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David Eshelman

Writing Actions

Posted by David Eshelman Expert Nov 30, 2015

“[Drama] is an imitation of an action.” --- Aristotle, Poetics Part VI


            One of my first jobs in theatre was to run a summer camp.  My purpose was to teach theatre skills to children as I led them in creating a play for public performance.  Because I felt uncomfortable with the act of casting---which necessarily involves telling some children that they are talented whereas others are not---I chose to have the children develop their own plays, tailored to their individual skills and interests.  While I knew that I would have to use a lot of improv, I intended to make writers of my preteen pupils.  I bought them notebooks and pencils and, at the end of our practices, I would ask them to write down the scenes that they had developed through their performance exercises. I found out, though, that they wrote nothing.  Because writing seemed such a chore, I stopped asking for it and, in so doing, found that their work suffered in no way:  they still created dramatic scenes with strong characters and conflict.  Their speeches were never the same from run to run, but the plots stayed consistent.  From this experience, I learned what Aristotle meant when he called drama the imitation of an action.


            Given Aristotle’s bias for plot, when he writes about action, we can take him to be describing the enacted events of a play---which, in his view, should work together to form a coherent whole.  However, in drawing our attention first to actions instead of words, Aristotle suggests how drama differs substantially from what we might today call poetry or prose fiction.  Consider the relationship of words to actions implicit in the following quote: 


The plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place.  (Aristotle, Poetics Part XIV)


Aristotle suggests that a good plot will move its listeners even if not witnessed, even in summary.  In other words, actions are not the same thing as language: the same actions can occur with different words.  Aristotle, then, suggests that words themselves are very much secondary in playwriting.  Instead, language is merely one way to accomplish action.  While some speeches have more finesse than others, as long as the action is accomplished, we still have drama.


            The lesson that I draw is that, if we fully consider what it means to write actions and not words, then we radically change what writing is.  As my grade-school playwrights taught me, the act of choosing words is far less important than choosing what those words are meant to accomplish.  To use Aristotelian terms, perhaps we sometimes muddy drama’s essential manner of imitation by focusing on words in playwriting classes. Actions should also be part of the writer’s toolbox.  Choosing and ordering actions are key to dramatic writing.  From this perspective, acting itself can also be a form of writing.

This post originally appeared on October 23, 2012.


Some of you may have noticed that my author bio reveals that I’ve recently changed my institutional affiliation—I have left Chowan University in North Carolina and accepted a position teaching creative writing and literature at my alma mater, St. Lawrence University in upstate New York.  I’ve written before (though not for this blog) about my undergraduate years and the vital role that my professors played in turning me into the writer and thinker I am today, so you can probably understand that I’m quite excited to be back, teaching alongside the scholars and artists who inspired me when I was an 18-year-old, flannel-clad Gen-Xer who had a vague idea that he wanted to be a writer, but didn’t quite know how he was going to get there.


I’ve been thinking a lot about 18-year-old Bradley these past few weeks.  Part of me almost expects to run into him, walking across the quad or coming out of the dining hall.  Part of me feels like I already have run into him—or run into his doppelganger from 2012, at any rate.  I’m teaching two creative writing classes and one literature class this semester, and these students are—for the most part—really enthusiastic about what they’re reading and writing.  I’ve taught thoughtful and ambitious students before, of course, but never so many at one time.  So it’s been an exhilarating experience.


One thing I’ve noticed about the undergraduate writers I’m teaching this semester is that many of them seem savvier about things like publishing opportunities and grad school programs than I was when I studied here.  I’ll be giving a talk later this semester to the students who work on the campus literary magazine, and one thing that the student who organized the talk told me they’d definitely be interested in hearing about was how I got editors to pay attention to my work, and what advice I have to give about getting creative work published.


On the one hand, I admire these students for their work ethic and foresight.  It didn’t really occur to me until my senior year that I might try to publish some of the stories and essays I’d been writing, and even then, I didn’t actually bother buying envelopes or printing out the stuff I had on my hard drive.  Playing Mortal Kombat on my roommate’s Sega Genesis seemed like a much more productive use of my time.  These students know about literary magazines and are familiar with small presses, and I think that’s really cool.  They know stuff about their contemporary literature scene that I didn’t know about mine when I graduated 13 years ago.  I’m pleased to see that—it suggests a dedication to reading and knowing good creative work, and who knows?  Such knowledge among the younger generation might be enough to save our literary culture.


At the same time, though, I worry a little bit about this focus on publishing.  I’m concerned that the students have sort of picked up on and internalized the “publish or perish” mentality that their professors are working under.  If you want to call yourself a writer, this mentality insists, you’ve got to get stuff published.  Submit to a magazine.  Send query letters to agents.  Most importantly, write the kind of stuff that other people want to read.


