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Newness is Number One in Published Essays
In every published essay, you’ll find that they all have one thing in common: They all tell the reader something new. But when critics and teachers talk about essays, they almost always overlook or ignore this fact. (I know, it seems hard to believe, but it’s true.) In fact, we can see a pattern in all published essays of beginning to identify with the old view—the known, accepted view— of something and then almost immediately identify a new point of view. , which is always in opposition or a reversal of the old view. The thesis of the new view is always followed by support. (By the way, you can Google the titles of each of the essays I’ll mention here if you put them in quotation marks. Google will provide you with a link to at least one online example of each essay, in full.) For example, the first paragraph of George Orwell’s widely published essay, Politics and the English language, talks about the degradation of the English language and the ugly politics of the British Empire, how the two interact and seem inextricably linked together. In the second paragraph, Orwell states that “the process is reversible” and that improving the use of the English language can improve English politics and thereby help save the British Empire. This is a clear pattern from old to new, a revolutionary new look. And it is followed by support. Another good example is Carl Sagan’s popularly published essay, Abstraction of beasts. The first sentence of the essay clearly expresses the old view:
“Animals do not abstract,” declared John Locke, expressing the prevailing opinion of mankind throughout recorded history.
In the second paragraph, Sagan presents his new counterpoint to that old view by asking whether animals might be capable of abstract thought, though perhaps less deeply or less frequently than humans. The rest of the essay provides facts, reasoning, and speculation to support Sagan’s new view about animals actually thinking or abstracting. A third good example is Isaac Asimov’s rather entertaining (at first, at least) essay, The Eureka phenomenon. Indeed, the fullness of Asimov’s old view and the relationship of the new view comes in three stages. But he clearly talks first about his old problem of getting writer’s block, and then explains how he learned to solve it by watching an action movie, which is his new perspective. (Interestingly, the old view is actually unstated at that point. Since Asimov is a thinker and a writer, he knows many people who suffer from Writer’s Block, so he assumes that most people have some sort of Mental Block from time to time in their thinking and would be interested in a good solution to that recurring problem.) Next, he compares voluntary and involuntary thinking to voluntary and involuntary breathing. And in paragraphs ten and eleven he makes a formal statement of his new thesis of view. To support this, he immediately starts telling the famous story of Archimedes solving the king’s problem and running naked through the streets shouting that he found the solution. What most of us usually not remember, after reading this essay, Asimov then provides further support, going through some boring stories and incidents involving scientists using the involuntary method of thinking to achieve great advances in science. And, finally, he makes a third version of his original New View thesis out of this, which includes what he sees as a continuing pattern of scientists not giving due credit to the involuntary thinking that they actually use to make scientific advances. The three analysis pattern I just gave you—old view, then new view thesis, then support—of three popular published essays is standard for published essays. Try the pattern on any published essay and you’ll see how true this is. So how do we as writers and as teachers of writing achieve a noticeable innovation in our writing and the writing of our students, especially in their essays? Are you ready for this? Here’s the big secret –
We get innovation in our essays and those of our students by becoming sensitive to the everyday patterns of innovation that exist in our culture and learning to use them in our thinking, our writing, and our everyday communications.
For example, there is Dark cloud, silver lining the cultural model of innovation. Normally, when something very unpleasant or bad happens in our lives, we get depressed, and then one of our friends will say something like, “Don’t worry, Carmen—although things look pretty bleak right now, something good will come out of this, just wait and see.” The new aspect of this model is that we don’t expect something good to come out of something bad – but it does! The old view negative expectations return, thus producing a new view. Here are some examples of the Dark Cloud, Silver Lining model that students can easily relate to:
- I cried when I bombed the final exam – but was overjoyed to learn that my grades for all the quizzes, reports, and other in-class exams pulled me back.
- Our basketball team had a poor and unfortunately disappointing season, but in the playoffs we were absolutely thrilled when our team won every game and won the state championship!
- My circle of friends and I are poor, but we have discovered that the real pleasure is in the sharing, not in the great, glamorous and expensive activities.
- My family’s house is very cheap and in a slum, but we actually take great pride in having the cleanest, most well-kept house in the whole damn town.
- My part-time job is so terribly boring and pays so little that I wonder why I keep working there – until I look around and notice that a lot of kids don’t have jobs at all.
Then there is David vs. Goliath the cultural model of innovation. Here’s how it works: We all know that the big guys intimidate and overpower the little guys – that’s just the way it is, what everyone expects and accepts because we see it happen all the time. For example, some large health insurance companies take advantage of indigent policyholders. Movies have been made about such situations, such as the 1997 thriller The rainmaker, starring Matt Damon and Danny DeVito, in which a large insurance company is defeated by a small woman and her wet-behind-the-ears lawyer, fresh out of school. So when the little boy defeats the big boy, as David did with Goliath in the Bible story, everyone is a little surprised and kind of happy about it. It’s very similar to ‘Good Conquers Evil’ since the big guys or groups almost always throw their power and abuse the good little guys like you and me. The new aspect of this model is that experience has taught us all that the big, powerful bad guys regularly make mincemeat of the little good guys – so when that old negative expectation view returns, we have a view of cloud. Here are examples of the David Versus Goliath innovation cultural model:
- My poor little aunt took the IRS to court to stop them from taking her car to pay her taxes. I knew she would lose. But my sweet little aunt beat the IRS in court by standing up to them, passionately pointing out facts that the IRS tried to cover up.
- Larry was a bright student, but he was really very small and very soft and cuddly. So when he got into an extended, inflammatory debate in our civics class with the loud-mouthed, six-foot captain of the debating team and embarrassed him, everyone cheered!
- My little sister, Jenny (7 years younger), and I often compete for time with Dad, and of course I always win. But I must admire how of late she learned to so cleverly charm him and his wallet away from me—the little fellow!
- My friend Emily has a little sister (4 years younger) who always wants to go with our girl group, but Emily never lets her come. However, last Friday, little sister talked the other girls into taking her with us and leaving Emily at home!
- I’m really nerdy about computers, and my brother Stan is kind of a computer genius. So when his computer broke one Saturday and I was the one who actually figured out how to fix it, I promised him I’d never let him forget it.
Many cultural models of innovation exist ‘out there’ for us to fall back on, both for generating new ideas and as pre-existing formats for conveying our new ideas. Can you think of any other experiences of your own? Let me suggest a few others that I’m sure you’ll recognize, just by their names:
- Glitters, Not Gold (“All that glitters is not gold.”)
- The lion roars, toothless (“Someone or something powerful does nothing or fails.”)
- Which came first, the chicken or the egg? (“Cause and effect are reversed/reversed.”)
I’m sure you can give examples of these three cultural models of innovation without any help from me. The main idea here, of course, is that innovation is all around us, especially in published works such as essays. And if we’re going to write an essay or anything else, we better be sure to focus on the #1 focus in all communications, published or not…What’s new for the reader.
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