of the Essays and Short Stories
Narration and Description
Although the narrative and descriptive essays are often given as separate assignments in composition courses, they are combined in this first section so that teachers can present expressive writing and still reserve time for the many forms of informative and argumentative writing. This choice is tricky because it confirms the folk wisdom about expressive writing and rhetorical difficulty. According to custom, students can write narratives first because they are already familiar with storytelling and can organize a personal experience according to simple chronology. Similarly, students can write descriptive essays early because they can use their senses to discover details that can then be arranged according to spatial patterns.
Teachers can find considerable support for such conventional wisdom in their students’ writing, which often seems more fluent when it focuses on personal narrative or describes something familiar. But teachers are also aware that narration is not restricted to expressive writing—historical narratives are informative and persuasive—and that the best personal narratives require the sophisticated use of pacing and point of view. Similarly, they know that description includes technical descriptions that are almost exclusively informative and that the most effective personal descriptions depend on the deft selection of evocative and telling details.
Combining the two strategies into one assignment has an internal logic. Most narratives (telling what happened) are fleshed out by description (showing what something looked and felt like). And most descriptions are propelled by a strong narrative line. You may want to examine these propositions by discussing the way the two methods are presented in the section introduction and illustrated by the sample paragraph. Like the lesson in Kingston’s paragraph, events occur in time and space. Thus, writers must identify the central conflict in their essay, arrange the events in a sequence, and select those details that render a vivid picture of the events as they unfold. Most important, writers need to identify their purpose in re-creating the story for an audience. Such a discussion should help your students understand how strategies such as plot, pace, and point of view shape and sharpen the point of a narrative and descriptive essay. THE READINGS
The five essays in this section illustrate these strategies in action. Maya Angelou opens her essay by speculating about the purposes of education in the South and then selects an example from her own life to illustrate the ironies in her speculation. George Orwell’s essay proposes a theory about real impulses of imperialism and then illustrates that theory with a dramatic revelation of his role in shooting an elephant. Both essays establish narration and description as means of proof and reveal how writers use pacing to build anticipation and manipulate point of view.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s remembrance about keeping a baseball score book is an analytical narrative similar to Angelou’s and Orwell’s in intent but much more nostalgic in tone. The story in her essay is summarized within another story; she is telling a story about the stories she told her father when she was a child.
Judith Ortiz Cofer uses narration to introduce and exemplify the points she is making in a larger analysis of stereotypes of Puerto Rican women. The stories in her text illustrate the kinds of prejudices she has faced as a Latina.
Andre Dubus’s essay “Digging” is an elegiac text mourning both the loss of his right leg in an automobile accident (although he doesn’t tell readers that) and the loss of his father. He writes with careful attention to description so that his readers can learn the same lessons from his experience that he did.
Alice Adams’s story “Truth or Consequences” presents the essence of narration and...