I urge my students to cherish their digressions. Digressions are your true self bursting through the constraints of the essay’s order, I tell them. Students respond warily to this notion. They know at least as well as I do that true selves can be embarrassing, weird. 

I began teaching about the middle of the essay by accident even though I had been thinking about it for a long time. In fact, I was not thinking about middles, I was noticing how tired my students seemed to be getting. It was the middle of the semester, past the excitement of the beginning and not yet the thrilling rush to the end. I suspected that most of my students had not read that day’s assignment, Virginia Woolf’s essay “The Death of the Moth.”

            A former student, Adrian, recently confided that when his professor asked the class of first-year students to name the most important part of a book, his hand shot up. He recalled his eagerness ruefully. The professor shot down Adrian’s idea before he could even begin to explain why the most important part of a book was the middle. The professor insisted on the beginning, a view later confirmed by the newspaper editor who went even farther, advising Adrian to put his best writing at the end, the second-best at the beginning, and all the shit in the middle.  

            Rumor has it that a certain, famous professor – I’ll call him Colfax Mingo – stayed awake only for the beginning and end of lectures but nonetheless asked the best question during the Q and A. The story was supposed to be evidence of the keen mind of the world-renowned Professor Mingo; but, as a writing teacher, I keep pondering an entirely different point. Why teach students to write the whole essay? What about a course in first and last paragraphs only?

            Not just professors and newspaper editors cling to this prejudice against the middle bits. So do I. I wouldn’t call them shitty, but I don’t believe they’re worth the time devoted to beginnings and endings. Or why else do I spend so much time teaching opening and closing paragraphs? I might implore my students not to waste time devising a “hook” for the opening and – I get passionate here – not to imagine a reader who needs hooking; but, not surprisingly, they do as I do not as I say. Don’t I devote the semester’s first class to an essay’s first paragraph as I have been taught to do?

            But what if the middle is not shitty? What if Professor Mingo napped through something important?

            The students did not blame their middle-of-the-semester malaise for their failure to read “The Death of the Moth;” they cited Woolf’s writing. They didn’t like it. The long sentences! The high diction! Her love of the pronoun one! I let them complain. They made a fair point because the goal of the class, “English 120, Reading and Writing the Modern Essay” was not essay appreciation but the use of essays as models for their own writing, not the whole essay, but aspects of the essay, strategies the essayist used that they could try out in their own essays. So, I heard them out and then I asked, “Yes, but do you think you could manage to learn anything from Woolf?” Their resistance did not discourage me. They needed to relax, to play and Woolf was good to play with.

            “The Death of the Moth” has only five paragraphs. I’d asked students to compare it to the “five-paragraph essay” most of them had been taught to write. I’ve often used it as a model to write an in-class, collaborative essay on an object I’ve brought into class. On this day, I wanted to give them something more open-ended and easy that would let them talk to each other and, most important, get out of their seats and stand up. (I would have taken them to a playground if I could have.) I divided the class into five groups. Each group got one paragraph. Their task was to conduct a census of their paragraph – a list of every noun and pronoun, that is, every inhabitant, and its verb, that is the inhabitant’s occupation. Each group put their results on the blackboard.

            With this inventory of everyone and everything Woolf observes from her window from early morning until late afternoon, we began to look for patterns. We did not have to look hard. The board was full of writing for the two opening paragraphs and the two final paragraphs; the board for the middle paragraph was nearly empty.

            In the two opening and the two closing paragraphs, Woolf shows us a countryside as busy and crowded as a city street: farmers with their ploughs, horses and cows, rooks flying above, ships in the distance, and the moth of course who also keeps moving except in the middle. In the middle, the moth does nothing. 

            My students and I observed this anomaly. Was it a pivot, a turning point between the moth living and the moth dying? Between morning and afternoon? We wondered whether it was like Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Locked Horns,” which we had read earlier in the semester. In the first part, Solnit uses the sight of locked horns to reflect on human conflict. Then, midway in the essay, she pivots to questioning whether using metaphors from the animal world to explain the human world is a form of exploitation. Or was Woolf’s middle merely a pause, to heighten the drama of the second half, or a pivot? It could have been both. Both seemed like purely rhetorical, formal moves. But was there anything else?

            Not until I taught “Consider the Lobster,” did I begin to realize the full power of the middle of Woolf’s essay. 

