How To Write Dialogue In A Personal Essay

Talking Texts: Writing Dialogue in the College Composition Classroom

By:John Levine
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 2
Date: Spring 2002

Summary: Is it possible for an inexperienced writer to juggle the ideas of several authors to create a coherent, analytical essay? Levine encourages students to get these writers talking to one another.

 

We're five weeks into the semester, and things are heating up. I just handed out the assignment sheet for the third essay. The first assignment was something of a slow lob, a personal narrative piece, which proved to be well within the comfort zone for the entire class. The second assignment was more challenging: a textual analysis of an essay by Richard Rodriguez drawing on the ideas of David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky in their introduction to the anthology Ways of Reading. This assignment required that I do some scaffolding, leading students through a series of steps in a way not required by the first assignment. And now, with the third assignment before my students, I face expressions ranging from blank stares to baleful grimaces that tell me that, this time, I may have gone too far.

"Any questions?" I ask. I wait. No one says a thing. A couple of heads are now down, belonging to students who are, presumably, rereading the assignment sheet. Here is what it says:

For your third assignment, frame a discussion of Paul Auster's essay "Portrait of an Invisible Man" and John Edgar Wideman's "Our Time" using the terms and ideas of Adrienne Rich as they appear in her essay "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision."

We have spent the better part of the last two weeks reading and discussing these three selections from Ways of Reading. The class discussions have been lively; everyone seemed to connect to the readings on one level or another.

One student finally speaks up. "So you want us to write about all three of the readings? In one essay?"

"That's right." Maybe they do get it, I tell myself.

"You mean, like, compare and contrast them?" another student offers.

"Not exactly," I say. I ask the class if anybody has any ideas about how we might deal with three different readings, other than comparing and contrasting them. I remind them that they worked with two readings in their last assignment. More stares, more grimaces.

I press on. "You all read Auster's, Wideman's, and Rich's essays. And we've had some great discussions about each of them. Now I want you to bring them all together. In a dialogue. One text `talking' to the other."

"So you're saying we can't compare them," the compare/contrast student tries again.

"You can, but I think what I'm asking you to do is more interesting. I want you to engage the three texts in a dialogue," I say.

A collective groan.

Time to take a new tack.

"Please get out a piece of paper. . . . I want you to imagine that you are the moderator of a panel discussion on revision

(`re-vision'). The distinguished members of your panel include Adrienne Rich, Paul Auster, and John Edgar Wideman. Construct an imagined dialogue among the four `voices' (the three essayists plus you) on the topic of writing as `re-vision.'"

I explain that I want them to format the dialogue as though it were a script. They are to write the panelist's name, followed by a colon, followed by his or her words. I put a model up on the blackboard.

Rich: Xxxxx xxx . . .

Auster: Xxxxx xxx . . .

Wideman: Xxxxx xxx . . .

You (Your Name): Xxxxx xxx . . .

. . . and so on . . .

I give them approximately thirty minutes in class to work on their dialogues. To my surprise, the entire class gets busy writing, and it is not until I tell them that time is up that they stop. We spend the remaining class time sharing in pairs and then it's time for them to go home and develop rough drafts of their essays based on at least some of the ideas that came out of their in-class dialogue writing. The rough draft is due in one week, and they are to hand in their dialogues, along with their drafts.

The next week I'm impressed by the dialogues that I receive. Here is an excerpt from one student, Parker:

Auster: For me, when writing of my father, I found it very difficult to look back on past events with new eyes. I had a very sure idea of who my father was. But, ironically, it was that resistance to look back that finally led me to re-vision my relationship with my father.

Rich: I want to follow up on what Paul said by showing that re-vision is inherent in writing and life.

Parker: I see what you're saying. Is it synonymous with the idea of "the key to the future is the past," or something like that?

Wideman: I think that's the basic idea.

I'm pleased with this dialogue for two reasons: the student is allowing the three texts to interact with one another, and he is weaving his own commentary into the exchange of ideas. He also uses Rich's text to build on one of Auster's ideas.

Another student, Peter, discovers dissonance between two texts in the following excerpt:

Rich: I was very impressed when I read John's essay "Our Time." In my essay "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision," I state that "until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves" (604). John recognizes his prejudice towards his brother, he casts it aside, and ends up discovering a new side to his brother. However, I feel Paul has a problem in this area. I believe that Paul is unable to recognize and therefore dispose of his previous conceptions of his father. Due to this, his essay is not a revision in which he realized something new but, instead, he simply reaffirms his outlook of his father.

Peter: Well, Paul, I can imagine that you would like to respond to Adrienne.

Auster: Indeed. I avidly disagree with Adrienne. I agree that one must enter a revision process with an open mind. However, it is ludicrous to say that in order for one to properly revise something they must discover something new. I revisited my father's past with an open mind; I just did not happen to have my point of view changed by this revision.

