number of pragmatic purposes, ones I am convinced will remain relevant longer than many have assumed.

Experiencing the Revision for Publication Process

Recently The Curator published an essay of mine (have you read it yet?) and I continue to find the process a of writing for others challenging and thrilling. Derek Rishmawy nailed part of this process in this tweet recently:

editors at Gospel Coalition

Meaghan Ritchey, Adam Joyce, and, Laura Tokie helped me rework my essay from a mess to a presentable coherence, and it took me only five months to do so . . . In the process I’ve learned much more about writing than any teachers’ class could have taught me, and I look forward to revealing to students what I went through.

My first draft was long but lost. I had conceived of an idea that Meaghan liked, but when I wrote it I found it difficult to achieve what I’d pitched. She suggested I rework it, gave me some ideas about directions to take, and waited to hear from me again. This is a view of that draft with a few highlights of what I ultimately kept. The yellow highlights are ideas that, in their essence, made it into the final draft of the article. The blue highlight indicates material I kept for the next draft but eventually cut. Everything not highlighted is material I dumped for the next draft.

version 1 articleI did nothing with that draft for months, completely befuddled about how to fix it. Then I heard an old interview with David Foster Wallace that brought me an ah-ha moment. His comments led me out of the cave and lent me an angle from which to view the idea I’d originally pitched to Meaghan. I rewrote the article and sent it to her, and since her duties at The Curator have changed, she also involved Adam. Adam sent the draft to Laura. This next image is that draft, where the green represents lines that made it into the final draft in basically the same form in which they appear here.The yellow are areas where the ideas made it to the final in a different form.

version 2 articleWith this draft, Laura asked me two questions:

1) What do you believe this essay is about?
2) What do you see as the payoff of this essay for the reader?

The first question I was able to answer fairly succinctly and I found it helpful to be forced to answer it. The second question scared me, because it is why I have not written much in the last 15 years. I’ll go to write something and think, “People don’t care about what I have to say. Their existence will be wonderful and maybe even more wonderful if I just keep quiet and read a good book instead of writing something.” But this time I had committed to the process, so I answered the question. Based on my answers, Laura suggested an overall famework for organizing the article. She then, on Friday, asked me to send her a new draft by Monday.

I worked on the article for six hours over the weekend and sent her a new draft, significantly expanding the sections that appear in yellow in that previous image, cutting out an entire section, and admittedly leaving the overall piece too long. What I sent her reached 1,700 words, and though I knew The Curator aims to keep articles under 1,500 words, I hoped that Laura could help me judge what to cut. This next shot is what I sent her, with the green indicating the parts that stayed in for the final copy and the blue showing what I’d added that stayed in for the final.

version 3 articleJust like the other images, everything not highlighted did not appear in the final version. Laura cut most of that and I cut a few additional sentences, but the final version reached 1034 words. Each cut, I am convinced, helped focus the piece on the heart of what I wanted to communicate, and the final version is something I am happy to call my own.

But now I realize why writers thank their editors so profusely. I get the byline on this essay, but without Laura, Adam, and Meaghan, how could I have changed this article like I did?

Like I said, I learned a ton from this, and I look forward to doing it again. Hopefully the next piece will not need quite so much reworking, but if it does, at least I now know it’s possible to work it into something…

Asking Student Writers to Keep a Commonplace Book

First, an admittance: I’ve never liked Nancy Atwell’s “writing territories” method for coming up with ideas for writing. I see how it works but having been employed outside of education a little and written a bit myself, I have never recognized its similarity to what writers do. Maybe some writers have the liberty to pull from such lists for topics, but I can’t envision people who write for a living–say a marketing or PR employee or even David Brooks or Marueen Dowd–checking their writing territories for ideas about what to say.

