Who Are the Writers Now?

Teaching the object essay


in First Person • Illustrated by Alexander Hotchkiss


In 2017 I entered the PhD program at UW-Madison because they would pay me to read and secretly I could use most of that time to write. I felt I had wasted the previous year working at a restaurant to pay off loans — not reading, not writing. I had squandered my prose style, I thought, and spent too much time with others. Now, in Wisconsin, people would not matter, and I would become a writer again in my self-exile, armed with solitude, a healthy lonely melancholy, discipline, and books.

That first year I lived on the East Side and often took slow and solitary walks down Livingston Street to James Madison Park, where looked out on Lake Mendota and read. Summer turned to fall, and I purchased Autumn, the new book by Karl Ove Knausgård, because I had read some of his Struggle series and because the cover displayed a mysterious impressionistic painting in teal and beige. I was also writing a book of stories structured by the seasons, and I thought I might find images and motifs to inspire my imagination. 

Every afternoon I walked to the park quickly after I finished working through the slow-moving, heavily jargoned scholarly articles for class. I turned the book’s pages to satiate my desire for living prose. Unlike the theoretical scholarship, made complex with subordinate clauses, footnotes, allusion, academic discourses, keywords, parentheticals, and section headings and subheadings, the essays were simple: short entries on frogs, churches, lightning, tin cans, and toilet bowls. Each of them described an object in the simplest terms to see whether a steady gaze could open up the daily things that habit causes us to overlook. And the experiment worked, the essays culminated in feeling and, often, revelation. 

Reading Autumn, and the rest of Knausgård’s seasons books the following year, I felt I was participating in the making of the world. I moved on to other books, of course, and made the world in my own prose, but I would not forget the lessons of the seasons quartet, which slowed time, made reality visible, and played out the creation of daily life like a contemporary Genesis. 

It is strange teaching for the first time: you stand at the front of the room and the young sit quietly, waiting for you to tell them what to do. You know you only hold authority in your placement before them and your listing in the course registry. You’re just a beginner, always a beginner, who simply wants to listen and observe. But the students are sitting there, waiting, and you must tell them what to do.  

In my second year, I led discussion sections for a Shakespeare lecture. It was a joy: I learned the performance of self, and we reveled in the exuberance of grand, mouth-filling poetry. At the same time, I wrote myself out of self-doubt and amassed hundreds of pages behind the blue folder icons on my laptop. I had found a working rhythm, a balance between teaching and writing, until I moved on to the third year, when they assigned me a more intensive class to teach. English 100: Introduction to Composition. Mandated writing for the new kids. Adieu, my prose, my self. 

The department offered more than 50 sections and led its affordable graduate students through an instruction program. What was this teaching factory of writing? Nothing like what I had known. The people who trained us were too cheerful to trust. Besides, most of them did not even read new books. They repeated what came before them, and their Model Readings were not models but ordinaries, texts yellowed from two-decade-old anthologies, the artifacts elderly teachers prescribe because they are good for you. But what good was it to assign “shitty first drafts” if I had once tutored a student who had been forced to study it and, after reading one of her first drafts, which was completely illegible, I asked her what happened, and she said she thought the first draft was meant to be shitty, that she shit it out on purpose? What about Dillard’s other work? What about any writers younger than 70? 

They would not require us to use the ancient materials. But then what could I use? What was good writing for teaching? 

Besides the Knausgård books on my desk, I did not yet have any positive examples for students, so I created my class out of negatives. I would be teaching against teachers, against literature, against SparkNotes, against the green light on the dock. I would not teach works more than ten years old. I would not assign strictly defined narrative or informative essays, but we would bend the genres to make something closer to life. I would not let my students continue their indifference to writing: on one of the first days, we would bring in essays we struggled with in high school, we would say how they challenged us, and we would shred them with our hands and stand on top of the rubbish and say we are leaving those traumas behind. I hoped we would find a different way. Freedom through destruction, not creation. Negative writing. The best writers, after all, blow up the monuments of convention.

We would forget the pretenses of classrooms and treat writing like a sport. We would practice living writing and forget the high school lesson that good prose can only come from the canonized and dead. I also wanted to see if I could get us not to think about ourselves, at least at first. Most graduate students I knew would teach a be-a-better-person class, and they would prompt their students to write about feeling out of place, emotional changes, being lost, confused, vulnerable, afraid, et cetera. I thought my students got enough me-writing online, and I wanted them to start by writing out of themselves, gazing on objects, to test whether one could understand better and be a better writer—and maybe, by accident, a better person—simply through paying attention, through crafting prose taut like a bow-string, like a tennis string, like the muscles in our hearts.