             “Consider the Lobster” is a very long essay and David Foster Wallace is not to everyone’s taste so I got in the habit of asking students where their eyes glazed over and where they perked up their ears as they read. To our collective amusement, students would indicate the same point midway in the essay where Wallace takes a hard turn towards the philosophical. He announces the shift, “Before we go any further…” and proceeds to explain that questioning the pain of others, animal or human, “involve[s] hard-core philosophy – metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, ethics.”

            Wallace’s essay pivots midway between two ways of considering the lobster: historically and biologically in the first half and philosophically in the second. But this is more than a mechanical, formal pivot to prevent the shift from the first to the second half of the essay from being too abrupt. It also does more than offering some drama by suspending the essay’s forward drive.  

            The middle paragraph of “Consider the Lobster” is crucial to the overall meaning of the essay. The rest of the essay is impossible without it. The middle makes explicit the implied challenge at the essay’s beginning: “There is much more to know than most of us care about — it’s all a matter of what your interests are.” In the middle of the essay he strains his reader’s limits – as my students’ strong reactions confirm — by asking them to consider questions of “hard-core philosophy.” And by the end Wallace has reached the limit. The final paragraph raises “more abstract questions of the connections between aesthetics and morality (if any)” and declines to pursue them. 

            The middle paragraph holds the essential insight of the essay as a whole. Without the middle paragraph, Wallace could not have raised those questions in the first place. My students and I called it the essay’s engine room. This engine room gets its power by connecting two lines of thought: one from the beginning and one from the end of the essay.

            My former student’s professor should have asked him why he thought the middle of the essay was the most important part. As Adrian explained it to me, he believed the middle is where strands from the beginning and end of the essay or book meet. The middle is the beating heart where the arteries and veins meet – where the blood flowing one way and blood flowing another converge. Now I realize that something similar was happening in “The Death of the Moth.”

            My students’ analysis got me calling Woolf’s essay a machine for turning the moth into Virginia Woolf. They came up with this when, as we were surveying the census of the essay’s inhabitants, we noticed that the last line has the moth using the “I” that Woolf had reserved for herself. “O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.” They didn’t need to know anything about Woolf’s biography; they readily understood that the moth was speaking for Woolf.

            The essay’s opening sentence prepares the way for this “reveal.” Woolf announces that this moth – the moth – “is not properly to be called a moth,” and introduces a short list of all the ways that the moth is not a proper moth. If it is not a proper moth, what is it? Virginia Woolf.

            I wish I had figured out then that “The Death of the Moth” takes on the same topic of shape shifting that Woolf pursues in her most exuberant — her only exuberant novel – Orlando. The similarity didn’t strike me until I had studied her middle paragraph more closely. I noticed that, as with “Consider the Lobster,” Woolf’s middle paragraph also holds the essay’s essential insight: “Again, the thought of all that life might have been had he been born in any other shape caused one to view his simple activities with a kind of pity.”

            The moth is trapped in his moth body and in his moth life and death just as “I” am. Neither the moth nor Woolf can be like Orlando who can switch gender and also enjoy the advantages offered by life in previous centuries. Reading the middle paragraph as the essay’s “beating heart” allowed me to see it also as Woolf’s lament for having been born in her shape. Professor Mingo should not sleep through that. 

            Having seen the parallels between Wallace and Woolf, I asked my class to convince me that David Foster Wallace had used Virginia Woolf’s essay, “The Death of the Moth,” as his model for this essay of his on lobsters. A bit of groaning and some laughter greeted my ask, but they were happy to stand up to get in their smaller groups and discuss this possibility among themselves.

            They surprised themselves by finding significant similarities. In both essays, the writers make concrete observations in the first half of the essay, which then open up into bolder, more abstract observations in the second half. You can try this at home, I tell them.

            The hardest thing for my students, and for any writer, is to think boldly, to be uniquely themselves on the page. Such writing seems to them, to any writer, too crazy, risky, silly, stupid, and maybe just plain awful to let it remain on the page. But Wallace and Woolf offer the best kind of model. They supply a structure that invites more thinking. It’s like Mad Libs only the blanks to be filled in are bigger. This structure that turns on a middle section opens a space for their boldest, weirdest thoughts. Try it, I call after them as they pack up their backpacks and head off to the next class.

