Mentor Text: The Greatest Nature Essay Ever by Brian Doyle
- Deconstruction and criticism
- Playing with conventions
Almost exactly a year ago, I threw a tweet out into the void about my desire to find more joyful texts to put in front of my students. The heavy stuff is so very rich, but finding things that express joy, and that allow us to do some good analysis, and have those rich conversations feels a lot harder to find.
If you read my posts here, you probably already know that query brought the work of Brian Doyle to my attention. I spent last spring reading his collection One Long River of Song daily, one essay a day until it was done.
I brought a few of those pieces into my Lit class last year, and the students who were with me last year mentioned him with fondness, so I pulled my copy off the shelf, and flipped through the flagged pieces to find one to work with this year.
How we might use this text:
Deconstruction and Criticism – I’m spoiled with my Lit class this year – a small, focused group who really love to dig into a text, looking for insight and moves the author makes. I knew they’d dig ‘The Greatest Nature Essay Ever Written.’ The ones graduating this year, especially, have been really working on their craft as writers, thinking a lot about how an essay, and other pieces work. The fact that this piece talks about structure the way it does really landed for them. Perhaps the frequency with which they’ve been writing essays over the last few years made a difference.
We talked a lot about how this essay, while making some great moves itself, both highlights and critiques the moves made in the titular nature essay. They loved the idea of deconstructing something, breaking down the essence of what makes it the greatest. I think they loved the way that Doyle points out the good things, subtly skewering the not so good in the same sentence. Perhaps it’s our tendency towards criticism, that we, as audiences, love to pick things apart, even as we appreciate them that they see reflected in this piece.
I’ll be honest, my intent was to have them choose a genre, or form of writing they know best, and explore that, but with the right group of students, “What could we write inspired by this piece?” is the most powerful question. Perhaps it’s because Lit is right after lunch, but pieces about perfect dishes were floated, as well as things like songs, breakup notes and other pieces of writing.
Playing With Conventions – Doyle might be my favourite writer to bring into the classroom for this. I love the whiplash switch from gobsmacked appreciation for his work to the realization that he’s doing the things they’ve been told you’re not supposed to do. I just mentioned how he does two things in the same sentence. That’s easy when the sentence is a paragraph long. Then it’s suddenly followed by a series of short, abrupt sentences, some of a single word. The title goes right into the first line, which is a thing we’ve only seen happen in poems! And then there’s the italicized bits, where he’s talking? The magic trick we’re learning here is that conventions are something we can play with, that if we’re doing things with intent, then we can craft something special, that reads differently than the things we write when we’re following The Rules.
I love having Doyle’s book on the shelf, passages and pieces flagged for when I need something like this. I love knowing there’s a note on my phone outlining the places I can pepper his work throughout the courses I teach. I love knowing that I’ve got a writer who’s work has thus far only landed well and inspired wonderful writing from my students.
Do you have a book like this on your shelf, or a writer whose work you go to? Do you have a writer who’s work you feel elevates your students’ writing?
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