Of course, it’s important for student writers to be mindful of audience, but I fear that this focus on publishing and “getting the work out there” could be bad for their development.  We don’t get too many opportunities in life to just do what we want to do, to “chase our muse”, if you want to be all writer-ly and precious about it.  When I think back at my own undergraduate writing, most of it was probably pretty terrible, but it was still stuff I was excited about, and it represented my very best attempts at articulating stuff that mattered to me.  I wrote a short story about a barfly whose lost love—dead for decades—returned to him one dark and stormy night.  I wrote a screenplay about love and jealousy and murder.  I wrote a play that absolutely wasn’t about my break-up with my college girlfriend the summer before our senior year (okay—it kinda was; don’t tell her, though).  I wrote an essay about feeling humbled when I saw the Aurora Borealis on the university’s golf course late one night.  I wrote a comic book script about an amnesiac superhero who wound up owning a comic book store in upstate New York.  I wrote several poorly-conceived performance art pieces.  The less said about them, the better.


I doubt I’m ever going to revisit these pieces, or write anything like the again.  Although I have been dabbling in fiction lately, I remain pretty committed to creative nonfiction forms—particularly the essay.  But I’m glad I had the experience of spending those years trying out different things, experimenting with style while searching for my own voice.  I’m afraid if I had known that what I was working on—and pouring a ton of effort into—was ultimately “un-publishable,” I might not have bothered.  And that would have been terrible for my writing.


I finished my undergraduate career at St. Lawrence during the summer of 1999, after taking some time off due to health problems.  I spent a lot of that summer hanging out and talking with Bob Cowser, who at the time was a young new creative nonfiction professor and who, over the years, has become a close friend and valued mentor.  By that point, I’d seen enough of the world beyond college that I knew I had to think more seriously about the future if I wanted to be a writer.  One afternoon, after he had given me some positive feedback on an essay I’d shown him, I asked, “Do you have any thoughts on where I should send it?”


“Why?” he asked.


I was surprised.  By that point, I knew I was going on to grad school.  And I knew that if I wanted to be a Real Writer, I would need to publish stuff.


“You’re 23-years-old,” he told me.  “You have your entire life and career ahead of you.  Right now, you don’t need to worry about publishing—you need to worry about honing your craft and becoming a better writer.  Seriously, man—give it two years.  Start sending stuff out when you’re 25.  In the meantime, work on getting better.  You probably could start publishing now in smaller magazines—you’re good enough.  But if you wait and continue to get better, you can make sure that, years from now, you can be proud of every publication you list on your CV.”


At the time, that advice kind of stung.  In hindsight, though, I think it’s the most valuable advice Bob could have possibly given.  The truth is, I’m glad some of those early attempts didn’t wind up published for all the world to see.  They were important for my development, but they weren’t fully-formed pieces that I could really take pride in.  As it happened, I didn’t really start publishing until I was 27, but the stuff I’ve published since then has been stuff that I’m pleased to call my own.


I think, when I talk to those student writers in November, I’ll tell them about cover letters, and reading the magazines they want to send stuff to, and all that.  But I’m also going to give them the same advice Bob gave me.  “Slow down.  Try different things.  Write like you have another 50 or 60 years to worry about publishing.  The work that results may not be brilliant, and it may not be publishable, but you’ll have learned something about your own style, and the voice you find might be your own.”


What advice do you have for student writers anxious to get started with their careers setting the world on fire with their prose or verse?

This post originally appeared on 10/24/12.


In addition to teaching literature and writing courses, every fall I teach a course that develops skills for student success.  Recently we worked on note-taking. The exercise I used reminded me that when we give lectures, we need to make sure that our students connect with the material we’re presenting.


The exercise is this: Students watch a brief video lecture (I like Liz Coleman’s TED talk from a few years ago, “Call to Reinvent Liberal Arts Education”); they take notes and then compare and discuss their notes.  However, what I discovered recently is that when my students watched Coleman’s brief lecture (18 minutes!) they began to get tired and stopped paying attention, the longer the talk went on. This really defeated the purpose of watching Coleman’s lecture, especially because she presents her most essential points toward the end of her talk.



My students missed the big point.  They got information, but they couldn’t do with it what they needed to.


This experience lead me back to a workshop I went to this summer at the Foundation for Critical Thinking’s annual conference.  One of the points made by Linda Elder, a workshop facilitator, was that rather than asking students to engage with large portions of content over long periods of time, we should have them engage with it several times over a class period.  As a rule of thumb, she suggests that when lecturing, we should try to break every 5 to 10 minutes to give students a way to directly and individually connect with the material.

The result should be an engaged lecture and discussion—not a situation where we simply throw out a question for the class to answer (which is something many of us do by default).  That method can work, but only when students pay attention and are already willing to participate in class.


I think a good solution to getting students to connect with the content of a lecture is to have them write briefly about what they’ve heard (as in a 1-minute essay), or to make a list of the major points of the talk, or to simply summarize for a neighbor what they learned from the lecture.  To some degree these requirements may seem artificial, but I think they can be quite useful.


On the one hand, we need to teach students how to be better note-takers – and we should give them clues as to what it is that’s important in our lectures.  On the other hand, our students may not have the attention spans we want them to have (also, we might not have the attention spans we want them to have).


Most importantly, though, there are ways to get our students engaged with our lectures. By having them respond to short writing prompts, to compose a focused list of the main ideas of the talk, or to talk briefly with a neighbor, we can encourage every student in the class –not just the ones who are already interested– to engage with course content.