Everything I Needed to Know About Essay Structure I Learned from This Crappy Drawing of a Coffee Pot

I mean, not this exact coffee pot. First off, this is not my actual coffee pot; I found it on the internet, and it’s much cleaner and shinier than mine, to an embarrassing degree. And this is clearly a photograph of a coffee pot; as such, it is pedagogically useless and we can learn absolutely nothing from it. But a drawing of a coffee pot, especially a very bad drawing of a heavily used coffee pot — that is a rich seam to mine.

Perhaps I should back up.

Three weeks ago, I quit my relatively stable, well-paid job in the middle of a global crisis to stay home and sketch my kitchenwares.

I’m selling myself a bit short there; the kitchenwares came later. I quit my job because the fulfillment I had long found there was being gradually replaced by stress that was making me a dark person, and lord knows I’m already enough of an asshole.* And because there are new things I want to try doing. (And, full disclosure, because I have a well-paid partner and we can afford to make some rash decisions; let us not pretend that all freelance writers are supporting themselves solely with passion projects and regular 5-figure commissions for Vanity Fair.) But before I jump into the new thing, a break is in order — my school and school and more school followed by work and more work have never included any pauses in between. So the order of the day is a break of indeterminate time while my ideas percolate and my jaw unclenches, until such time as my excitement for the new thing bursts its banks and I throw myself into it.

The first week of no-work was mainly consumed by television and naps, with gaps in between while I waited for coffee to brew during which I fretted about whether I’m actually a boring, uninteresting person who would nap and watch television for the rest of her life. Then I realized (read: “was told repeatedly by friends”) that shit, after 25 straight years of school and work, who doesn’t want to take a goddamn nap and watch some reruns, and oh, by the way, do you remember those global health and political and social crises that are sapping everyone’s energy, they’re still going on. So yes, Netflix, I am still watching that old season of Top Chef; enough with your judgement and play episode 7 already so I can fall asleep 20 minutes in.

Eventually though, as everyone but me knew it would, my brain was like: hey, could we get a little something to do around here? My first answer was YES LET’S IMMEDIATELY WORK 25 HOURS ON DAY ON THIS NEW THING, but I talked myself out of that (read: “was told repeatedly by friends not to do that”). Instead, I’m looking for ways make my aimless brain work in new ways, to try and loosen things up and spark new ideas. Hence: drawing.

On one hand, there’s something familiar, almost comforting about drawing with pen and paper; pens and paper have long been some of my best friends.

On the other hand, I have the eye-hand coordination of a drunk toddler, and that’s with my dominant right hand, My left hand may as well not be attached to my body for all it’s (un)able to receive any signals from my brain and translate them into action. If you’re tempted to think, “But surely, those many years of playing musical instruments that require both fine motor skills and the ability to move your right and left hands independently must have resulted in some level of coordination,” then I say to you that either (1) you are wrong, or two (2) I started with such a coordination deficit that it’s lucky I made it through childhood without maiming myself while learning to use a fork.

I signed up for an “Intro to Expressive Drawing” class taught by a talented artist friend and produced several stunningly unimpressive sketches of the tchotchkes on my desk. And then we did an exercise that had us draw the same thing four times consecutive times, taking 30 seconds, then one minute, then two minutes, and then five minutes to do it, starting over every time. At the end of it, I’d produced a sketch of my desk that looked like my actual desk, and I was so excited that I made Brian look at it while I babbled about my art class, also not unlike a drunk toddler, and stopped short only of ripping the drawing out of my notebook to put it on the fridge. (I still might.)

I’ve been doing the same exercise every morning, with a different object each time, and that’s how we got to these coffee pots and these words.

The thing I love about this exercise is that it blows my mind every single time. Every single time the 30-second timer goes off, I look at the vague assembly of lines on the page and think: this is never going to turn into a coherent thing. What’s going on with those jagged, thready lines? Why does it have a bodybuilder’s arm, why is there a Snork breathing tube sticking out the top? This is a disaster and I should never have turned off Top Chef.