More often I see writers entering into or attempting to begin a broader conversation. (This is one reason I so value Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say I Say, a book that frames academic writing as participation in an ongoing conversation.) In this regard, writers are not exploring personal territories so much as responding to ideas they have discovered. That is why for years I have given my high school students more direct prompts to which they need to respond. Each prompt has flexibility and usually I offer multiple prompts, but I am convinced the act of responding to a concrete idea is more “authentic” to what writing in life is like than diving into writing territories. It also, I find, offers students more opportunities to stretch beyond the personal narrative.

Happily, a personal experience of my own has pushed me into a new way of exploring writing ideas, one I hope will combine the positive aspects of Atwell’s writing territories with the relevant conversation-framework of Graff and Birkenstein. For Christmas a student of mine gave me a notebook that reads on the front, “Shakespeare never tweeted a sonnet,” which is of course a cute knock on my penchant for playing with Twitter. I wanted to use the notebook for something I’d treasure and decided I’d take my informal commonplace book and move it offline (I used to use a tumblr but later merged it with this blog).

Allow me to pause to explain the commonplace book. A commonplace book is more scrapbook than journal. Most sources, like Wikipedia, observe that it is “filled with items of every kind.” In this sense a writer of a commonplace book gets to choose entirely what goes into it. Most commonly people place quotes, ideas, reactions to passages (with portions quoted), poems, or more. Alan Jacobs observes that “a book full of such passages would be a treasure-house,” which means that it is filled with materials “that you expect will repay repeated consideration.” That is, it contains passages, quotes, and ideas you’d want to look back on and reconsider.

Using my new notebook for this commonplace book purpose struck me as a good idea because when I come across great passages in my reading I usually do not transfer them to the computer and thus rarely write them down (hence the relative infrequency of posts here). Plus, I never return to browse my old entries online, though I have searched for passages in my blog when I know they’re there. This behavior misses the purpose of the commonplace book and falls under the warning of Jacobs’s nicely aphoristic point: “wisdom that is not frequently revisited is wisdom wasted.”

Shortly after rejuvenating my own (and loving the process), it hit me: why not have my students keep a commonplace book, if only for a time? Through the process they can not only see how writing is engaging in a conversation but they can learn how to enter one. Plus, the process will encourage good reading habits, like reacting to particular passages and noting key ideas.

So my juniors are keeping one for a month to enable them to discover what the process is like. At the end of the month, I’ll ask them to write an article using some of the material they’ve collected in their commonplace books. I’d like to see if we can roll the task over and convert that article into their research paper (and why not, since the commonplace book is in part a way of tracking research?), but exactly how to do that will take some additional time and thought.

To begin, I’ve created a handout explaining what commonplace books are and am encouraging students to read whatever they want (I do have a nonfiction reading list to give folks some ideas in case they need one). They seem amendable to the idea, perhaps since it gives them so much freedom and because “just” jotting quotes and passages is less straining than composing journal entries.

It’s a “we’ll see” project this year, but I am excited, because it mirrors the process “real” writers are using. Consider how much it echoes Kevin DeYoung’s process, as he describes it in Crazy Busy:

I suppose every writer has different routines for writing. When I know what my next book is going to be, I start reading for it about a year in advance. I collect articles and blog posts. I jot down stray thoughts. I usually read twenty to twenty-five books before beginning to write.

DeYoung and others like him may have writing territories that invisibly guide them to their choice of topics, so I acknowledge such territories may have a place in our teaching of writing, but since his process so clearly mirrors the keeping of a commonplace book, I get the sense that in assigning one, I as a writing instructor am exposing my students to a proven process for writing intelligently and substantively.

And that’s worth noting.

Thanks for reading.

Rethinking the way I use outlining as a prewriting tool

Make an outline. Or a bubble map. Or something.

