Creative Non Fiction
Is a literary genre
Autobiography and Memoir
Deals with profound, timeless and universal themes
“ Books should be read with the same care and
deliberation with which they were written”
Writing about essays begins with careful reading
June Jordan’s “Many Rivers to Cross”
Alice Walker’s “ The Black Woman: Myths and Realities”
Both essays deal with women and work
Both essays were originally speeches
African American Women
Both essays deal with the struggles of gifted African
American women in the context of poverty and
“Many Rivers to Cross”, by June Jordan was originally
the keynote address at a 1981 conference at Barnard
College on “Women and Work”
It recalls the suicide of her mother 15 years earlier
“Black Women: Myths and Realities” was originally a
speech at a May 1973 conference at Radcliffe College
The conference was in large part a response to a Daniel
Moynihan’s 1965 report which emphasized the link
between fatherless families and poverty among African
Walker made additions to this speech when it appeared
in the May 1974 issue of Ms. Magazine and then in her
essay collection In Search of Our Mothers’
Writing About Essays
All good writing about literature, including essays,
attempts to answer a question, spoken or unspoken
about the text.
What questions do these two essays pose to the reader?
The goal of the paper should be to address such
questions with a meaningful interpretation, presented
both forcefully and persuasively (Hacker, p. L1-a)
Close Readings of Essays
Read the work through once, closely and carefully. What
is it telling you? Asking you? Trying to make you feel?
Then go back and read it a second time. Rereading is a
central part of the process of developing your
interpretation. You should read short works several
times, first to get an overall impression and then again
to focus on meaningful details.
Interact with the text by posing questions and looking
for possible answers.
Annotate the text as a way to focus your reading.
Form an Interpretation
After rereading, taking notes, and participating in class
discussions, you are ready to start forming an
interpretation. At this stage, try to focus on a single
aspect of the work. Look through your notes and
annotations for recurring questions and insights related
to the aspect you have chosen
Focusing on a Central Issue
In forming an interpretation, you should try to focus on
a central issue. Your job is not to say everything about
the work. It is to develop a sustained, in-depth
interpretation that illuminates the work in some
specific way. You will need to find focus.
Good interpretations usually arise from good questions.
What do you want to know more about? What are you
Some interpretations answer questions about literary
techniques, such as the writer’s handling of plot, setting
Asking Questions that Lead to
Interpretations respond to the social context as well-
what a work reveals about the time and culture in
which it was written. This is particularly true when
Let’s look closely at the two essays in Chapter 8 about
women and work, and what the author conveys in her
essay (or speech)
We will look at both technique and social context.
Questions about technique
Setting- Does the setting (time and place) create an
atmosphere, give an insight into a character, suggest
symbolic meanings, or hint at the theme of the work?
Point of View
Does the point of view-the perspective from which the
essay is narrated-influence your understanding of
events. Does the narration reveal the character of the
speaker, or does the speaker merely observe others. Is
the narrator perhaps biased, argumentative or
Does the work have an overall theme ( a central insight
about people or a truth about life, for example?) If so,
how do details in the work serve to illuminate this
Does language-such as formal or informal, standard or
dialect, prosaic or poetic, cool or passionate-reveal the
character of the speakers? How do metaphors, similies
and sensory images contribute to the work? How do
recurring images enrich the work and hint at its
meaning? To what extent do sentence rhythms and
sounds underscore the writer’s meaning?
Questions about social
Historical context- What does the work reveal about-or
how was it shaped by-the time and place in which it was
written? Does the work appear to promote or undermine
a philosophy that was popular in its time?
Class- How does the social class shape or influence
character’s choices or actions? How does class affect the
way characters view-or are viewed by others? What
economic struggles or power relationships does the work
reflect or depict?
Race and Culture
Are any characters portrayed as being caught between
cultures; between the culture of home and the culture
of work or school, for example, or between a traditional
and an emerging culture? Are any characters engaged in
a conflict with society because of their race or ethnic
background? To what extent does the work celebrate a
specific culture and its traditions?
Are any characters’ choices restricted because of
gender? What are the power relationships between the
sexes, an d do these change during the course of the
work? Do any characters resist the gender roles society
has assigned them? Do these characters chose to
conform to these roles?
Many Rivers TO Cross
Everything’s a River “We will not die trying to stand up:
we will live that way: standing up” (361), states June
Jordan in “Many Rivers to Cross.” Addressing women,
this excerpt shows the feminist point of view of
Jordan’s essay. This is the theme of the entire essay,
which she revolves around her mother. She explains in
the end that the essay “honors” women, all women:
Mrs. Hazel Griffin, her cousin Valerie, herself and all the
women she loves.