I compiled essays by living writers we could emulate: Carlo Rovelli, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Amanda Hess, Adam Zagajewski, Rachel Cusk, Jerald Walker, and Olga Tokarczuk. But we would start with Knausgård’s seasons books, those quiet volumes on objects and daily life that privately made me believe in writing and myself again. They could help us learn attentiveness and process, see the world, and gain faith in words.

After six volumes of introspection for My Struggle, Knausgård wrote about the visible world. The seasons books attempt to de-hierarchize the order Foucault describes in The Order of Things. Chairs have as much importance as philosophy or love. Knausgård suggests that by looking at daily objects and things, we can rescue them from habit and assumption. We can see them again. He addresses these ideas in short letters to his unborn, then newborn, daughter. “The world expresses its being,” he writes to her, “but we are not listening [ . . . ] I want to show you our world as it is now: the door, the floor, the water tap, and the sink, the garden chair close to the wall beneath the kitchen window, the sun, the water, the trees.” A few of the essays describe concepts like loneliness and forgiveness, but they mostly reside in the tangible world, in the window and the water and the trees.

The quartet evolves: after Autumn and Winter, two books of short essays and letters, Spring brings the objects into a narrative about Knausgård taking care of his children while his wife lies immobilized by depression. Summer returns to the object essays, interposing them with diary entries. It ends with a feeling of transience and loss as Knausgård writes of watching ladybugs floating in the water, an image that “filled me with a deep unease, for I realized, standing on the green gleaming grass and looking out over the sparkling blue strait, with the mighty span of the Öresund Bridge arching over it, that one day the world will perish, a day as beautiful and ordinary as this.”

This was excellent; literature I could believe in. But how could I use it to make better writers of others? When I first started writing seriously, I would copy out passages of stories and poems I loved, as if passing the words through my hands and into ink would infuse me with lyricism, talent, and feeling. But that would be too mechanical, and if I were in a classroom like that, copying out passages a teacher administered out of his own interests, I would quit writing and call him a dictator. I saw something in Knausgård’s method, though, that we could reenact, and in his form to which we could submit. 

Most of the seasons essays utilize a similar structure: a description that details the object’s physical features, its function and form, and sometimes compares and contrasts it to other objects; a meditation on questions or concepts that rise out from the description; and an anecdote that features the object and reverberates with the broader questions and concepts.

In my favorite of these, Knausgård writes about the nose, which he contrasts with the eyes. He describes how the nose, “church of our visage,” never closes, allows us to breathe, and logically should be the “most important part of the face,” “the key to identifying this person’s character, personality, type, soul.” But instead, we revere the eyes, which unlike the nose “don’t age” and can move, “better suited to representing a person’s inner self, which is always mobile and fluid.” 

Knausgård’s contemplation rests on his closing anecdote about a man he once saw in a grocery store, an ugly man with an ugly nose, the horrific nose of fairy tales, “something bestial, something growing uncontrollably.” He cannot keep from staring at the man’s enormous nose. The man notices and turns away, and the essay ends like this: 

We went out, positioning ourselves on the other side of the road, and when he came out and started walking away, we followed him. That’s how powerful the pull exerted by his nose was. But now, more than anything it is his gaze I remember, when he realized that we were staring at him, that brief glimpse of something extremely pained which appeared in his eyes and was the very opposite of the bestial nose, yet produced by it, and which I now think of as almost the quintessence of the human condition. 

What can I say about this? This is perfection of the form. Knausgård has conveyed the features of the face, their human qualities, the way the body conveys emotions, the realization of suffering, maybe regret, and a philosophy of beauty in pain — in three and a half pages of description and narrative. I could only hope my students would enjoy the essays as much as I did and learn from them. And maybe, how I hoped, one or two could write something that moved me in the same way. 

Three or four weeks into the semester, Andrea Crummy stayed after class. Could I look at her essay? I had said that asking instructors how to improve worked best for me as a student, even if it wasn’t genuine (at least they would think you cared), and she wanted to know how to improve. Students gathered at the door waiting for the next class, so we sat on a bench in the hallway. 

