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· Diagramming the American Moment: One Stylish Student Essay ·

Though I've good examples aplenty, seldom do I cite passages from student essays. I mostly prefer professional work. But here I mean to make an exception, with a brief essay drawn from the work of a student last spring in English 101. You might find Steve H's piece instructive.

Steve H. is something of a classic "Man in the Street." At fifty-one, he tells us, he's "been around the block a few times." With twenty-nine years in the metal trades (he's been a machinist, welder, and millwright locally), lately he's been studying for work in habitat restoration. English 101 was a degree requirement, and, as you will see, he earned himself an "A."

For years I've had an assignment in class meant to promote wise reflection on "The Art of Writing." You can read my take on it at Community College English in a short post I wrote called One Helpful Portfolio Cover. But what matters here is Steve's approach, which you have (slightly revised) by permission. It's happily entitled

Integrity vs. Ambiguity: Ethics and the Art of Writing

I left the eight parts of speech behind me thirty-three years ago, though not the imprint they left on my memory. I have always enjoyed quality fiction and non-fiction, but I never understood what separated good writing from bad — save for my difficulty in reading some piece or my inability to attend to it without keeling over from boredom.

Surprisingly, I was good in high school at diagramming sentences and naming their parts (nouns, pronouns, verbs), but I never in fact asked anyone, "What was the purpose?" Now with the understanding that comes from hindsight and having been around the block a few times, I more clearly see the purpose. You must eventually analyze even your own writing to examine subtle relationships among the words. Then you will understand better how to put your thoughts together, tying one to another in good order and learning to communicate clear ideas, beliefs, and feelings.

I believe no one starts out wanting to be the village idiot, for stiff competition alone should prevent us all from ever applying for the job. I also believe in order to be a responsible citizen, you should be able to discern quickly when someone is trying "to pull the wool over your eyes," especially someone from the government.

Among the hardest concepts to master when learning how to write well is what I call "racing the chariot of Aristotle's three steeds of writing" — called ethos, pathos, and logos — the "horses" better known as ethics, emotions, and logic. For someone like me, my ethics seem to make me crack the whip mostly over my emotions — "damn the logic, full speed ahead," I say. This might be acceptable for some B-grade Hollywood movie, but it doesn't work as well in a world where we are all judged by our ability to manage the three — morals, passion, and thought — to achieve real goals.

When this balance is sacrificed for the purpose, say, of deliberately trying to hide our intent within our writing, we set aside proper ethics for personal gain and take up the sword of ambiguity and obscurity to find, as a general rule, something else. Exclusive language, double speak, bureaucratese, and a host of other evasive writing "skills" become a smoke screen behind which we sneak past the guards of moral high ground toward our dark aim.

Of course, there is the old adage "live by the sword, die by the sword," but it never occurs to us we may be the ones to fall under the overwhelming blows of truth.

Being the practical person that I am, one learning from seeing, feeling, and doing, I find it easier to show than tell. The following is the record, as I remember it, of an actual event where the outcome was a direct result of a person's deliberately putting up a "smoke screen" to cover his own dark maneuverings — proof of what happens when you abandon ethics, clarity and integrity for blind ego and ambition.

 · Americus Rex ·

Now enter our last Aristotelian term

TRAGOS — Definition: A Tragedy

Wonderful! Witty, wise, and wonderful! What a rare privilege to work with talented, motivated adults, Styles.

Posted by Loretta Markle on October 25, 2006 04:23 PM

I read the "Witty, wise and wonderful" essay, and perhaps it was exactly as you said, but may I submit, for your consideration, that it was merely clever. The senior Senor who wrote it was never a welder, but a BS artist with rhyme, rhythm and rancor. However, he made a big mistake. He omitted "Los Dos Amigos."

Posted by Dewd on February 13, 2007 11:13 AM

Yours is a quite interesting view, though from my own perspective somewhat off. Steve H. did exchange a welding rod for a pen — happily exhibiting the rhythm, though none of the rhyme or rancor, you've ascribed to him.

As for his cleverness, well, yes, of course; he is a bright student.

Posted by
Styles on February 13, 2007 06:29 PM

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