This is not just an exercise I’m doing for funsies, though. It’s a CLASS PROJECT. And if there’s one thing in life that I’m very good at, it’s overachieving at school. So I keep going, because the only thing worse that producing a hideously distorted sketch of a coffee pot — with a Bic clicky pen that I took from a hotel I stayed in once, which I’m pretty sure is what Albrecht Dürer also used — is not being the best at school. Failure may be inevitable, but it will not be because of incomplete assignments.

I am no less dubious at the chiming of the one-minute timer. More time results in more lines on the page, but has anything gotten clearer? I am unconvinced.The frantic dotted lines are gone and there’s some attempt at defining the shape of the pot, which is nice. The Snork tube is still there, and the handle-arm is closer to the actual shape but now also looks belligerent, like it wants to punch you, which is less nice. And now we’ve added some additional lines to the spout that look like the profile of a cartoon bald eagle, which I am unable to unsee and is too strange to be either nice or not-nice.

There’s one thing that keeps me from flinging the pen down in disgust. Well, two things. One, I have a skittish dog and throwing a pen down with any force would cause him to flee the room and then be nervous around pens, and I don’t have any chicken nuggets on hand to soothe him. But two, and drawing-related, the rough contours of the pot are now clearer to me. Whether I can reproduce them faithfully is another question, but the understanding of the parts of this pot and how they fit together is more solid in my head.

When the phone chimes after the next two minutes, I am genuinely surprised. I’m fairly certain that human person who has seen this style of coffee pot in real life would be able to identify this as one. The spout is no longer Sam the Eagle. The top and bottom have an actual shape, and a hint of the pot’s distinctive logo is there.

We’ve introduced a little bullseye in the bottom half and the handle-arm still wants to knock my teeth out, but now I start to think: maybe I have not imbued the coffee pot with aggression; maybe I am accurately depicting the innate aggression of the coffee pot. Which sounds very artist-y to me, so I decide that when I have my first exhibit at the Guggenheim it will be on the placard describing this piece.

Perhaps more importantly, the outline is now clear to me as are the key lines needed to create the pot’s distinctive shape. I feel confident that I’ll be able to get them down quickly, and I can see how I might improve the specifics — where lines are still wonky, where angles are missing, how the proportions are top heavy — rather than fretting about the overall shape. I can also identify things I affirmatively like about the drawing; I’m happy with the placement of the contour lines, and I enjoy the scribbly imperfections of quick-slash lines and how they give energy to this flat, Bic pen rendition of a coffee pot. I know where I want a little more, a little less, a little different.

Is the five-minute version going to be a photorealistic sketch of a coffee pot? I’ll give you two guesses but I bet you only need one.

Luckily, but I never set out to make a photorealistic sketch of a coffee pot; I have a camera for that, and a coffee pot I can look at any time I want. I set out to try and make a drawing that looked enough-like the object being drawn, and to use my brain in a different way than I usually do, and to explore a new creative avenue. And I did all those things, so: success.

As a professional editor, it does not escape my eagle eye that we are 1600 words deep and no one has yet learned anything about structuring an essay.

When I edit people, the vast majority of my feedback and suggestions are almost never on the line level — about particular words or phrasings. I suggest specific changes all the time, but that’s just the spit-shining. The majority of my feedback is almost always about organization and structure. If the structure of a piece is solid, the writing falls into place; line edits are the final zhush of the hair style, but the haircut underneath is what’s doing the heavy lifting. A solid structure determines what ideas and arguments and facts need to go where, and what bits don’t belong in the piece at all. A solid structure also frees the writer up to dig into ideas and try a range of ways of explaining them at the word-level with the confidence that the thrust of the story is clear. A really good haircut will always look kinda good, no matter how you fuck with it.

(TO A POINT, obviously. Settle down.)

