Sunday, August 26, 2012

Thinking Inside the Box

Began the semester by teaching my first-year composition students about the five-paragraph essay. Before you get all mad and stuff, stop to consider: why did the five-paragraph essay become the go-to paradigm for every standardized test prep and essay exam situation?

The naysayers will argue that it did so because it’s easy and automatic, two words no professional writer will want associated with the craft. That may be so, but there’s also a more benign reason, which is that it makes sense. In its pre-programmed way, the ubiquitous five-paragraph essay teaches the basic student or that student forced to respond to a topic quickly and under pressure that at the very least, a well-written, organized essay must have a clear purpose and a beginning, middle, and end.

I’m not about to argue, of course, that mastering the five-paragraph essay is “enough.” In fact, when I teach it to my students, I’m careful to clarify that it’s just a good pattern, and no guarantee against bad writing. It is a starting point, and no more.

But it’s a damn fine starting point, and not deserving of all the flak it’s gotten for its misuse. Anyone who thinks a four- or six-paragraph essay is somehow wrong is obviously an idiot, and no amount of maligning this classic paradigm is going to help them.

What’s up with all the animosity against patterns anyway? In most other arts and crafts, patterns are revered and understood to be one of the classic tools of the artist. Take fashion, for example. Before you decide to revolutionize women’s couture by making them wear their bras as hats, you usually go to fashion school, where they teach you to cut shirts, skirts, dresses, and suits from patterns. You may chafe against the standard knee-length pencil skirt pattern you must follow for your midterm, but proving you can make a good pencil skirt shows you know the basics of your craft. You still may have room for creativity in other areasyour choice of fabric, for example, can make your basic pencil skirt stand out. Who knew a skirt made out of plywood could be so comfortable? Later, when you are designing your own pattern, you may choose to deviate from it or not. You might keep the classic form and continue to exert your individuality by making skirts out of tortillas, or you might decide to add feathered ruffles or whatever to the outline.

It’s not ignorance of the pattern that will make you into an artist, but your awareness and mastery of the reasoning behind that pattern.

The prose version of the five-paragraph essay must be the classic conflict-crisis-climax-resolution pattern. Here, as well, we find a certain disdain for the classic setup. Most highbrow short stories and novels seem to self-consciously deviate from this plot. They key words here, of course, are self-consciously. The art of storytelling evolved in natural ways; one doesn’t often find oneself motivated to start a story about “nothing.” It’s only when “something” happens that one is moved to tell about it, and that “something” is a conflict. The natural movement between conflicts and their resolutions is a series of crises and some kind of tipping point or climax. When one encounters a narrative that doesn’t follow that pattern, it’s because the storyteller has found other ways to generate interest, a seemingly different agenda that upon closer inspection often turns out to be that same old pattern in disguise. We read about narratives, for example, that “resist resolution.” That’s a literal impossibility, however. A narrative that resists resolution is one that never ends, like a soap opera. If there’s an ending, there’s some kind of resolution. It may not be one you recognize: not the happy ending or the reward/punishment, but a resolution nonetheless, even if it’s just a giving up, an abandonment of whatever we have been reading fora thematic resolution, for example.

The two stories I use to teach this point to my students are either James Joyce’s “Araby” or John Updike’s “A&P” and Harlan Ellison’s “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” Both “Araby” and “A&P” are classically plotted stories. “Araby” begins with the classic layout of the setting, whereas Updike gets straight to the conflict in “A&P.”

At first, Ellison’s story appears to be a nonsensical departure. “Now begin in the middle, and later learn the beginning; the end will take care of itself,” he writes, as if in sheer defiance of our narrative expectations. In fact, that’s his point exactly. The story is, after all, a story about the value of rebellion, and he tells it rebelliously to prove his point. If we examine the story carefully, however, we see that the so-called “middle” he begins with may indeed be the chronological middle of the story, but thematically it is nevertheless the beginning, the laying out of the conflict: some crazy harlequin-type guy is upsetting the orderly society in which he lives. We don’t know why yet, but we figure it out soon enough. The crises and climax are as classically plotted as if the story were written in the usual straightforward waythe Harlequin is being chased by the Ticktockman, and when he’s caught we wait to see what happens next, which is both the resolution and the ending of the story.

Poets seem to have a much healthier relationship to patterns. Sure, there was a moment there when the rebels fought the formalists, but eventually everybody made up and we are now (for the most part) coexisting peacefully. Perhaps it’s because, unlike in prose, poetry has never truly preferred a single form to the exclusion of all others. One could say that in Western poetry the sonnet had its moment, for example, but at the same time poets everywhere were writing villanelles and odes and ballads and a bunch of other things with perfect joy. Today the same poet can write in free verse one day and form the next, and put all the poems in the same collection if she pleases. Like the fashion designer, the poet has the freedom to innovate a little or a lot. She can publish the perfect alexandrine or the completely wacky nonce version of a form all to the same acclaim.

One should never be afraid to follow a pattern, or to deviate from it. Forget about thinking inside versus outside the box--as long as you're thinking, you're okay. It's not the box that's evil, it's your relationship to it. If you're afraid to think inside the box, you're just as trapped outside.

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