Although his speeches go on a little too long, Peter's dialogue demonstrates his ability to use Rich's text to comment on Wideman's and Auster's texts.

Getting students to construct dialogue is one thing. But how does this dialogue exercise transfer when the students write their essays? Before going on, I should explain how and why I came to use this approach in my writing classroom.

My background is in dramatic writing and, as a playwright, I felt less than qualified when I first began teaching English composition. But when I graduated from San Francisco State University five years ago with a master of fine arts degree in creative writing, no one came banging on my door looking for college playwriting instructors. Fortunately, while at San Francisco State, in addition to my creative writing degree, I had completed a twelve-unit certificate program in teaching college composition.

When I began teaching my first freshman composition class at Rutgers University, I had already compartmentalized my graduate studies into two categories: my playwriting toolbox and my composition toolbox. I told myself that my composition skills would pay the bills so that I could pursue my playwriting ambitions in my spare time. In other words, teaching composition would be my day job. If someone had told me then that my work as a dramatist would be invaluable to my composition teaching repertoire, I would not have believed her. As it turns out, someone—the director of the Rutgers Writing Program—did tell me just that. He assured me that playwriting is an ideal background for teaching expository writing. The two genres are complementary in their use of multiple perspectives. I appreciated his words of encouragement. But, I didn't believe a word he said.

Fast forward five years. Plays are a staple of all the classes I teach, from developmental writing to freshman composition to advanced critical thinking courses. I have used works by David Mamet, Anna Deavere Smith, David Henry Hwang, John Guare, Athol Fugard, and others. In the process of analyzing play scripts, I talk with my students about the function of dialogue in a play. And I also explain that when I write plays, I often begin with dialogue as a means of getting started. Dialogue, for me, is a great brainstorming tool. Even if I did not use plays as texts in the classroom, I would draw upon my knowledge as a playwright in helping my students to interact with reading selections as a means of complicating their arguments.

Back to Rich, Auster, and Wideman. Here is how another student, Alicia, develops an essay from her dialogue. Her draft begins:

What exactly does the word revision mean to a writer? This is the question Adrienne Rich tries to answer in her essay "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision." If the word revision were broken down into two parts, it would look like re-vision. Vision means "to see something," and the prefix re- means "again" or "back." The word re-vision means "to see something again." Rich takes it a step further, saying it is important to see it with new eyes, and to look at it differently than before. . . . When studying the works of Paul Auster and John Edgar Wideman, one can see how they use many of the same principles of revision to help them in their writing process. Auster is making an attempt to describe the man his father was, but uses many of these steps of re-vision while making his discoveries. Wideman uses many of the ideas of re-vision while giving a narrative of how his brother ended up in prison.

Alicia goes on to discuss Auster and Wideman in greater detail, using Rich's ideas about re-vision as her guide.

Nancy asserts in her introductory paragraph that "Paul Auster and John Edgar Wideman are using their writings to act out Rich's definition of re-vision to persuade readers to believe that their writings are based on actual facts instead of a make-believe fairy tale." This concept of using revision to separate fact from fiction presented itself to Nancy in her dialogue exercise. Since Auster and Wideman both write fiction in addition to nonfiction, and both allude to their fiction-writing selves in their essays, Nancy zooms in on this duality as she applies Rich's concept of re-vision to Auster and Wideman.

However they feel about their final essays, most students enjoy the dialogue prewriting exercise. When asked to reflect on the entire process of putting together the third assignment, Sohrab responds: "[The] dialogue initially helped get some ideas out, but those ideas proved to be just the tip of the iceberg." Peter writes, "The prewriting assignment was like an improvised brainstorming for me. The majority of my main ideas streamed from the exercise." And Alicia explains that the dialogue "forced me to look at what all of these people think and how `re-vision' can be applied to their writing."

Admittedly, not all students make the leap from writing dialogue to framing two seemingly disparate texts using a third, equally dissimilar text. But even if their final drafts of this assignment are not perfect, these first-year college composition students have begun to enter the larger conversation of academic discourse. And it all begins with dialogue.

References

Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky. 1999. Ways of Reading. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's Press.

About the Author John Levine is a lecturer in the College Writing Program at the University of California, Berkeley, and a teacher-consultant with the Bay Area Writing Project, California.

This article is featured in the NWP booklet 30 Ideas for Teaching Writing.

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Admission officers are swamped with applications. Swamped. Particularly at very selective institutions, they need to make quick judgements about students' applications and personal statements. This makes the opening line of that application essay critical. If you want to wow them from the get-go, follow the advice below. 

“I hate to break it to you, but your essay might not get read,” my college counselor remarked without even looking up from his computer as I nervously handed him my first draft.

I was horrified at the time, but he was, and still is, right. Just picture it: admission officers, especially those for the most selective institutions, are sifting through a record number of applications and have about three months to eliminate the majority of those deserving, accomplished candidates.