That’s what learning writers have to do, right? An outline demonstrates that the writer has planned what they’re writing and haven’t just jotted down the first ten random things that popped into their heads, or, worse yet, jotted down five things but repeated the second and third in between each of the others. The procedure echoes what many of us have been taught–I certainly had to create an outline for most of my papers in high school–as well as the great guides that have managed to hold sway in an era of little authority. Stunk and White, for example, point this out under the heading, “Choose a suitable design and hold to it”:

In most cases, planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing. The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape. . . . all [forms of composition] have skeletons to which the writer will bring the flesh and blood. The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better are the chances of success. (15)

In that vein this year I have re-asserted the importance of the five paragraph essay. The five paragraph essay has always been something I have taught, so it’s not like I’m returning to doing my job; I’m just assigning more of them and giving them higher prominence, so as to force students to engage in the process that Strunk and White articulate. I enjoy having students create reflective writing and assign quite a bit of it, but I’ve increased my use of the five paragraph essay under the adage of, you can’t break the rule till you know the rule. If students can organize a rigid essay, perhaps they can better organize a reflective one.

Paired with this reassertion comes a call for outlines, which I’ve instructed students to create before they write each five paragraph essay. In my utopian moments I plan to approve their outlines before they begin the actual writing, but in reality I simply have them hand in the outline along with their final draft, because I never seem to have time in class to check with everyone before they’re ready to write.

A copy of J.K. Rowling's plot map for Order of the Phoenix.

A copy of J.K. Rowling’s plot map for Order of the Phoenix.

The struggle I have had with this method is that many students create their outline after they write the actual paper, even though those weren’t my instructions. For a long time this drove me crazy, as the point was for students to plan their writing before they began jotting sentences. No matter how much I repeated the purpose of the outline, they’d skip it, saying it’s not how they do things. “It’s how I do things!” is the response I was tempted to shout at them.

As I’ve thought about that imaginary response a bit longer I’ve realized the reality: it’s not how I do things. It’s how I assign writing, but it’s not how I write. When I write, I have a general idea in my head, a basic direction, and once I can dimly see that picture I begin, game to see where the words will take me. As usual, that’s what I’m doing with this article. I know where I want to go, but I don’t have some outline nearby giving me direction. I carry a mental image of my purpose, which, if I were to draw it, would have soft edges and fuzzy, indistinct words.

How relevant, how genuine, is my insistence that my students draw this outline when I do nothing of the kind myself? In the past I’ve justified that discrepancy by pointing out that I learned to outline so efficiently when I was younger that I do that in my head; in that sense, my claim was that for me the outlining and organizing step is at the point of being automatic or unconscious. But I think that is a bit disingenuous, because usually I don’t go that far in my thinking. Usually once I get a clear idea of my goal I begin trying things out.

A couple weeks ago a student handed me his paper, and when he realized he’d forgotten his outline, he took the paper back, sketched a quick picture of his organization, and resubmitted it. The moment he did that I realized, why not?

Why not let my students write their outlines after they write? If they can draw a picture of their organization, then it’s there; the chronology is a moot point. If they can’t even draw a picture of it, however, then that should clue both of us into their lack of organizational structure and give me a good area to instruct my student in writing better.

To this point I have sighed at my inability to dictate procedure. Now, I think, I’ll not so much sigh at it as embrace it. Looking at it this way, I can say openly to students that I don’t care when they map out their paper, just that they do, because if they can’t draw or outline their structure, it isn’t there.

Perhaps, in that way, the outlining can be one more way to demonstrate to students what great writing does.

As always, we’ll see.

Thanks for reading.

Brian Phillips, master of the personal essay, captures the intangible draw of Wimbledon

I like watching tennis; though I wonder how much of the pleasant feeling that overcomes me when discussing the sport has to do with the sport and how much has to do with fond childhood memories of being at my friend Rickey’s house and Wimbledon playing on the TV in his little sun-room. Until I met my college roommate, Rickey and his family were the only people I knew who were serious about tennis. They taught me how to understand it (Rickey was too advanced to enjoy playing with me), and forever more the grass-surface tournament became a yearly fascination. I’ve never watched any other tournament–what other grand slam event took place while I was on summer vacation and dominated network TV coverage?–so for me Wimbledon is more than just the pinnacle of tennis, it is the whole of tennis.