Andrea was small and quiet. It was too early in the semester to know any of them as individuals: they were just students, names and grayscale faces on a list, without any voices or souls bared on the page. She waited quietly. I read quickly, looking for something constructive to say about style or form. 

The essay described MMA gloves: how they fit on the hand; how they’re made of leather, velcro, and foam; how they weigh; how their bright colors guide the viewer’s eye; and how they provide protection for the fighters in the ring. “Through the item’s protective purpose,” it read, “constraint and control get implemented over the animalistic and raw nature of fighting, which turns it into sport. When utilized correctly, MMA gloves evolve the experience of fighting into one of great intimacy and vulnerability, which in turn creates the strongest of bonds with another person.” 

At the end of the essay, she recalled how she had sparred with her trainer every Sunday morning since she was 5 “until I suffered an episode that caused me to lose both myself and the will to fight on the mats and in life.” She did not detail the episode and only described the gloves hanging on her wall. Eventually, her trainer convinced her to join him one Sunday, and when she got there he shouted at her and pushed her around. His aggression awoke something in her body, something that had been dormant for weeks; she dodged his blows; she drove at his body with her fists; she knocked him to the ground and forced him to tap out. “At the sound of the tap,” she concluded, “we both collapsed. I realized the wetness cascading down my face wasn’t just sweat, but they were tears.”

What the hell? She was waiting for a response, and I was staring at the final words. As a TA I had seen good writing, uninspired writing, analytical writing, technically effective writing, but never anything that surpassed the boundaries of a classroom prompt, never anything that could transport me to the real world. I shivered, sitting beside Andrea, holding her draft in my hand. This experiment — to share a bit of Knausgård, to share some living prose — created something interesting and unique. Forget about students and teachers, don’t tell me about institutions, spit out the word lessons, shred the titles, burn the CVs, cast away the pedagogy, and O dear God, do not hand out old texts for teaching: the object essay worked, and Andrea and every other person and I in 475 Van Hise at 10 o’clock on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning were all just writers, feeling for the world with simple words, attempting to understand and see.

All of the drafts felt different, guided by each writer’s vision. They weren’t faking it on the page. Our one-on-one conferences became brainstorming sessions meant to settle on the right image or mood. We talked not of MLA format but of aura and tone. By the end of five weeks, the students crafted essays about a cupholder, tents, a fishing rod, a hairbrush, bees, cameras, the polaroid. We enjoyed them so much I collected them in a course anthology, Our Little Book of Things: Essays on Common Objects and How They Make Us Feel.

Knausgård’s essays work because he fixes deceivingly simple descriptions on the page, one after another. The best of the students’ essays also does this, and when isolated they read like mysterious, poetic, and beautiful lines from a prayer or a song. My admiration might have come from a longing for a stable world, the longing I feel sometimes when I read a recipe or listen to the weatherwoman’s voice coming through the TV. Knausgård’s style contributes to his objectivity — literally, writing the object — as each sentence reads as a simple material thing. Somehow, through their own will, my first-year writing students managed this, and not as mere imitations but as individual expressions of investigation and belief. In an essay from a later semester, a Joey Duris I only knew through the Zoom square wrote: “Something is soul-stirring about the moccasin.” 

Their essays moved me like gravitational forces, like tectonic plates. I found myself excited to read and grade for an introductory college writing course. How strange! But I loved them, and they showed me the world. They reaffirmed my conviction that good writing is exploration that does not assault the reader with theses but that rather settles in uncertainty and feeling. 

They continued to do this the next semester. Payton Zurfluh described the heart’s structure and connotations, and she recalled how her parents told her they would get a divorce. “This was my first real heartbreak,” she concluded. “Even as time would pass, I thought my heart would never heal, but I was wrong. I’ve encountered numerous heartbreaks at just the age of 18: my parents’ divorce, my father’s blood clots, and tearing my ACL. Each time I’ve felt a different type of pain, each one hurting in a new way. Though I’ve felt like my heart was shattering, it has continued to constantly beat. Each beat I’ve felt so strong in my chest, I know it’s capable of countless more heartbreaks before it will finally decide to stop.”

