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Pedagogy 4.2 (2004) 300-304

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When Less Says More

Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise.
—William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White (2000)
A literary text must ... be conceived in such a way that it will engage the reader's imagination in the task of working things out for himself, for reading is only a pleasure when it is active and creative.
—Wolfgang Iser (1974)

"You know what it's like when the car you're in is going to crash and you're powerless to stop the events in motion?" This invariably compels the students' attention, and I usually introduce it about a month into the semester, after we've come to know and trust one another. "Time slows down in your mind, doesn't it?" I say, and they nod affirmatively. "And events unfold as if you're watching them happen from a distance. You're detached, even calm, yes?" We discuss the reasons why this is so, and I summarize: "This is a way of taking control when we're out of control. By focusing intently on the matter at hand, eliminating everything extraneous or distracting, we gain power over the interpretation of the event even when we can't control the event itself," I say. "But there's a big difference. In real life, we crash and have to pick up the pieces. In our writing this concentration gives the work its utmost power."

Then—the only time I use my own writing as an example during the semester, for the focus belongs on the students' work—I tell the story of the accident that led to this discovery. I tell the students how I wrote about it, and why I cut the original 21 pages down to the 252 words that appeared as a short segment of a creative nonfiction essay, "Teaching College English as a Woman." Before I get to the story itself, let me tell you why I tell it.

My teaching of writing, particularly—though not exclusively—creative nonfiction, is guided in part by Strunk and White's (2000: 23) modernist principles of prose style epitomized by "Vigorous writing is concise." They explain: "A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no [End Page 300] unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell." Yet the postmodernist view in which writing, like the life it represents, is seen as indeterminate, nonlinear, allusive, and incomplete could serve as the essential definition of belletristic essays (which I am using in my forthcoming Essay Canon [2005]), including much creative nonfiction. These two perspectives, the writer's pragmatic means to gaining verbal power and the theorist's acknowledgment of the infinite and continually evolving universe of prose (like the cosmos, as well) find a happy pedagogical blend and application in the reader-response theory, particularly that of Wolfgang Iser (1974: 57). Says Iser, "The 'unwritten' part of a text stimulates the reader's creative participation," noting Virginia Woolf's (1953 [1925]: 142) observation of the way Jane Austen "stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader's mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial" but dynamically suggestive of the complexities of plot, dialogue, character. Drawing on this and other examples, Iser (1974: 57) concludes that "no author worth his salt will ever attempt to set the whole picture before his reader's eyes. If he does, he will very quickly lose his reader, for it is only by activating the reader's imagination that the author can hope to involve him and so realize the intentions of his text."

This theoretical blend undergirds my classroom experience when I tell the accident story or its equivalent as a cautionary tale—not about...


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