“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
There is probably no more organic a writing form than the persuasive essay. The stories are as old as Eve tempting Adam with an apple. The majority of my seven children seem to have mastered the persuasive essay without aid of any sort from their writing-teacher father. In fact, as I am writing this, my sixteen-year-old daughter just asked if we could go to the mall tomorrow morning (and she knows I hate the mall, but it is near Guitar Center)—and without losing a beat she mentioned that she has been so busy with soccer practice; we just got back from the cape, the school sent a list of things she needs to buy, and neither mom nor I have found the time to help her get ready for school, which starts in two days….and a few more rejoinders to add urgency and emphasis to her plea. I’ll grant that she made some good points, and her compelling reference to the mediocre parenting she receives created an emotional angst in me that her mini-essay leveraged to good effect.
So, we are going to the mall tomorrow morning.
If it is so simple to say it in real life, then why is it so hard in English or social studies class to write a decent “persuasive essay?”
Here are four reasons:
- Your teacher expects you to frame your argument in a certain—and to him or her—effective or accepted way.
- You appeal to the reasoning intellect or the vast range of the emotional spectrum—but not both.
- Your argument has no merit.
- You really don’t give a damn and it shows.
There is no way around number one, so deal with it. Figure out what your teacher wants and give it to them. Ask for help. Compliment him or her. Actually complete a revision. Teachers, by and large, are human and fallible and vain and understanding and (remarkably) just like you. Which brings me to number two.
We do not argue with machines to much effect: the ATM seldom apologizes for the overdraft fee; the bar code scanner will never acknowledge a coupon it does not recognize; Siri will not find you the perfect mate; however, … humans, pulp and blood that we are, are as malleable and precious as gold—Adam did succumb to the entreaties of Eve; the Wizard tried to bring Dorothy home, and I am going to the mall tomorrow; but, to rise out of the trivial, we also listened to Churchill in our darkest hour and fought with uncommon stamina in every way imaginable; we listened to MLK and responded (most of us) like a culture that respected human decency and aspirations for equality; When Kennedy spoke, we asked what we could for our country and not what our country could do for us; we listened to Ghandi; we listened to Christ and Buddha and Mohamed; we listen to mothers and fathers and friends and family because we trust their intent and magnanimity.
But, to spin the bottle in another direction, Hitler rallied his countrymen and women to horrific ends. Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Ze Dong, and the KKK, all worked wonders (in their skewed minds) with words, ideas, and remarkably cogent arguments, and if we are not careful—if our eyes become glazed with prejudice and laziness—any of us is capable of being “persuaded” towards extreme bigotry, or worse. On a lesser level, the extreme right and the extreme left of our political parties spin their stories with an unerring eye to what is impressionable and believable, regardless of the obvious inconsistencies. All of these so-called influences lived, breathed and embodied the persuasive essay. For good or for evil, we are all ripe to be persuaded. Our greatest asset and defense is to see into and through the art of persuasion and to discern the window of truth carried within the words. It is good and wise to know the difference between being informed and enlightened versus being tooled and manipulated into a mouthpiece for another man, woman, political party, or organization’s agenda.
The art of persuasion is seldom in the facts: it is in the manipulation and extortion of emotions, bolstered and supported by evidence, but sometimes, in a more sinister way, by an exploitation and selective distillation of facts. Persuasion breathes life into facts, but the facts seldom speak for themselves, contrary to what every rhetorician proclaims; these facts need to be accepted by the reader, and you, as the writer, also have to be accepted. To be a good writer, you need to understand and empathize with your potential readers. Reading is not a mechanical act. It is a re-creating and imagining of what is going on in a writer’s head. If you want a reader to see what you see, feel what you feel, and think in the way you want them to think, you need to give your readers everything they need to recreate and re-imagine what you, as the author see, feel, and think as you write your essay. It is only in this way that a writing piece can engage a reader and inspire him or her to think and feel and connect with your unique insight and passion. A good persuasive writer is a painter, architect, builder, and seller. This is not always an easy task, but it is what you need to embrace if you want your writing to have any sort of lasting importance.
Trees fall in the directions they lean, and so does your audience. In the end, the success or failure of even a brilliantly written persuasive essay is determined by the people reading your essay. We writers are easily mislead by the cheers of a like-minded group of readers. There is still enough vanity and myopia in me that enjoys when people say, “Oh, Fitz, you write so well….” and then I think, ‘if they loved that, they will love this;’ and I skate on the thin ice of the preacher preaching to the choir. If nothing of what we write challenges our readers, we are useless. It would be like our personal trainer walking around the gym with us but never putting us on the treadmill. I spent the better part of this morning reading essays about permaculture—the practice of creating sustainable, closed-looped ecosystems. I was informed and enlightened and even inspired, but on the other hand, I was seldom challenged because there were not any dissenting practitioners or critics pointing out the follies and limitations of the permaculture movement (pardon the pun). It was more like a lovely day at the country club: “I’m ok. You’re ok. No, really….” On the one hand I was edified that I ‘learned’ more about permaculture, but on the other hand, I did not feel like I was getting the whole picture.
And showing the whole picture is where it’s at, or at least where we should be headed. To do less is to skip the yeast in baking or to forget to bring the ball to the soccer pitch. Your final essay has to reflect the totality and dynamic of your understanding of the topic or idea or position you are explicating. If you are a teacher reading this, stop having your students write about things they minimally understand or appreciate, or even give a damn about. If you are a student about to write an essay, make sure you have done everything in your power to understand and appreciate the scope and size and proof of what you are tackling. Make sure you have narrowed down your theme to where it syncs with your expertise and passion. Paint with brush strokes that readers see and feel. Your words need your passion and clarity. Only then will what you write engage, persuade, inspire, inform—and even transform—your sacred audience. If you can’t use the “I” in your voice, then perhaps you are not the expert you should be. It is your essay, so proclaim it as yours!
Nothing else really matters: if you get to reasons three or four and still need advice, you are a loser. Do whatever you want. No one is going to listen to you anyway.