It was my job for a time to corral college freshmen, feed them books and then coax from them fits of insight five paragraphs at a time. This I did imperfectly. I asked them to think about their lives to concoct a narrative or descriptive piece from those thoughts. Or I’d place a book or a film in front of them and guide them down a twisting path of analysis. We’d end the semester by debating some thorny societal issue; they’d develop an opinion, search for credible sources to back up their views and then attempt to forcefully argue the point. This is all standard. Pages and pages of reading for me. Many late nights with students’ words. Hand cramped from marking grammar issues. Mind numbed from the repeated phrases, the In today’s society; from the malapropisms, the now and days. As I am teaching and grading these essays, I am writing my own fiction, the stories that would become my collections Insurrections and The World Doesn’t Require You. I wondered about the form of the five-paragraph essay and its place in my own work. One never sees a five-paragraph essay in the wild. Could it hold its own in a mature piece of writing? Constraints can lead to creativity, right? Isn’t that what poetic forms are about? This is how I arrived at the novella, “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies,” which ends my second collection. The constraints imposed by the five-paragraph essay could, I figured, be a space to dramatize all that is contradictory or absurd about academia.
In my own fiction, I usually dream freely, writing without form, mostly, hoping the words, like water, find their own shape. In my students’ work, though, I, like many academics engaged in teaching Composition, imposed a rigid structure: five paragraphs consisting of an introduction with a thesis statement at the end, three body paragraphs, and a summary conclusion. It’s a heavily maligned form, I know. Writer John Warner, whose book Why They Can’t Write is subtitled: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, insists it warps students’ idea of a well-formed essay and we should “kill it dead.” Even while teaching it and arguing that the form allows weaker writers unfamiliar with structure and grammar to find their way, I had my reservations. To think this through further, I figured, I’d introduce the form to my fiction. First, I’d write a story consisting of nothing but five-paragraph essays, taking us through a semester in a student’s and a professor’s life. It would be a longer story, though not anything resembling a novella; the essays would begin in a relatively milquetoast way though full of colorful malaprops and misspellings that winked at double meanings. As the student grew in confidence she would also grow more verbose and the narrative would become surreal and loopy until she was in open revolt against the structure of the essay, the professor, and society itself.
This provided some challenges that made themselves obvious before I could even write the first word. How does the professor’s voice get into the story? What is this class about and why does it make this student want to rebel? Most importantly, what the heck is this student writing about? Essays, student essays in Comp. 101 at least, don’t come from nowhere. They come from prompts carefully drawn up by professors to achieve some educational purpose. Those educational purposes are laid out in the course syllabus. Before I could write this student’s essays, before I could write a prompt, I needed to write a syllabus. This would be a Freshman Composition class, I knew. There I could exploit any number of contradictions and conflicts—between the high intellectual nature of the academic and the utilitarian nature of the course; between bored student and starry-eyed professor. It would be tragic. It would be hilarious.
When I started drawing up the syllabus, I thought of the way the realities of the classroom impose a loneliness onto the academic, particularly low-paid, overworked contingent faculty members. The words Professor or Dr. appended to the beginning of a name have the ring of prestige, but the miniscule rewards—low pay, lack of stability and time because of the mountains of papers to grade—often make getting through day-to-day life difficult and frustrating, even dangerous if you have no health benefits and your overwork is eroding your health. The phrase, Special Topics in Loneliness Studies, flitted through my head as a title and in making the syllabus the professor character formed. He would be a lonely man obsessed by loneliness and, like any good academic, he would use his intellect to solve his solitude. A doomed project if I’ve ever heard one. When I heard the professor’s voice I needed to know why he was so lonely. Some of it was in his syllabus, but to really understand it I needed context that called for traditional narration. I watched the story grow, not just into sections like a traditional short story, but into chapters. The email is both the bane and lifeblood of the college campus these days. As the professor reached out to his students and peers via electronic mail, I wrote those for him and his peers and charges. But what did the professor tell his students in class? Back in the real world, I spent many a class hour standing in front of PowerPoint presentations, talking and watching students flash pictures of the screen like paparazzi. I snapped ridiculous pictures of my childhood toys and used the photos to create the professor’s lecture slides. To you and me they’d be absurd, to him the pictures are as serious as commitment, as serious as sitting in solitude to think through your life’s path.
Through the process of getting to know the characters and watching the piece expand from a long short story into a novella, I realized I had to abandon my original conceit, the constraint of a series of five-paragraph essays that were to bring me boundless creativity. While the narrative had prompts for free writes and free writes from the student, both further revealing the professor and the student, the five-paragraph essay had not yet made an appearance. The narrative no longer needed three of them to mark time. The narrative now took place in an academic year, not a semester. I must say, I wasn’t eager to write the five-paragraph essay I knew the book needed. I had written enough from the student’s perspective that I knew her. Her final class essay had to represent a maturity of her voice. But the five-paragraph essay is often thought of as facile and stale, the opposite of mature, fully realized work. As Warner writes in an Inside Higher Ed essay: “The 5-paragraph essay is indeed a genre, but one that is entirely uncoupled from anything resembling meaningful work when it comes to developing a fully mature writing process.” I consulted books, doing the research the student would have done, inhabiting her, and then I wrote, following the rules and structures of the five-paragraph essay with the precision I had always hoped my students would, creating for her and for the narrative a piece of insight in five paragraphs.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: Unsplash/Lachlan Cormie.