individual title )~ 4 pages typed H u m a n i t i e s
Essay 2 – Prompt
“Encounters” (But you’ll come up with your own individual title)
~4 pages typed, double-spaced, Times or Arial font
Objective: To write a descriptive essay that renders in detail a specific event, person, place, object, or other observable social phenomenon.
Narrative Voice: The essay will once again be written in the first person, but this time you are an unobtrusive witness, or reporter, and the focus should be on the subject described. This more objective, outward view is the key difference between this and the first essay. Rather than talking about something that happened to you, you are describing something significant outside of yourself.
Source Material: Ideally, you would venture out into your immediate environment to observe your subject firsthand. As long as you are very careful and follow the necessary safety precautions, this is still an option, but you may also write remotely, i.e. from memory, provided that you can access the necessary level of detail needed to evoke the subject for the reader. This is not an online research essay, but photos, souvenirs, correspondence, and other resources like that will be very helpful.
For instance, if I wanted to write about my best friend from high school, and some of the changes and struggles I’ve seen him go through over the years (working title “the Gambler”) I would want to dig out the letters he wrote me from boot camp, the emails after he got out of the Marines, the photos we took together when he turned up suddenly to drag me out skydiving, etc. Better yet, maybe I should finally make that phone call and talk to him. With these aids, I could start to shape my narrative and help bring my fuzzy memories of him back to life.
Structure and Content: The first and most important thing is to choose a suitable subject. What you’re looking for is something that not only offers the possibility for vivid description, but also which contains some challenging questions, an element of mystery. This is not a mystery that you are going to solve in this essay, but one that should drive the narrative. You are presenting pictures, symbols, facts, and other evidence, and the readers are going to do the detective work of putting the clues together.
To take my friend as an example once more, maybe the mystery is to do with how two people who were like brothers can drift so far apart in the space of a few years, or what led to some of the erratic, self-destructive behavior I saw in him later (and that I never saw coming), or simply if, in some way, he found whatever it was that he was seeking. It might be something that will become clearer as I gather the threads together, but I need to have some starting notion of it and try to crystalize that fairly quickly.
Profiling a friend or relative is one option, but there are many other strategies you could consider. You could choose to describe a place, for example as Jan Morris does in “Manhattan.” You could write about witnessing an event or part of an event, as with the Iranian Revolution in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, or like Joan Didion, to investigate a social phenomenon like the hippy movement in San Francisco, 1967.
If this seems overwhelming, go smaller—an old building, a certain street, a memorable encounter with a stranger, a stray dog, or a donkey in Fez (see this week’s reading). If it intrigues you, then it has the potential to intrigue the reader as well.
Once you have a subject, gather your materials. Write sketches, do portrait work, landscapes, still lifes. Give your subject a chance to start speaking to you, and listen to what it has to say.
The exact structure will be determined by the story you’re telling. Last essay, we practiced starting in medias res. That is still (always) a valid approach, but in this one I hope that you will experiment with finding a metaphor that can help unify the piece. An example would be the flames in Pico Iyer’s essay, or the polar bear in Central Park Zoo that Jan Morris sees from the top of an office building. Just keep an eye out for it, and we will talk more about this as we move on.
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