“[What happened in ‘Lysistrata’] is something that I feel wouldn’t go over well today.”

What followed this topic sentence is clearly someone thinking out loud, not someone composing a paragraph. It offers a good insight, though, into the kind of re-thinking, second-guessing, and backing away from an idea that seems to haunt the composing process for many students. The number of college productions of Lysistrata in the ’60s suggests that my generation, at least, could see the point of Lysistrata’s war-ending sex strike and understood why it could work: Joan Baez was making a similar suggestion when she said “Say Yes to the man who says No [to the draft].” But this student saw the central idea and then couldn’t decide how he felt about it, or how he felt about trying to make the point, and the paragraph shows that very well. He knows more or less what Lysistrata meant, but he’s not quite sure what he means; and by the time we get to the end of the paragraph, neither do we:

“This is something that I feel wouldn’t go over well today. It would be worth a try if all the women in the world would stop having sex for some reason or another. But then again, you and I would be without sex. Some people wouldn’t like the idea, such as me. But it would be interesting.”

Aristophanes might say my student exactly saw, but didn’t recognize, the reason why Lysistrata’s strategy worked—in other words, what the actual play meant.

Maybe if he had started his thinking exactly where he seems to have stopped it, he would have gotten somewhere. And that’s a comment I make over and over on student papers: they often say something very interesting, or promising, or original (hmmm, not talking about THIS student, necessarily!) in the next-to-last, or even last, paragraph of an essay, and I write in the margin “INTERESTING!” or “Why didn’t you make this your thesis???”; or else I comment at the end that giving that last thought a more central role would have improved the essay…. The problem there is that no matter how strenuously and charmingly the writing instructor urges students to develop the reasoning before starting the Introduction, to write a draft holistically rather than working in a linear way, students want rather to follow the King’s directive to the White Rabbit during  Alice’s trial and “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” Then they stop when they’ve reached the end of what they started out saying, completely overlooking the real idea that their writing has moved them toward in the process of thinking.

A good essay, or a good paragraph for that matter, should feel like thinking out loud; but it shouldn’t actually be thinking out loud. The Lysistrata paragraph shows the difference.

Ah, well. This paragraph was written long, long ago and never revised. Too late now. What can’t be changed must be endured, and might as well be enjoyed.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

3 responses to ““[What happened in ‘Lysistrata’] is something that I feel wouldn’t go over well today.”

  • Elisa Campbell

    I have frequently found out that I didn’t know what I thought about something until I’d been writing “about it” for some time; then I could start over with a clear (or at least clearer) idea. Of course the approach needs adequate time for the discovery and rewriting process.
    A related thought – my academic work predated computers, so I was writing on typewriters. I wonder if word processors might cause us to be less willing to give up completely on a paragraph or more?

    • RAB

      Al says his Freshman Comp teacher told the class to write the essay, then tear off everything except the last paragraph and begin the “real” essay with that. As you say, by then the writer has discovered what he actually thinks.
      I would have thought the computer would make students much more willing to play with their drafts, whereas with us once it was typed, revising seemed to be SO much work. I find working on the word processor sheer, albeit unending, heaven. But in most cases, my students type into the computer, then run spell-check and grammar check, and then print out. Subsequent “drafts” are tweaks of the original. What a waste of freedom!

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