Kylie Hynes, who sat next to her in class, started her essay like this: “If eyes are the windows to the soul, then eyelashes must be the curtains.” She ended it by describing how she could never show her face to others without those curtains, her makeup: “I often wonder if a day will come when I’ll walk out the door confidently and go about my day with bare skin and natural lashes as the girls I envy do. Will I ever look in the mirror first thing in the morning into my own eyes and not be distracted by my flaws? My eyelashes were the first to be touched by makeup and they’ll likely be the last to go without it.” 

And Lauren Humphreys, who described types of photographs and told the story of her first photo with her boyfriend in high school. They broke up, and she was forced to confront all the pictures they had taken together. She ended with the image of that first photo on the football field, her boyfriend in jersey and pads, and she wrote: “Looking at the photo of us sometimes makes me so happy, knowing what we had was real and how blessed I am to have had the opportunity to love him, but most times, the photos and memories alike fill me with a sadness that I sometimes cannot bear to live with.” 

Joey Duris describes the moccasin, and in his anecdote he looks down at his moccasins, old but comfortable from youth, and slowly “a feeling of deja-vu courses through my body, the scenery around me starts to change.” His father, far away, surfaces in his empty college room, along with his old family sofa, his pajamas, and his dog. 

An alarm rings — he’s done writing, everyone is gone. He goes back to working alone in his college room, so far away from home. 

That first semester I created another document, “Sentences from the Object Essay.” It presented one line from each essay, a series of declarations of the world. Each of the lines held a single perspective and mood, and reading them together almost brought me to tears. These were 18-year-olds used to writing about symbols and deeper meaning in long high school essays they hated. They were used to typing extra words in each line to fill out each page. They were trained to write like robots, without style or voice, without histories or heartbeats in the fingers that pressed the keys, machines for consulting SparkNotes and producing what they thought their teachers wanted them to say. But in these individual lines they contributed to a collective understanding, made of the physical world — an understanding now dispersed, like we all dispersed from that room on a December morning two years ago, but remaining together on the page: 

  1. It’s amazing how much a little bit of empty space can help us survive in the modern world. 
  1. By having someone see us fight, it would seem downright violent, but what happened between us was the opposite of violent: it was healing. 
  1. My legs feel like someone had replaced all the muscle with rocks. 
  1. When it steals the hairs from your head, it takes a part of you. 
  1. Every knife had a conversation between my grandpa and I embedded into it. 
  1. My grandparents were always early risers; the sun would be rising over the hill and the sky was hazy. 
  1. A heavy rain had just fallen, and outside there were bees drowning in the puddles. 
  1. Looking down at a phone in elevators or while walking past people on the street appears to be a common practice instead of interacting with others. 
  1. When you look at someone you never think about what’s going on in their body. You never wonder how their mouth and lungs are working together to breathe, or how their bones and muscles are a team, helping them be mobile. 
  1. I never erased old assignments, as they were written in pen. Whenever I finished an assignment I would draw a line through it as if I was cutting something in half. 
  1. A fishing rod seems very irrelevant in this world but to the right person it can be a great teaching point in life. 
  1. While its presence had been an essential part of my life, its absence was an even more impactful one, acting not only as a reminder of my rich childhood but also how, just like the sofa, phases of life do not last forever. 
  1. A lunch table could be fun, with laughter and friends, but could also be empty, like life, when there is no one left to share it with. 
  1. We thanked her and ventured out into the dark city of Madrid. 
  1. The final day of our excursion led us to a lake named Disappointment. 
  1. I felt disconnected from the world. Life seemed different. 
  1. That was it. It was over. 
  1. His love unbearable, and me so undeserving. 
  1. A couple of seconds of looking is enough to remind me of all the good in my life. 

It worked: they discovered themselves on the page. Sahastra Bhadana wrote in a reflection that he had hated writing “because, as we were growing up, we were taught to write in a very structured manner, in a sense like we were birds that were locked inside cages. We didn’t get any freedom in what we wrote or how we wrote it. However, it all changed in this course.” Knausgård’s essays showed a paradox in writing: by working within particular forms, like the object essay, we might expect to be locked in, but instead we find openness and meaning, discovery, freedom. 

I learned to write one long summer in Missouri by dwelling in solitude with the voices in Joyce and Proust, with Faulkner’s beautiful incomprehensible prose, with Whitman, Nabokov, Flaubert, Flannery O’Connor and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But we may not need inspiration; we may not need Joyce and Proust. My classes did not read them, after all, and they could write poignantly by simply describing a thing. Although their simple sentences make one feel certain in an object and its place in the universe, they grope toward understanding, and in the following anecdotes that understanding begins to slip, the sentences soften, and the object, once anchored in images, begins to sink out of sight. That is writing: grasping something, then letting it go. Watching something materialize then fade away. 