It’s not a surprise to me that organization and structure are hard when you’re writing. When you’re writing, you’re in it, which automatically makes it harder to see the contours as a reader will see them. And when you’re writing, you have a thousand and one thoughts and digressions and rabbit holes and asides and histories that all seem important. And so it feels important to get them all in, because surely they will help move the reader the same way they moved you.

They are important, to you. They’re only important to the story insofar as they pushed you down the path to whatever your ultimate argument or assertion or perspective or mood is.

Lots of writers, me included, start with an outline. Often, it’s of the main points we want the story to hit. And then you (and me) take all the research and thinking and ideas and digressions and asides and histories that feel important, and nestle them into those points. It’s a trust issue, I think — trust that you’re going to be able to write the thing you want to write. You scribble down a thesis, or maybe a paragraph description of what you think this essay will be. And then you’re like: “Shit, now I have to write an essay. I know! I will take all of the ideas and research I have, and put them it. Surely, giving the reader all of that information will prove my argument or help the reader understand my experience.”

But they don’t all need to be in the story. And the reader doesn’t need to be exposed to them in the same sequence you were. You’re crafting a journey for the reader, and your job is to decide what the important bits are and how to order them so the reader ends up in the right place. Which is hard. Way harder than writing a polished sentence. Way harder when you’re inhabiting the topic you have to clarify.

So what if there were more than one outline? What if you did the big outline, and then wrote it again and went through the same outline process under each of your big points, and then did that again, this time outlining each sub-point, until you’d fully clarified and absorbed the larger thrust of the story and what the main contours and shapes are, and could see the peaks and valleys and twists of your story as the reader will, and were at a point where all you needed to do was some shading and refining? What if there were no need to go directly from “idea” to “polished essay” without any interim stops? What if most of writing well isn’t writing at all, the way we traditionally think of it?

By which I mean, what if I did that? I learn and remember by physically writing; it makes sense. Would I spend more time grappling with what’s really central to a piece? Would I be able to share it for feedback with a skosh more confidence that it was heading in a good direction? Am I advising myself out of a job?

I don’t know. But going by what I felt like when I did the final drawing of the coffee pot, it’s worth a try.

Did I use this method to craft this post? I did not; who among us can take our own advice like that? Just look at that ridiculous meandering intro, and how long it took to get to the point. Did I really need to make you look at every drawing? Someone should really have edited this. For all I know, this is already how everyone else is writing.

Luckily, I did not set out to write a coherent, insightful, or structured post; I have Rebecca Traister essays for that. I set out to make people look at my picture of a coffee pot, of which I remain unduly proud, and to start to flex my personal writing muscles again, and to publish something on my blog more than once every seventeen years like a cicada. And I did all those things, so: success.

* Because I think this is a very important distinction: yes, I’m an asshole. If you’re my friend, you’re probably kind of an asshole too. But I’m not a dick.

7 Comments

  1. You have inspired me to go draw 30/60/120/300 second pictures of my toaster tomorrow.

    Oh, and not only did you succeed in all your intended goals, but you also put out a quirky and entertaining piece that sorta kinda made me wish I was an asshole of a friend of yours so I could experience more of this on a regular basis…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am unemployed, as well, during this awful pandemic (not really by choice… but silver lining is being 100% there for my daughter)! I am currently ‘talking’ to my old boss in NJ because I’m getting the itch to work again (and to be honest, my daughter needs to grow up in Jersey). This blog has me wanting to outline my desires for a next position in more detail… and not just take a job that gets my family back to NJ. Either way, thank you for the food for thought. Miss you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I adore your voice and writing and honed intellectual perspective. But you get glowing admirations from assholes like me all the time.

    So I’m here for the #NotAllHaircuts replies.

    Enjoy your time with Padma and Tom. And may I remind you that episodes of The Golden Girls also soothe the weary Gen X soul.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is a clever essay and you are a wonderful writer. I’d love to see you make the font a little bigger and therefore easier to read. Just a thought. It may be that I have eye strain caused by reading too much these days, mostly to stay out of trouble and one step ahead of boredom. But still…

    Like

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