Many Rivers To Cross
She uses the metaphor of “crossing rivers” as a way of
stating her new purpose in life: “I am working never to
be late again.” She was too late to save her mother, and
she vows never to be late when another striving woman
needs her again. Struggling for self-respect, self-love,
and maybe even the respect of the men and women
In Search of Our Mothers’
Gardens, Alice Walker
An essay about the hardship that black women have had
to endure in the past and their persevering ability to
maintain their creativity throughout years of
oppression. Walker uses a variety of methods to convey
the message and explain in detail exactly how black
creativity has survived throughout the most painful and
In Search of Our Mothers’
“In the still heat of the post-Reconsructionist South, this
is how they (black women) seemed to Jean Toomer:
Exquisite butterflies trapped in an evil honey, toiling
away their lives in an era, a century, that did not
acknowledge them, except as “the mules of the world”.
Where in the essay does Walker describe what she
means by this definition?
Jordan and Walker
Both authors expand the similar ideas about racism,
prejudice and the status of black women. Both authors
use their private experience to show the impact of
poverty and their past bring them to their present
position or central claim. What is the central claim of
both essays? Where in the essays does the central claim
Narration Vs. Central Claim
Where in the essays do the authors tell a story? Where
in the essays does the narrative voice change to
establish a central claim?
How does this combination of storytelling and stating a
claim define the genre of personal essays and how can
we write effectively about essays?
Elements of Personal Essays
When we read the first few sentences of an essay, we
get a sense of the narrator’s voice from the tone the
writer projects. In the first paragraph of Walker’s essay,
we get a sense of the speaker’s voice through the
serious and informed tone she takes.
We also sense some irony and anger when she says.
“Who were… these crazy,loony, pitiful creatures?”
Lyrical sadness in paragraph 6; “Our mothers and
grandmothers, some of them: moving to music, not yet
written. And they waited.”
Writing about such complex issues as racism and art,
Walker’s voice is alternatively angry, hopeful,
thoughtful and honestly self-reflective and even
The tone of her dramatic conclusion as she uses
Perhaps, seven times is rhetorically moving her
argument about the ability of oppressed women to keep
their artistic spirit alive.
Writers have a specific style, choices they make in
syntax, sentence length, diction, metaphors, even in
sentence beginnings and endings.. Reread the opening
and ending sentences of the two essays. Compare the
styles of the two writers.
Notice the interesting use of the colon in Walker’s first
sentence and the dramatic repetition of “so intense, so
deep, so unconscious.”
Walker’s first paragraph uses the colon and the dash.
She writes sophisticated, complex sentences, varying
the usual subject-verb-object pattern.
In the second and third paragaphs, she varies the length
of her sentences with short questions and statements
Walker’s Style ctd.
In the fifth and sixth paragraphs she employs metaphors
(exquisite butterflies), similies (like frail whirlwinds)
and analogies (moving to the music) to make her essay
A Writing Exercise
Select one of the two writing exercises on pages 204-
205. Spend fifteen minutes drafting a response.
Essayists begin and end as they see fit; they give
explicit topic sentences or create narratives that imply
themes; they begin with an assertion and support it or
Essayists are inventors of structures that fit the
occasion and their own way of seeing the world.
Walker’s essay is an argument; and its structure is part
of her persuasive intent. Writers sometimes specify an
issue, make claims, and then explicitly support these
claims with substantial evidence, hoping to persuade a
Walker directly uses personal experience in the service
of her argument.
In her first paragraph, Walker reveals some of her
assumptions or warrants, especially the idea that black
women are not aware of their capabilities, were
“abused and mutilated” and were misread.
She continues her thesis in paragraph 9, in which she
asserts that these women were not Saints but Artists”
She notes that African American women of her mother’s
generation found a way through song, gardening,
quilting and other strategies to keep an artistic heritage
alive, in spite of obstacles.
Walker Does Not Use A Thesis
She does not give a thesis statement and a point-by-
point argument. Instead, she leads us into her main idea
gradually, interweaving examples, letting one idea lead
to another, coming back to ideas mentioned earlier and
then developing them further.
She ends by returning to her Phillis Wheatley example
to make a connection to the deep past, as just one of
the many ways she achieves coherence and unity in this
quiltlike essay, sewn together with carefully crafted
In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens is an argument based
on the idea that Walker’s ancestors were not really the
strange “crazy, loony, pitiful women” that Jean Toomer
thought-not :exquisite butterflies” but artists “driven to
a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of
creativity in them for which there was no release.”
Essays use language as imaginatively and effectively as
other genres of literature. Essays should-like stories,
poems and plays—be read with care and deliberation
and written about with energy and discipline.
Elements of Essays
In essays, voice is important. The writer’s voice (which
might be sincere, ironic or meditative) can convey the
tone a writer projects. But even in essays, writers might
assume a persona that serves their purposes.
Style and Structure
Noticing how essays are put together, how sentences
and paragraphs follow one another logically, can lead to
the writing of well-organized and stylish essays.
As in all genres, ideas are crucial, but they may seem
especially prominent in essays.
Argumentative essays model effective ways to make
arguments. It is often valuable to analyze
argumentative essays for the ways that writers make
claims about issues, support their claims with evidence,
and project a good image of themselves.
Stance that the writer assumes to serve their purposes.
Voice and tone are techniques that help writers create