I think, in lockdown, of images. The mug of hot chocolate Anna Truttschel holds to warm her hands and face after a morning of sledding in youth. The stress ball Maria Buckles clutches as she lay immobile with a broken neck and a desperate hopeful belief “that if I squeezed this ball hard enough to puncture a hole in it and tear it open to feel the greasy residue of each ball I could break out of this constricting brace and hospital bed.” The images of perfect bodies Sky Showers sees on her cell phone, which causes her to starve herself until she notices her own image distorted in the kitchen sink, “grey skinned with purple sockets for eyes.” The bundle of clementines rotting on the windowsill in Lucy Schreiber’s dorm room: her father used to peel them for her and now, off at college, she could not get herself to throw the ones she bought away, but she does, and “it felt almost like a funeral, like I was saying goodbye to something really important.” The pillow Emma Duffing’s grandfather called the Emma Pillow because it reminded him of how she slept in a mound of them, and he always took it with him in travel, the same pillow he later had his wife bring to his cancer sick-bed and that Emma wept into after his funeral. And Chikere Oduocha’s father’s hands, the hands of a Nigerian man making a future for himself and his family in America, the hands that held her when she was born and that she watched, folded and still, in his casket. “Oh,” she writes, “how I yearn to see them come alive again, radiate life, bleed red, wipe my tears, and hold me again.” 

Another student describes fingernails: their function, their structure and shape, how they can be painted or disguised, and how we think we can read a person in their appearance. In her anecdote she shares how she returns after a day in middle school and paints her nails. Her younger brother runs to her and, excited by the colors, begs her to paint his. As she coats them in a starbright yellow, her father returns from work, says, “Take that off right now. Boys don’t wear nail polish,” and leaves. She continues to paint her nails while her brother walks off to scrub his in the bathroom sink. She senses sadness in him as he sits down beside her. The essay concludes: “I could still see the remains of the bright yellow nail polish I had once put on his nails, and though I couldn’t fulfill his wish of having nail polish on his nails that day, I knew that one day, he would eventually be able to express himself as he wished.” 

Grading this, I felt a sudden weakness: my breathing slowed, my eyes swelled. The images of a girl sitting on the floor painting her nails after school, her brother’s excitement, the father barging in sudden and severe, the streaks of yellow on young sad hands, the silent pain, and the softening tone to suggest a different perspective, one from a fulfilled feature — each that knocked at my intellectual and professional defenses. What is literature? This is literature. Who are artists? These are artists. Forget me; do not look at my writing. Read their words, so simple and beautiful, so moving, so true. 

This essay seems to have escaped me. I have meandered from a point of personal artistic crisis through an experience with Knausgård’s seasons quartet to learning about teaching and speaking about writing and dwelling in my students’ essays. But isn’t life a meander? And teaching, and reading, and writing? I moved to Wisconsin to write and I left with several manuscripts, yes, but also with inspiration from strangers who showed me who they were and how they saw the world. To write means to discover something about reality, and I discovered as much through my students’ essays as my own. 

I’m still teaching Introduction to Composition. In the pandemic I learned to do it through webcams, and I fled to Chicago, where I planned new books to write. This summer I will be 26. For the past ten years I have arranged my life to improve myself as a writer, obeying solitude and the voices in my head. I have refused the reveries of youth for the dream of creating something perfect. By accident I found that everyone can write something meaningful, that my work will not transform literature, and that it does not take self-exile or strict discipline or delusions of grandeur to move another person with words. When I reminisce about all those people, I do not think of them as students. I think of them as writers, and I remember images and moods in their prose. 

At the start of this spring, speaking to the laptop screen, I told my new writers, I have students who have said this class changed their life. It might change yours. I am not promising that, though. At the very least you will leave a little more aware of nouns and verbs, a little more aware of your place in life and of the world you look at each day. It happened to me, and I hope you will experience this, too.•


Marek Makowski is a writer who teaches about literature and culture at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His work has appeared in venues such as The Chicago Tribune, The New Republic, Hyperallergic, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Public Books. You can find more of his work on marekwriting.com.