Have you ever thought about how you write an essay? When my daughter was in fourth grade she came home to show me how she was taught to do so. The process was called Four Square. After watching her divide her wide-ruled notebook paper into four squares by drawing a large cross, she wrote a topic sentence in the center and then went from one block to the next, adding her supporting ideas. I had never witnessed anything like this. Four Square reminded me of geometry and the very unfortunate event when I raised my hand in class, stumped on the very first “clue” which turned out to be “given” (one of my more embarrassing moments). The point being this — if I had been taught to write an essay by the Four Square method, I probably wouldn’t have been a writer for a long, long time (if at all), as I’m no visual learner. Want to give me directions? Write them out. Do not draw a map. I want words (and I prefer right and left to north and south… ;.). However, I realize that for every person like me, the opposite is out there and a visual map, whether for directions or an essay, is like a gift.
The entire idea of how to write an essay has been written about by many and I’m not even going to touch that. But what I do find interesting, having recently completed an MFA program where I wrote critical essays on a regular basis for two years (and now do it for pleasure’s sake), is how does one come to her own recipe for writing an essay? One of my peers from Spalding started his graduation lecture with a delightful remark – he thanked his faculty mentor for introducing the right side of his brain to his left. Many creative writers have a challenge when it comes to critical writing. To do both well, one must have discipline, must practice, and must read. As I reflect on what works for me, I’ve realized I’m still battling with the way I was taught – it wasn’t the Four Square method, but it was a very linear method that is so ingrained in me that I find it stifling. It is usually better for me to start again from scratch with an essay as opposed to editing it in its existing form. It is almost as if the ideas are tied up into knots, and the knots are so convoluted that I cannot undo them.
What works best about my own process is this: letting it simmer. In fact, I’ve begun to apply some of my creative process to my critical essay process. When I get a line (or lines) for a poem, I scribble it down and let it sit for a bit. It’s like a treat – something I can “chew” on, revisiting throughout the day or week, giving it life and feeling quite euphoric in the creation process. So, for the essay I’m currently writing, I scribbled down my thoughts and let them sit in my notebook for a couple of weeks. Then (deadline approaching but still a comfortable week and a half away), I began the essay, only glancing at my notes occasionally. For some reason, everything began to flow a lot better. Damn the outline, I thought, recalling those awful roman numerals and alphabetized points. However, I do have to admit that for me to have arrived where I am now, I probably owe that arduous process a bit of begrudging credit. As I kiss it goodbye, I feel no remorse, probably the same way my daughter will feel as she takes her pen to paper and finds no need to draw a Four Square to put her thoughts in order.