Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Battle of the Essay (Part 1) - A Writing Journal

Today I retell the lovely adventure of my most recent English essay. The only essay that I've ever been satisfied with, I might add. In this essay I learned many valuable lessons, lessons I believe will help others.

If you want to hear more about my writing background, or are easily frustrated by essays, read on!

Throughout my posts on Inkspiration, you might have heard me talk about my latest English essay a little. I figured I'd go into a bit more detail since I've just gotten it back. So you're not confused, I'll detail my background on essay writing.

I've never liked essays or been good at writing them. We started writing "real" essays in eighth grade, which was about the only thing we wrote. Each essay we were assigned had either a weird prompt that was confusing, wasn't explained at all, about a book I didn't like, or all of the above. I mean, I'm a writer, so I fared better than some of my friends. However, I really wanted to prove myself to my teacher since this was the time I was getting super serious about my novel. I even thought of showing it to her. I wished for at least one of my essays to be read to the class as a "model". I was unsuccessful.

When I walked into school the first day this year, I knew we were going to have to write an essay about our summer reading book. We always did and I suspect we always will. I chose to read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (this post will be spoiler free! Don't worry!). All the same, I was very nervous. I hate writing under constraints (time, page numbers). Although, technically we didn't have to write "an essay" the first day, we had to write a first draft of an essay. Which is the only way to have a test in Language Arts with an essay. There's no way you could expect a kid to write an amazing first draft and then grade them on that.

Moving on. When I finally turned the page to see what the prompt was, I was horrified. On the sheet we got at the end of last year it said we should look for "how the protagonist changes" and "themes throughout the novel". So, I searched for them separately, knowing that last year every essay concerning a book was to answer the question "what was a significant theme throughout this work?". The sheet suggested we used one word on the list (with such words as acceptance, denial, and social class) to show how the protagonist changes.

All the notes I took over the summer were wasted (not that I took that many anyway). Nevertheless, I scraped through that draft with a thesis similar to those who didn't even read the same book (you had three choices).

The next class my teacher (I'll call her Mrs. M), told us how to strengthen our thesis. When I looked down at my paper she'd marked it "passable" but "needs work". To be honest, I hated my thesis at that point. Mrs. M told us that our thesis should be unique to you; what you got out of the reading. Mine wasn't deep enough. She also introduced us to the new format of essay writing that we'd be using for the rest of our high school careers, and I suspect the rest of our lives. It wasn't all that different, just a lengthened version of the type we used last year.

We had a quotes/elaboration packet due next. I couldn't get nine quotes for my thesis as is, so I was forced to find a new one. This didn't prove easy. I ended up having to email Mrs. M telling her I wasn't able to finish the packet. She said it was fine as long as I was on track once we started drafting. I had two thesis statements when I walked back into class (which I'd put the finishing touches on in homeroom that morning).

First we had a small group activity in which my classmates told me they liked the first one, which was, in all honesty, "easier". I was all ready to start on that one when Mrs. M came to check on me. I showed her the two thesises (thesisi?) and, of course, she chose the other one. It almost looked like she'd gotten goosebumps. "I really like that one," she said, "because that's what's really going on." I sighed. In the back of my mind, I'd kind of liked that one better, anyway. I went with that one.

My new thesis stood as: In order to cope with this catastrophe, Melinda hides behind her silence, her bad behavior in school, and her artwork, which are all her subconscious way of asking for help. Since it's about "subconscious" actions, it took me forever to find quotes. I mean, how do you demonstrate something that the protagonist doesn't even know they're doing?

Eventually I just sat down and got it done. Once it was all out on paper, the rest was pretty easy. I mean, I shifted a few things here and there to strengthen ideas, or found a better way to state them. Once we got to peer editing, I was ready. There were still a few things  I was a bit on the fence about (little things though), and I really wanted advice. Waiting patiently for my friend to finish reading, I read someone else's essay and tried to be nice in saying she had a lot of work to do. A downside to being a serious writer in high school: you have very high expectations.

My friend gave my essay back with no constructive criticism. She said, in a frustrated voice, "This is amazing." Now, I know I shouldn't be complaining about this, but it was kind of annoying to me at the time. Yes, I know the main ideas are good, but what about the grimy stuff? Word choice? Do I use this metaphor too much? What about this saying? Introduction? Conclusion? I guess I shouldn't except that from them though, as not all of them are as picky as me.

The night before the essay was due I printed it off for one last proofread with my mom. Granted, she hadn't read the book so she didn't know the quality of the essay as a whole, but she said my voice was shown. I even said, "Mom, you might want to listen because this may be the only time I say this for the entire year. I actually like my essay." I printed it off again, this time with no typos, and sent it off for Mrs. M to grade.

And I waited.

I'm very appreciative that Mrs. M goes through our essays like she does. She literally gives everyone at least a couple of notes on how to improve their essay, handwritten. I'm sure it takes forever. I was willing to wait to get my essay back as long as I knew she was looking at it in detail.

We moved on to short stories as we all waited anxiously for our essays, most of us in fear. I tried not to get my hopes up. Mrs. M had talked about our essays as a class, saying that we had "some really amazing writers", but she'd also said that she hadn't given out any As. The whole class deflated. "It doesn't mean that your essay isn't good if you don't get an A. An 'A' paper is flawless." Mine wasn't flawless, that's for sure. It's your first essay, Tess. Calm down. There will be plenty of other opportunities to prove yourself as a writer. 

But during work time on the Tuesday before a long weekend, it turns out that I'd already proven myself. Mrs. M sat down in the desk in front of me and slid an orange post-it note toward me, whispering "I don't mean to interrupt, but..."

In her neat handwriting, it read: Can I share your essay with my classes?

It took everything I had not to jump up and do a happy dance. All I ever wanted was to get read to the class, to prove to myself that I was good enough to do so. I smiled and replied with a, "Yes, of course!"

Then she asked me if she could share my name along with my essay. For this, I hesitated. It wasn't like my essay was all that personal; I wasn't spilling my guts out or anything. However, I didn't want it to be about me. I wanted my peers to listen when she read it out loud, not to be looking at me. Wasn't that the whole reason she was being so discrete? She didn't want the other kids' feelings to be hurt. As a compromise, I said that she should read the essay first, and then tell them if they asked (which I knew they would).

I tried my hardest to concentrate on my work throughout that entire class. The only person I told was my mom. I didn't want to upset any of my friends, as some of them are also writers. That's not to say they wouldn't be happy for me. I'm sure they would be, but it didn't come up in conversation and I didn't feel like bringing it up.

Next, I had to wait the entire long weekend for my essay. I knew she liked it, which helped a bit. I wondered what she loved about it, especially for her to choose it above others. What made mine so good? My voice? My thesis?

And now, you will have to wait, as I do, to find out the end of this tale.

I guess now is as good as any to tell you what I learned from this experience:
1. Writing is a process. I went through probably five drafts of this essay before it got to where it is now. My first draft is nothing like my final one. I changed my thesis completely. There's nothing wrong with that.
2. Keep an open mind. I hate essays, and now look! I actually liked this one. An essay is what you make it. It can go in so many directions as long as you guide it. Don't give up on if you've been bad at something before. Maybe all you need is a new perspective... or a good teacher.

When was the first time you shined as a writer? What was your best/worst essay writing experience? What was your summer reading novel? Leave a comment below!

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