I know now that I am not alone in my strange attachment to the great lawn tennis tournament. Apparently, if Brian Phillips’s recent essays are an indication, many of us have grown attached to Wimbledon and England for myriad and personal reasons. Phillips is a far greater writer and more intelligent sports fan than I ever considered being, and in a series of five “dispatches” has attempted to articulate something about his own romantic but powerful attachment to Wimbledon. The essays, taken as a whole, are about as perfect an example of the personal essay as I might find. In sending links to friends I have had trouble determining which paragraphs are the best ones. Some are great for their insight into sport. Take, for example, Phillips’s explanation of the unified experience of the spectators at a tennis match:

Tennis, while still being pretty complex from the standpoint of physics, gives you virtually all the information you need to understand the action at first glance. Tennis draws you in. You can see, when Julien Benneteau is charging down a Roger Federer drop shot, how fast he’s moving versus how fast the ball is moving, whether or not he’s going to get there, what his options will be if he does, whether he’ll have to play another sliced drop shot or will get the angle to smack the ball cross-court. You can perceive, with a few omissions like degree of spin and sun-and-wind conditions, almost exactly what Julien Benneteau can perceive; you can play the shot with him in your imagination. And then you can play the next shot with Federer. And I think that’s just huge in terms of how tennis crowds act, why they seem so happy and friendly, etc. Some people want Federer to win and some people want Benneteau to win, but both sets of fans are jumping back and forth, imaginarily, from one guy to the other throughout each game. The fans are drawn together, with each other and with the players, because they’re all sympathetically sharing the players’ mental space. And if that sounds like nonsense, then I encourage you to come to Wimbledon, get seats anywhere on Centre Court, and wait for the first drop-shot gasp, that astonishing collective oooohhhhh of 14,000 people reacting as one to a shot they just barely saw coming. I submit that the drop-shot gasp is one of the most purely magical sounds in sports. It’s my favorite part, easy, of sitting on Centre Court.

Other paragraphs are wonderful for their complimentary and amusing insights into people. These kinds of paragraphs accomplish something few comedic writers accomplish today: they make the reader laugh at their subject even while they endear that subject to the reader. In this way, I think of Phillips’s description of Pam, “a funny, plump, Scottish ‘assistant sound person'”:

And the other thing I wanted to tell you about was Pam. Pam and I were in different booths (why not, when we had so much room?), so I could hear her but not see her, and let me tell you: Pam was not kidding about cheering as much as we liked. Her characteristic cheer, whenever Murray won a point, was this sort of raucous, piratical “yrrrrrrahhh!,” as though she’d just clean-and-jerked, say, 400 pounds successfully. I was rooting for Federer, who’s my favorite tennis player ever, but rooting for Federer tends to be an exercise in, like, 19th-century sensibility; it’s a quiet, abstract, inwardly transported sort of state. Pam was pounding the table and roaring “Andy!!” and urging “C’mon, Muzzah!!” and, when he started losing, saying stuff like, “He’s done sew well. I’m prewd of him. Just, what can you do when Federer’s playing like that?”

I liked Pam so extremely much, and her responses were so emphatic, that it was hard not to get carried away. When Murray gave his tearful speech after accepting the silver runner’s-up plate … well, again, I couldn’t see Pam. But there were some pretty wrenched-sounding squeaks from her booth, and I’m pretty sure those were Pam sobbing.

By the time I’ve finished these paragraphs, I wish I had been there to meet Pam. The paragraphs honor her and laugh at her, all at once, and the way Phillips does it doesn’t make the situation feel like a paradox.

