New Yorker writer talks modern essay

English majors, take note: Louis Menand, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and staff reporter for the New Yorker, does not write drafts.

Fifty Yale students and professors attended a question-and-answer session with Menand Tuesday afternoon in Linsly-Chittenden Hall. Students taking the course “Reading and Writing the Modern Essay,” better known as English 120, were invited, but not required, to attend. Menand responded to audience questions about the craft of creative non-fiction writing and his own style.

In response to an audience question about finding a writing voice, Menand described a “little writing guy inside” himself.

“I have to get in touch with him if I’m going to write something,” he said.

Menand went on to describe writing as an “ad-hoc activity” that nevertheless has its own kind of logic. Along these lines, Menand emphasized the significance of the introduction in a non-fiction essay. To keep readers from having to “do too much work at the start,” Menand said he prefers to write simple, declarative first sentences.

To help keep readers’ interest, Menand encouraged students to try to make their readers feel smart by presenting facts simply instead of using an academic tone. This way, he said, the reader is more willing to accept the new ideas presented to them in the essay.

A professor asked Menand how he approaches revision, and the audience was shocked by his reponse.

“I don’t write drafts and I rarely get line-edited,” he said.

At this, one professor told the students to cover their ears. He acknowledged the English 120 professors’ bemusement and added that the process is individual, and that all writers must discover how they write best.

“Yale will never invite me back after this,” he said, to laughter from the audience.

After the discussion, some professors were still buzzing about Menand’s editing process. English 120 professor Aaron Ritzenberg said he thinks working without revision “works if you’re a super-genius like he is.”

“My whole process of writing is just spewing stuff out,” Ritzenberg continued, adding that he thinks his own style is much more common.

Kim Shirkhani, another English 120 professor, said Menand’s answer to the revision question “is a bad influence,” but she said she agrees with Menand’s statement that the writing process is different for every writer.

The audience was predominately composed of English 120 students and their professors. The Poynter Fellowship, which sponsored Menand’s visit, regularly funds events for the English Department, said the event’s organizer, English professor Allyson McCabe. For the purposes of English 120, Menand was an ideal guest because of his credentials and broad appeal, McCabe said.

“We wanted to make it a somewhat intimate discussion but still bring together several [course] sections,” she said.

English 120 professor Barbara Stuart said she thinks it is important for English students to hear from a writer as successful as Menand.

Two students said they attended because they admire Menand’s work, while others came in response to an e-mail from Fred Strebeigh, the English professor who coordinates the course, advertising the event.

“I’ve never had the opportunity to hear anyone on that level speak before,” said Sarah Jampel ’14, who decided to attend after receiving Strebeigh’s message.

Before he became a staff writer at the New Yorker, Menand was an editor at The New Republic and The New York Review of Books. Menand’s book ‘The Metaphysical Club,’ about a pragmatist conversation club that formed after the Civil War, won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2002.

Clarification: October 27, 2010

The article “New Yorker writer talks modern essay” failed to explain that the comment from English professor Kim Shirkhani regarding Louis Menand’s editing style was made in jest.

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