            Openings matter most only if an essay begins as it means to carry on. That is, essays flow. Colfax Mingo falling asleep is a compliment! Isn’t that sleepy feeling proof of “flow”? In almost thirty years of teaching, I must have taught some students who did not long for writing that “flowed,” but I cannot think of a single one.

            Now I’m wondering what if, for the first day, we dispense with notions of hooking? I know, I might as well ask that we stop caring about first impressions and love at first sight. Perhaps impossible. But I could explore, in English 120 fashion, whether my students can add the kind of middle paragraph I’ve been describing to their repertoires as writers.

            What if, on the first day of class, I began with the middle of E.B.White’s “Once More to the Lake”? To read the beginning and end leads a reader to suppose that the essay is purely personal, even apolitical. The opening and closing paragraphs focus on White’s return, with his young son, to a lake that he himself used to visit every summer as a child. But a paragraph in the middle of the essay makes the political aspect of the essay clear. Like other middle paragraphs, it is an anomaly. Action stops just as it does in Woolf’s and Wallace’s middle paragraphs. White, like Woolf and Wallace, describes thought not action. 

            Although White continues the hypnotic, rhythmic, repetitive prose of the rest of the essay, this paragraph is the most grammatically and conceptually complex in the whole essay. The opening sentence is ten lines long, divided by a semi-colon with the grammatical oddity – even more remarkable since it was penned by the persnickety author of The Elements of Style  — that the first part of the sentence before the semi-colon has no verb. It begins “Summertime oh summertime, pattern of life indelible.” White, like Woolf, is generalizing his experience. We are no longer in the particular summer of this visit, but summertimes in general. White continues to generalize. The lake is not his childhood lake, it is “America at play.”

            Something sinister is happening in this America. The sentence concludes with the post cards that showed things “looking better than they looked” and the paragraph concludes with a series of unsettling observations, ending with “wondering” whether some “newcomer” were “nice” or “common,” (quotation marks White’s) and “wondering whether it was true that the people who drove up for Sunday dinner at the farmhouse were turned away because there wasn’t enough chicken.” America at play wants to pretend that there is no such thing as class prejudices and bigotry.

            As momentous as this paragraph seems to be in understanding the essay, some would argue that Professor Mingo would not have missed anything by sleeping through it. That paragraph, they might claim, is a mere digression.

            Some of my students must have loved digressions, but they never admitted it to me. My students’ longing for flow was always accompanied by a horror of digressions as if writing is not like the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus’ river which flows endlessly and is never the same from one moment to the next: “Life is like a river endlessly flowing and you can never step into the same river twice.” Or to complete the fragment, as the wise ones at Chicago’s Second City once did, “Life is like a river endlessly flowing and you can never step into the same river twice, Helen.”

            Flow is predictable, nap-throughable. My students don’t want their writing to be like rivers or life. They believe that digressions wreck the flow, like rocks in a river. I urge my students to cherish their digressions. Digressions are your true self bursting through the constraints of the essay’s order, I tell them. Students respond warily to this notion. They know at least as well as I do that true selves can be embarrassing, weird. That’s originality, I chirp brightly.

            I once had a student, Jillian, whose essay was nothing but hooks. When asked to explain her somewhat jumpy and fragmented essay, Jillian said that she feared boring her reader. Her every word was designed to arouse. She also had a sideline in selling sex toys to other undergraduates and cheerily invited me to join her buyer’s club. I declined, hazarding that instructors ought not join a student-run group whose name promised orgasms. Jillian took my class in the mid-aughts in Madison, Wisconsin. I have continued to turn over her writing philosophy in my mind. Sleep through that, Professor Mingo! 

            Eileen Myles’ “Live Through That?!” reminds me of Jillian’s essay because it delivers such sentence by sentence thrills. Plus, the paragraphs are unusually long, which give the feel of an uninterruptable, mesmerizing monologue, a monologue on the unlikely topic of tooth flossing, which is, surprisingly, about physical decay and mortality, and then ends, unexpectedly, with a modest triumph. Although I want my students to enjoy the thrill of reading “Live Through That?!”, I also know there is more to  learn from Myles than how to arouse a reader.

            To my own surprise, I discovered that Myles also has that crucial middle section not so different from Wallace, Woolf, and White. The middle of Myles’ essay makes the final, modest triumph both necessary and possible. I don’t see how Professor Mingo could have slept through any of this essay, but had he slept through the middle, he would have missed the point.