The articles are built on these kinds of soft and kind observations: life is an interesting compilation of romantic assumptions that run up against real difficulties but also tangibly beautiful moments. It’s like he’s saying, “Yeah, I’m a sports reporter and that is supposed to be why I’m here, to write about this sporting event, but really I admit I’ve been drawn here by my own romantic notions about England and tennis and Wimbledon and now that I’m actually here, it’s just so wonderfully poignant and surreal that I want to share it with you.” This sentiment is often captured best in simple transition sentences. In one, he follows a quick recap of the mens’ singles final with a move to something totally different: “So — since I’m hardly out to bore you by recounting stuff you already know — what I want to tell you about is the sound of the tennis balls.”

Yet it’s not all poignancy. Humor is a constant companion to much of Phillips’s insight. I love the opening of Part 2, describing an overheard conversation involving two security guards, and the joke is played even better when he returns to it to as part of an observation about the ball boys. Also amusing throughout the essays are the situations and images involving the double decker buses and his own redundant assertion that “Everyone was very nice.” Yet if I had to pick a favorite moment, it might be the opening of Part 3, describing the toilets:

The toilets at Wimbledon are spectacular. Like all American sports fans, I grew up knowing sports-stadium bathrooms as sites of almost unimaginable psychic trauma, humid chambers crammed with alingual, porcine men pissing savagely into troughs. Places whose stained and broken floor tiles exerted a viscous, ropy stickiness. Places where civilization, properly construed, did not exist. Well, I’m happy to report that you can leave those preconceptions at the door when you book your ticket to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Yes, sir. The public men’s room outside my little, disused commentary booth at Centre Court would not be embarrassed to show its face at the United Nations, or in a restaurant that sold wine by the carafe.

I’m talking wood stall doors that go all the way down to the floor. Burnished steel. Big, high-fauceted, mathematically hemispherical sinks.

Like I said, the essays are wonderful. This link will take you to the fifth article, which has links to all five. Read them in order, read them all, and read them at a leisurely pace. They’re worth it. I’m going to piece them all together and assign them as reading for my advanced English 11 students. One hope I have for the year is that at the end of it students will be ready to take the AP composition and grammar exam, if they choose. What better way to begin a conversation about essay writing than with these five articles? Simply by asking the basic question that has consumed me: “Which paragraphs are your favorites?” I suspect we’ll have ignited a discussion about what makes writing interesting, insightful, and memorable.

Thanks for reading.

Hooked: The Importance of a Good Introduction

I have never had a good job interview. That’s not true, actually; I did have two great interviews. For one, I didn’t get the job, and for the other, I turned the job down. So since I had terrible interviews for the jobs where I got hired, I feel like I can say what I said. I have walked away from every other interview feeling like it had not accomplished what I would have hoped it would accomplish. The cliched knowledge that you never get a second chance to make a first impression did nothing but discourage me. It did nothing but make me nervous when I reached out to shake the interviewers’ hands and it only made me frustrated when I walked out feeling like I had not successfully portrayed who I was.

That didn’t change the truth of the statement, however. That the first impression carries too much weight is well described in William Poundstone’s article for the Wall Street Journal, “How to Ace a Google Interview“:

The deep, dark secret of human resources is that traditional job interviews don’t work very well. In fact, there’s been quite a bit of research on the topic. One example is a famous experiment that Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal of Harvard did in 1992, with videotapes of traditional interviews. People who saw 10-second clips of an interview had roughly the same opinion of the interview subject as did the actual interviewer—making a strong case that job interviewers go by first appearances and are fooling themselves into believing they’ve gleaned additional information from everything that comes after.

That first impression matters, even when it misleads us, as it obviously does in job interviews.

Yet I cannot convince my students how crucial this truth is, especially as it relates to their writing. They’ll write an article and they find the introduction so difficult that they just skip it. Or open with just their thesis statement. Or ask a question.

I hate it when they ask a question. I tell them the risk of a question is that it invites an answer.

“Have you ever wondered why Nike makes shoes?”

No, I haven’t. Next, please.

