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July 01, 2007

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Donovan Hohn

Holly: I'm still pursuing those 28,800 bath toys--around the world and around the web, doing research for a book--and today I stumbled upon this delicious post of yours. (If my essay makes it into Best American Essays, I'll eat your hat, so one way or another that hat of yours is getting eaten.) As a fellow teacher of the essay, I can't resist commenting on the passage with which you end. It has a specific provenance.

For the last several years, I've taught a Literary Journalism course to 12th graders at a private high school in New York. (I hate the term Literary Journalism for precisely the reasons you name, but I also hate the rival term Creative Nonfiction, which seems to me a defensive bit of compensation, as if essayists needed to compete with Creative Writing. What to call writing that mixes memory, observation, meditation, imagination? Documentary Prose? The Impersonal Essay? Melville called his generic cocktail a novel and left it at that). Anyway my first writing assignment in this Literary Journalism course is modeled on Virginia Woolf's "Street Haunting." I ask my students to read piratically, looking for great sentences, great formal choices, great moves that they might steal for their own writing, and in discussing Woolf's essay in 2006, we came upon this magical sentence worthy of theft:

"But this is London, we are reminded; high among the bare trees are hung oblong frames of reddish yellow light--windows; there are points of brilliance burning steadily like low stars--lamps . . ."

The sentence goes on (this is Woolf, after all). What I love here is that trick of punctuation with which Woolf enacts the process of perception: first the metaphor (oblong frames, low stars), then the thing (windows, low stars). I sent my students off to go street haunting themselves (not street walking, mind you, as one student innocently called it): take a walk, have a destination, take notes, then turn your notes into a short , descriptive narrative. I dared them to attempt Woolf's magic trick. (It needs a name, like a trick shot in pool or a gambit in chess.) The more ambitious and skillful students accepted my dare. Here, for instance, is a sentence written by the talented Martha Tenney:

"You weave past cases of shiny, pretty objects, their bright colors running together in a confused tapestry—gaudy scarves, huge sunglasses, pristine lipsticks, sparkling watches."

Having dared my students, I figured I'd better give the trick a try myself. I happened to be at work on "Moby-Duck," and so instead of street haunting I went beach haunting. The result was the passage you quoted (you'll notice I dispensed with the dashes and played with the sentence structure), which I too see as metaphorical. From the moment I began researching that piece it was hard not to see beachcombing as a metaphor for reading writing.

DH

joanna

Holly, I've been moving links from the CCE blog to my own blog and was delighted as always to read your meditative post here. How are you? I look forward to reading more of your posts in the coming year.

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