A paradox lies at the heart of great portraits: intellectually, we know a photograph can’t actually “capture” anything, but emotionally (and spiritually), we can’t help but keep looking for some kind of truth…Paradoxes lie at the heart of great photographic portraits.
We know a photograph can’t actually “capture” anything essential about people in the photographs.
For the last several semesters, I’ve been giving a final exam in my 300-level creative nonfiction class.
I mostly ask students to define and explain the importance of the craft terms we’ve been studying (the difference between scene and summary, what we mean by voice, the difference between a collage essay and a braided essay), but I also include a brief essay question at the end.
One of the things my students have the hardest time with is writing in scene when they don’t need pages and pages of dialogue and description, when just a few sentences will do the trick.
I think all beginning writers struggle with scene in general, but the macro seems easier than the micro.She can explain, in a sentence or two, that the friend was “eating a cheeseburger and smoking a Marlboro” the last time she saw her and she didn’t have “anything else in the house to offer” her, which is why she really didn’t feel that bad about the soup.We don’t need a lot of reflection in these sections to understand what it is that Einstein is saying about herself, what she thinks these choices say about her character.So, when we read Einstein’s essay, this is one of the first things we talk about.We don’t need pages and pages of description and dialogue to get to the point.This goes over better in fiction, I think, when students can force their characters to make choices on the page and don’t feel quite so invested in whether or not we find the character to be good or likeable.But when they are writing about their own lives, they often glide right over their choices—perhaps because they don’t want to linger on the bad choices they’ve made, the hard choices they might still be unsure about—the exact choices that make for the best essays.Silas Hansen's essays have appeared in The Normal School, Colorado Review, Redivider, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere.He teaches creative writing and literary publishing at Ball State University and is the nonfiction editor of Waxwing. This last question asks students to tell me the single essay we read that taught them the most about writing creative nonfiction, the most important thing it taught them, and how they did something similar in their own work.Every semester, without fail, no matter what other essays I teach, a solid 75% of students (often more) choose the same essay: “Self-Portrait in Apologies” by Sarah Einstein.