“Should marketers target kids?”

I don’t know. Next.

“Have you ever wanted to go white water rafting?”

No. NO. No!

As jaded as I have become to the opening question–a crutch I have forbidden in students’ writing, by the way–I am really quite open to strange first lines. I am such a sucker for a good opening, in fact, that the residual enjoyment of one has  carried me through half a book. It has also caused me to abandon books. I’ve been happily reading something when I have casually, innocently, picked up a different book and glanced at its first page. That’s what happened with David McCullough’s John Adams, a book I had not intended to start the day I got it as a Christmas present, since I had just begun Bleak House. But McCullough opens like this, and I knew Dickens would be there when I was finished, and I couldn’t help myself:

In the cold, nearly colorless light of a New England winter, two men on horseback traveled the coast road below Boston, heading north.

The same thing almost happens every time I re-read The Odyssey with my students. I read a shortened version of it with them (alas, it is the truth) but after the open I always want to return to the entire thing:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns,
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.

Similarly, no matter how unenthusiastic I may be about guiding a new group of 15 year olds through Romeo and Juliet, I get excited at the first familiar words of the prologue:

Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona where we lay our scene.

I’m a sucker for intros. Last week I went to the library intending to look at Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice. It’s a history of the Brown v. the Board of Education decision and the struggle for equality that lead up to it, and it was recommended to me years ago by one of my college buddies, one who has now become a history professor specializing in the history of civil rights and the evangelical church’s role in them. I found the spot on the shelf and cursed my friend’s recommendation, for this book was almost two inches thick. I didn’t have time for 800 pages; I had other things on my list that I wanted to read. But I checked it out anyway and if I really hadn’t wanted to read it, I shouldn’t have opened to the first page:

Before it was over, they fired him from the little schoolhouse at which he had taught devotedly for ten years. And they fired his wife and two of his sisters and a niece. And they threatened him with bodily harm. And they sued him on trumped-up charges and . . .

And it goes on, but I have to stop typing. As soon as I finished the first page, I knew I’d be reading the book. The same thing happened with Susana Clarke’s tome of a novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel:

Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.

I was hooked by the end of the second sentence and by the end of the first paragraph, won over (you’ll have to read the rest of the paragraph on your own).

There’s really no end to great openings, though. Yesterday I was drawn to the bookcase by our beautiful copies of The Lord of the Rings. I was curious how old our kids need to be before I can begin reading Tolkien aloud with them–yes, I know how long the books are, and I admit it’s something I’ll want to do for myself if they’re willing to come along for the ride–and I was reminded how wonderful the opening to The Fellowship of the Ring is:

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

When a writer says eleventy-first in the first sentence, you know you’re into something different, something strange and, well, something itself of special magnificence.

My conviction is clear: anybody who can write an introduction like these knows how to write a book I want to read. This is a message I need my students to hear. If you can write an intro; if you can hook the reader in one paragraph, they’ll trust you enough to listen to you, to like what you have to say possibly even more than they should.

We certainly work on introductions. I give my students handouts, we survey writers’ techniques, and I give them essays with the introductions removed and have them rewrite a list of potential openings for them. But that is just the drill. What they ultimately need to do is give it a shot. They’ll never suddenly figure it out if they never try something new, if they never take a risk and try out a wild attention grabber. I’d much rather a student reach for awkward attention grabbers and introductions than be too scared to attempt one.

The beautiful thing about writing in school is that it isn’t the real world. We teachers may knock ourselves out trying to create for our writing assignments genuine real-world purpose, but sometimes, when you’re learning how to do something, it’s nice to know it isn’t the real deal. Perhaps if a student is willing to practice creating striking openings in the “lab”, they’ll have discovered how to make that important first impression by the time it really counts.

But if they never figure it out, at least they can look at my example and realize they’re not totally hosed even if that first impression thing bombs. After all, I got hired.

Thanks for reading.