Our AP class is imitating essayists to explore their styles and habits. In our blog posts, we’re quoting parts of essays and imitating the quotes. Then, in comments to our own posts, we’re explaining how we’ve chosen to imitate the essays.
Here’s my latest imitation and explanation. I use the italicized part of my explanation to advocate for imitation as a means of preparing ourselves for the AP Language and Composition exam’s argument and synthesis essay prompts.
It seemed to me, as I kept remembering all this, that those times and those summers had been infinitely precious and worth saving. There had been jollity and peace and goodness. The arriving (at the beginning of August) had been so big a business in itself, at the railway station the farm wagon drawn up, the first smell of the pine-laden air, the first glimpse of the smiling farmer, and the great importance of the trunks and your father’s enormous authority in such matters, and the feel of the wagon under you for the long ten-mile haul, and at the top of the last long hill catching the first view of the lake after eleven months of not seeing this cherished body of water. The shouts and cries of the other campers when they saw you, and the trunks to be unpacked, to give up their rich burden. (Arriving was less exciting nowadays, when you sneaked up in your car and parked it under a tree near the camp and took out the bags and in five minutes it was all over, no fuss, not loud wonderful fuss about trunks.)
– E. B. White, from his essay “Once More to the Lake”
At the far end of the lineup, as if it were anchoring a rainbow, stood the red Nano. Red always stands out, but this Nano stood out among the other six colors on the web page in another respect: it was engraved with “(Product) Red.” If I bought the red one over the more sensible silver one six colors down, Apple would give half of the sale’s profits to a fund to fight AIDS in Africa.
I first learned about charity in the bosom of the church. “Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” Each Sunday, as Rev. Burke, an ex-Army chaplain who was there on D-Day, intoned those words, my mother reached a white glove into her purse and pressed a silver dime against the palms of each of her three children. I was the oldest. I liked dimes: bright, diminutive, and branded with the bust of a pretty lady, or at least of an angel. I remember the slightly metallic smell mixing with the moisture inside the fist I made to protect it. But my attachment to riches took as long as it takes to repeat after Jesus, “Freely you have received, freely give.” I plunked my dime in a golden plate, the plate was passed to an elderly usher, and the usher, joined down the long, red-carpeted aisle in a kind of pecuniary confluence with three other men, merged his plate with theirs into the hands of a teenaged acolyte. I felt a certain regret mixed with a strange sensation of freedom as Rev. Burke collected the plates, including my dime, from the acolyte, who had turned from us in a swoosh of his cassock, long and red.
I thought about those early Sundays as I struggled with the red Nano’s implicit argument: pick me, and you’ll help fight AIDS in Africa! You’ll be charitable! But what would I have given up? The silver and red Nanos cost the same. Apple wasn’t training me, as my mother had, by letting a coin sweat in my hand long enough for “a dime” to become “my dime.” Instead, (Product) Red felt more like a nicotine patch against my arm, something to wean me from the charity I had contracted under the aegis of the Episcopal Church long ago.
Last class we reflected on our weaknesses as timed essayists. Of the three common weaknesses the AP readers described, perhaps a plurality of our community picked writing “an exam answer” instead of “a full essay.” But weaving forty minutes into a good article of writing is a tough skill for all of us, even those of us who because of a greater exigency picked “evidence” or “syntax” instead of “full essay.” We all have only forty minutes to write an essay’s rough draft. How can it be good? Given the time constraint and the need to convey a great deal of information, how can it be anything other than what it is – an “exam answer”?
Our argument essays, and to some extent our synthesis essays, can take on some of the style of the master essayists we’ve been reading this year. One way to write something closer to an enjoyable essay is to study, and even to imitate, enjoyable essays others have written. The skills we’re developing from our reading and writing this year, along with the freedom of knowing that style is just as important as substance, will be with us for those brief forty minutes in May. Through practice, most of the good decisions you’ll make in your writing this May will be instinctive – instinctive to you then as putting a period at the end of a sentence is to you now.
So in this imitation piece, I wanted to address the same essay prompt blocks 3 and 4 responded to, and I wanted to deliberately do it in something like the style of E. B. White, a famous essayist we’ll read later this year. I can’t plaster “WWEBD?” on my mind’s back bumper when I write my argument essay this May, but maybe my practice in writing like White will help me internalize some of his approach and (hopefully) some of his wonderful pacing and syntax.
Here’s the prompt, in pertinent part: “In a well-written essay, develop a position on the ethics of offering incentives for charitable acts.”
I don’t write an entire essay here, but I write an essay’s opening, and the opening may be enough to suggest a framework for the other information I’d include to respond to the prompt.
In the rest of this comment, I describe how my piece employs some of the literary, rhetorical, and compositional techniques in White’s essay “Once More to the Lake.”
I want to start with a periodic sentence as White does in the paragraph I quote. These right-branch sentences always add drama. (White’s tone can be so placid that he needs his syntax to provide the drama his pacing never creates.) I also like the nuclear emphasis White uses in that sentence before each piece of punctuation: “ME,” “THIS,” and “SAVing.” (I used “LINEup,” “RAINbow,” and “NAno.”)
I also borrow the entire golden-past-versus-plastic-present theme White gets across in this paragraph. White’s comparison becomes confrontational at the end, even though he puts it in parenthesis. I compare Apple’s approach to charity unfavorably with the Episcopal Church’s of my youth, just as White compares his arrival at camp in the present with his arrivals there in his youth.
We both use longer cumulative sentences with some parallel structure to get across the process of travel. He:
The arriving (at the beginning of August) had been so big a business in itself, at the railway station the farm wagon drawn up, the first smell of the pine-laden air, the first glimpse of the smiling farmer, and the great importance of the trunks and your father’s enormous authority in such matters, and the feel of the wagon under you for the long ten-mile haul, and at the top of the last long hill catching the first view of the lake after eleven months of not seeing this cherished body of water.
I plunked my dime in a golden plate, the plate was passed to an elderly usher, and the usher, joined down the aisle with three other men, merged his plate with theirs into the hands of a teenaged acolyte.
(He uses more phrases – nouns followed by prepositional phrases, and I use more independent clauses. But hey.)
White’s chief modes of rhetoric in this paragraph are both description and process analysis, and I tried to achieve that in my piece. On the descriptive end, he describes a childhood smell (the “pine-laden air”), and I do, too (the sweaty dime). On the process end, he describes the annual arrival at camp, and I describe the weekly collection of offerings.
Both White and I use comparison, description, and process analysis to achieve a greater end. I intend to argue that the ethics of charity should include sacrifice. We’ll see what White intended later this year when we read his essay! But you can see from this single paragraph from White’s essay that he feels we lose something sometimes when we make things easier, which would be a big part of my essay’s argument, too, were I to write the entire essay.