Ross School - Senior Project 2006-07
Mentor: Mark Foard
Consultant: Jesse Pasca
Title: Where the Suckers Moon
For my Senior Project I essentially learned how to write. Sure, I’ve known how to put words in a row to form sentences, paragraphs, and even entire papers, but this project was about how to do that well, and in an interesting (well, that’s for you to decide) way. I learned how to write the personal essay from the masters of the form, starting with perhaps the first essayist, Michel de Montaigne, then moving on to E. B. White, Annie Dillard, David Rakoff, Sarah Vowell and David Foster Wallace. I studied the techniques they used to shape their essays in order to inform my own work. The goal of all this was to learn how to write in a form that I was unfamiliar with, one that does not require the hard facts and structure of an ‘academic’ paper, but that nonetheless arrives at truth.
Printed in a booklet format on high quality paper.
My project was an exploration of the form of the essay. I decided to go to the beginnings of the essay style in order to get a sense of where the style had come from; this gave me a context for the rest of my examination of different essayists. To do this I took a look at the classical essays of Michel de Montaigne who is the first modern essayist. He explores a myriad of topics in a very non-didactic way and supports his ideas with quotations from authoritative sources. After examining his essays I attempted to write my own essay in a similar style.
From there I went on to examine the traditional essays of E.B. White. White writes in a fluid and seemingly effortless style that seamlessly integrates different threads of a story into one cohesive narrative. White was the next logical step in my examination of the essay writing because he is the bridge between Montaigne and the radical styles of contemporary essayists. After looking at his style I adapted some material I had bits and pieces of into an essay in which I tried to employ his style of writing.
I went on to examine an essay by Julia Slavin entitled Pets. It piqued my interest because it was not written in anything that could be called a cohesive narrative form. She writes about her pets in paragraphs that are only a couple of sentences long. None of these sentences contains much of a narrative, but the whole essay itself ends up explaining entire situations involving her pets and, more importantly, explaining her family dynamic. I decided to do an essay of my own in this manner and used something that I have had a lot of: houses. I explained different houses and the dynamics of the interactions that others and I had with each one.
After that essay was completed I had an idea to change a part of the nature of my project by adding a stand-up comedy portion. I read a book on comedy and drew upon my recollections of stand-up comics that I have seen before and began developing material. The key to creating humorous material, as it turns out, is to not try to be funny, but think of basic situations; things that are scary, weird, or difficult are the basic situations that can be turned into good comedy. So I focused on something I know a lot about: Swedish people. I wrote down a bunch of interesting things and then described them in as much detail as I could. After I had done that I realized that I did not feel entirely comfortable doing stand-up, and that it was a complication in my project that I was not entirely prepared to add. So I instead followed some of the tips from The Comedy Bible and converted it into and essay instead. I also looked at the columnist Dave Barry to see how to use exaggeration in a humorous manner, and I also drew upon the works of David Rakoff and David Foster Wallace indirectly because I had recently read their works.
The final essay I wrote was modeled on the works of Annie Dillard. Dillard writes in a style that lies somewhere in-between the completely disjointed nature of Slavin and the fluid style of White. She writes in a style she calls narrative collage where individual pieces may have a narrative, but as a whole there is not plot. After becoming familiar with her style by reading a few of her essays I wrote my own essay in this form using my own topics. Finally I printed the essays in a small booklet with an explanatory introduction.
Annotated Works Consulted
Carty, Judy. The Comedy Bible: From Stand-Up To Sitcom – The Comedy Writer’s Ultimate How-To Guide. New York: FIRESIDE, 2001. This is a book that outlines all the basics, as well as the specifics, of comedy writing. I looked at the first section to get an idea as to how I could brainstorm comedy ideas and how to convert them to something written.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim At Tinker Creek. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc, 1998. This book is a collection off essays Dillard wrote about nature. I did not want to emulate her content, but I looked instead at her style of writing. It is something that she calls Narrative Collage, and is a technique I tried to learn by reading her essays.
Foster Wallace, David. Consider the Lobster. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005. Wallace uses a unique style to explore different topics. He includes footnotes on almost every page that allow for a level of depth that would usually be found in a historical research paper. I examined his style to get a sense of modern essay writing and how to write an essay in general.
Kafka, Franz. The Complete Stories. USA: Schocken Books, 1988. Kafka is a master at creating a story where the world seems alien and grotesque, yet the true horror sets in once the reader realizes that Kafka’s world is not so far removed from reality. I looked at this book for inspiration for my original plan, which was to create fiction along with non-fiction works.
Montaigne, Michel De. The Essays: A Collection. England: Penguin Books, 1993. Montaigne is often considered the first essayist. He deals with a variety of subjects, from ethics of Cannibals to examining his own idleness. He does not do this in a didactic manner, however; he merely explores a topic and arrives some conclusion with the support of quotes from famous scholars. I looked at his style in order to get a sense of the roots of the form that I was studying and to emulate that style in an essay of my own.
Pasca, Jesse. “senior project.” E-mail to Johannes Golden. 8, Nov. 2006. Jesse, my outside mentor, sent me my essay that I had sent him earlier with some digital notes on it. He discussed some word usage as well as the general flow of the paper. I ended up using most of his suggestions in the final draft of my essay Once More Down Main Street.
Rakoff, David. Fraud. New York: Broadway Books, 2001. Rakoff is a contemporary essayist and frequent contributor to the NPR show This American Life; this is a collection of his essays. He uses subtle humor to delve into subjects range from visiting lake Loch Ness to dealing with his cancer. I read the book to get a general sense of what an essay is and to look at one of the many forms that it can take.
Saunders, George. Pastoralia. USA, Penguin Group, 2001. Saunders paints a disturbing world in his stories; a world with it’s own set of rules. I looked at his stories in the beginning of my project when it was to contain a fiction element as well as non-fiction essays.
White, E.B. Essays of E.B. White. New York: HarperPerrenial, 1999. This book is a collection of essays by the man who literally wrote the book on writing: E.B. White. He has a seamless, fluid style that effortlessly integrates multiple threads of a story into one cohesive whole. I attempted to learn what I could of his style and employ it to my own writing.
Community Member (Details)
Jesse Pasca is an educator and a full time artist. He has taught high school and middle school level, and currently teaches at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York City.