And guess what? When it comes to the Ivy League and their ilk, most of those applicants look identical on paper, with comparable grades, test scores, activity lists, accolades, and course loads. After pulling several weeks’ worth of consecutive all-nighters, the admission officers’ eyes start to blur, and they can barely differentiate among the nation’s best and brightest teenagers, all eagerly vying for a coveted spot in their school’s freshman class. As they flip through the paperwork of yet another valedictorian, someone remarks, “Annie Applicant looks like a run-of-the-mill achieve-o-tron.” But they haven’t gotten to the essays yet, and that’s where students really set themselves apart! They note items on the transcript—over 200 hours of volunteer work at a local special needs daycare, a patent application, a regional award for a short story, the lead role in three school musicals—that really fascinates them, so they assume the essay will shed light on some of these impressive endeavors. Right?

Then they hit the first line of her personal statement.

“For as long as I can remember, I have loved to read. When I was younger, books were my escape. I could really relate to the characters and would get lost in various stories for hours at a time. If I had a bad day, I would curl up with a book.”

Before the admission officers even hit the fourth sentence, they’ve tossed her file into the “eh” pile, purgatory for applicants who don’t have the writing chops to match their academic records. Have Annie’s chances of admission been dashed? Not necessarily, but the uphill battle is infinitely steeper now that she’s done nothing to set herself apart from the other applicants who, shockingly, also love to read.

Perhaps the third paragraph is where Annie’s narrative really comes alive as she weaves readers through her favorite novels and relates characters to her everyday life, giving insight into her world, but who would read that far? The opening is so generic that admission officers simply don’t have time to give Annie the benefit of the doubt; they quickly move on to their discussion of Joe College, whose first line describing his sublime experience as Townsperson #5 in his school play makes them laugh out loud.

So how do students master that strong opening without seeming too gimmicky or desperate? How do they make the gatekeepers to the country’s top schools stop and think, “Wow, even though I am going blind from squinting at countless single-spaced pages, I sure wish this particular essay were longer than 650 words!”?

A great way to capture admission officers’ attention in the application essay is starting with dialogue. This approach is certainly not a Band-Aid for an otherwise mediocre essay, but it might just keep someone reading long enough to get to know you as an applicant.

But before you slap a witty exchange on the top of your essay, make sure you heed these warnings:

Don’t make the other person too interesting

You open with: “‘Hey, are you free to come to the environmental club meeting?’ asked my friend Kevin, who was canvassing the library to recruit helpers for the school-wide solar panel installation project he would be pitching at the next faculty meeting.

‘Sorry, but I’ve got miles to go before I sleep!’ I tell him as I launch back into my independent research project on the theme of depression in Robert Frost’s poetry.”

How might admission officers respond to this exchange? Suddenly, they are more interested in Kevin than they are in you. Then, they put your application aside and look to see if there are any applicants named Kevin from your school so they can learn more about this unique solar panel project.

You should have used Kevin’s voice as a sounding board for expressing your own passions and beliefs, not as the force driving the conversation. You have to remember that you’re selling yourself, not your friends, and you don’t want to be overshadowed by your own essay’s supporting cast.

Sound natural

You open with: “’I have to scamper off to my occupation of preparing caffeinated beverages!’ I elucidate for the benefit of my roommate, Natalie, as I ambulate through our means of egress.”

Admission officers will read that, scratch their heads, and think, “Yeah, I see that she knows some SAT words, but did she mean, ‘I’ve got to run to my job at the coffee shop!’ I shout to Natalie as I scamper out the door”? That version would have saved time and sounded more like an authentic teenager. Now they really have no idea who you are, and even worse, they probably find you annoying.

 . . . but not too natural

You open with: “’I’m so wiped I don't even know what to do. Like, I can’t even. It’s ridic!’ I whine as my BFF Selena sits down beside me in English class.”

Admission officers ask themselves, “Is this her real essay? Someone must have hacked her Common App account, because no one would risk coming across as this vapid!” They then worry that you won’t be able to hold your own in seminars on War and Peace when you don’t have the attention span to finish typing the word “ridiculous.” Even if you sound that way in real life (I hope not!), you need to be cognizant of the fact that an essay this important requires you to bring your verbal A-game.

In general, don’t be afraid to lead off with an in-medias-res conversational tidbit that will help you come to life.

Here is an example:

“You ski for how many miles? Then you shoot a rifle?” Andy gasped in disbelief as I explained that I couldn’t hang out after school because I had to go to the range and practice my aim for my upcoming biathlon.

“And every time I miss the target, I have to ski a 150-meter penalty loop just for good measure,” I added, chuckling as Andy’s jaw dropped.

Take your time thinking about what examples best represent you as an applicant in the context of the application essay prompts given. Then, once you narrow your options to a worthy anecdote, explore that moment—and the unique, enchanting, entrancing dialogue within.

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