            Like the essays of Woolf and Wallace, this essay can be divided into two opposing parts. In the first half, Myles introduces their father who had lost all of his teeth by his 40s, when he died of alcoholism. In the second half of the essay, Myles introduces their mother, a woman in her 80s who has all of her teeth and who loves eating.

            Early on, Myles writes, “Well, yeah. I mean I don’t know about anyone else but when I found myself at the age of 33 no longer spending the majority of my days getting sort of hammered I was to say the least perplexed.” And they elaborate on their difficulty, “Being sober made me want to die. Cause I was swarming with feelings. About being a dyke. About being poor. About aging. About my inability to connect. About what a great poet I was, but what if….” Improbably, tooth flossing helps Myles. When they’re anxious, they floss. “I have an urge to preserve what I’ve got,” they write. And: “It’s the most intimate expression of care I know.”

            So far, so good until a few sentences later and Myles confesses: “Okay so in all these years of tooth care some other things have happened, and I mean my mouth is full of caps. I have fallen, and teeth have cracked of their own accord – well, usually I bit a cherry pit, or a date.” This is the middle of the essay. Myles’ middle-of-the-essay reflections, like those of Wallace, Woolf, and White, dwell on disillusionment, failure, and limitations. Flossing has failed. It won’t fix anxiety or decay, two aspects of the same affliction. Myles must see a periodontist.

            In the essay’s second half, Myles chooses between two periodontists, a harsh, expensive one in La Jolla, California and a kinder, more moderately priced one in New York. In choosing the New York periodontist, Myles comments, “I was impressed that I had in my life held out for something simpler and more comfortable. It was an unique choice in my life. I celebrate that today.” 

            In contrast to her hope in the first half of the essay to manage and perhaps soothe her feelings, Myles by the end has arrived at something more modest, “So in the face of the mountain of time I’ve lived, and in the eye of the mystery of what remains I feel quietly smart and open my mouth widely and slowly tonight and I brush. I examine, I grin. I grin like a skull, but it’s cool. Examine, grin again. I’m a mechanic now, doctor, friend. This skull is my friend.”

            I may be wrong that midway Myles introduces something new and unmissable; but, if I’m wrong, I prefer to think the failure is mine as a reader. I want to see what happens if I break ranks with the love-at-first-sight types and look for the all-important anomalies in the middle. I want to see if writing is like a river, like life.

            I’ve never told my students the Colfax Mingo story. Why? Why aggravate their anxieties? It’s hard enough to write for a reader who needs hooking, without imagining someone who needs rousing and, still worse, someone who does not need rousing to get your point.

            I am not claiming that all writing has middles like the kind I have been writing about! Neither my students nor I are limited to one genre, not even to one type of essay. My students ought to take comfort from the differences between one genre and another.

            Some genres are like rivers that are the same no matter how many times you step in them. Professor Mingo knew the conventions of academic papers so well and could predict how they would proceed with such accuracy, that he could doze off and still come up with the best question. The Supreme Court will not want to be surprised by something lodged in the middle of an amicus brief. Adrian’s newspaper editor was right about newspaper articles and his professor wasn’t wrong about most academic books.

            And isn’t it true that all of us are readers who need hooking and rousing? We are distracted. Who is not afflicted by multi-tasking? Who doesn’t skim? The late great literary critic I.A. Richards once opined, “If we talked about only the books we had read from cover to cover, a great silence would fall upon the world.” I always tell my students that story but never at the beginning of the semester. 

Shifra Sharlin

Shifra Sharlin

Shifra Sharlin has taught writing at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, CUNY-Grad Center, Columbia, and, until her retirement, was a Senior Lecturer at Yale where she taught and co-directed a multi-section course, “Reading and Writing the Modern Essay.”

She began publishing essays in her 50s after her four children had left home. Now she’s a grandmother and still scribbling. She has published essays in Raritan, Salmagundi, Southwest Review (a notable in Best American Essays), Yale Review, LA Review of Books, Hotel Amerika and elsewhere. Her essay, “Differences,” about her marriage and the Marquis de Sade, was included in The Contemporary American Essay (Random House: 2021). She is currently working on a memoir, Lopsided: My Cancer Album?, which is about cancer and friendship. For more of her writing you can go to shifra.sharlin.com.

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