Sample Textual Analysis: Picking apart a Fictional Puzzle

What follows is a sample of a textual analysis such as my students are being asked to write for the TxtAn assignment in the Fall 2015 term at Oklahoma State University. It conforms partially to the content guidelines expressed on the TxtAn assignment sheet for that term (it treats an article from the appropriate location but too early a date for student use), and it adheres to the length requirements (the assignment asks for 1,400 to 1,750; the sample is 1,515), although the formatting will necessarily differ due to the different medium of presentation. How the medium influences reading is something well worth considering as a classroom discussion, particularly for those students who are going into particularly writing- or design-intensive fields.

On 15 August 2015, Ben Dolnick’s “Puzzling through My Fiction” appeared in the online New York Times. Described in a postscript as the “final essay in the Draft series” the paper’s Opinion pages have maintained, it articulates and expands on the idea that crossword puzzles offer practice for fiction writing, with the process of solving such puzzles mapping neatly onto the process of drafting a work of fiction. Dolnick lays out major stages of the shared process–“The Blank Beginning,” “The Walk-Away,” “The Dam Breakage,” and “The Slow Clap”–providing illustrative anecdotes of each as it manifests in puzzle solving before making explicit the connection to writing fiction. In all, the piece is an effective presentation of one writer’s process, as paralleled in a literacy activity enjoyed by many who do not style themselves authors.

That Dolnick’s essay is effective overall does not mean it is without flaw, however. Some points of usage argue against the paper’s effectiveness. The readership of the New York Times tends to skew towards inclusivity and social justice, given the long association of the newspaper’s home and movements for various civil rights concerns. For the article to make the mistake of gendered assumptions, using masculine pronouns as universals, comes across as an abrogation of the presumed readers’ values. Authors are not universally masculine. They are not predominantly masculine in the United States of the early twenty-first century, as glimpses at bookshelves and at the still-often-feminized disciplines of writing and literary studies suggest. The essay’s deployment of masculine pronouns reads as exclusionary, therefore, and not in accord with the expectations its audience is likely to have.

Additionally, the presence of second-person reference outside of explicit instruction grates. While readers of the New York Times may be expected to be familiar with crossword puzzles–the paper is famous for the quality and difficulty of those it presents–they may not be assumed to be engaged in solving them. Even those who are thus engaged are not necessarily going to think along the lines the essay casually assumed. The second-person usage in such sections of the essay as “The Blank Beginning” comes off as somewhat presumptuous, and the New York City audience that is the primary readership of the paper is not noted for responding kindly to presumption.

Other usage is not problematic, although it does introduce some potential confusion. In the first paragraph of the section called “The Dam Breakage,” Dolnick references “an unprecedented lapse into Esperanto.” As a created language, Esperanto is spoken by limited numbers of people–and by vanishingly few as a native language. For the language to be chosen as one into which a writer lapses–with the word usually signaling something habitual taken up as a lack of effort not associated with speaking a non-native language–comes off as odd. That oddity distracts from the flow of the text, inhibiting its effectiveness.

While some of the article’s usage is problematic, and some is perhaps confusing, “Puzzling through My Fiction” deploys many other phrases that work remarkably well. The overall metaphor of the piece, linking crossword puzzles to fiction writing through geographic imagery, casts the two disparate items in a similar frame of reference, making the connection between the two evident and easily taken in by readers. Additionally, the metaphor allows for framing the discussion of the article as passing a series of landmarks–an image that resonates with New York City readers, living as they do in a place where many buildings have historical significance and seemingly all of them attract tourist gawking. In that resonance, local readers are able to access the text easily, increasing its overall effectiveness.

Individual phrases in the work serve to make the text more effective by making points succinctly and memorably. For example, the comment at the end of the section titled “The Blank Beginning” that “Even a granite wall, studied with sufficient patience, reveals its cracks” is telling. The referenced granite, a mottled stone, evokes the dark-and-light patterns of both crossword puzzles and printed pages, connecting them for effect. It also evokes the commonplace impression of granite as strength, speaking to the seeming intractability of puzzles and the blank page as they are initially confronted. That the granite, a stone used for things meant to last long, admits of its own breaking and division in the image thus suggests that the less monolithic problems of solving crosswords and making text admit of their own openings and resolutions. Reiterating a point without reiterating the words used to make it allows for repetition–useful for affirming messages–without the potential for nagging, making the tactic effectual.

Other examples of particularly vivid phrases appear in the text, as well. In the section titled “The Walk-Away,” Dolnick uses the image of having as an answer to one clue only “FARMLAND, and this FARMLAND seems to have been salted.” The image calls to mind the legended destruction of Carthage by Rome, in which the fields were sown with salt that nothing would grow in them again–a particularly vengeful act and one that sticks in the mind through its ferocity. Articles do well to stick in the mind, so the deployment of the example helps “Puzzling through My Fiction” make its point. Too, the image of a river surging forward in “The Dam Breakage,” while perhaps somewhat conventional, still carries much weight; its deployment therefore serves to help the article remain in mind, helping its point stay put across to the reader.

The article’s overall format also conduces to its effectiveness. As noted above, it makes free use of illustrative anecdotes in asserting the utility of crossword puzzles as practice for fiction writing. The anecdotes immediately humanize the process; in presenting stories, they make matters more accessible to readers who, by their very nature, seek out stories to read. They also subtly reinforce Dolnick’s ethos. In the article, he is an author writing about writing, particularly about writing fiction. The anecdotes, while based perhaps in observed events, are fictionalized. They are presentations of the very thing Dolnick is discussing doing, and so they provide direct evidence that he is capable of doing what he discusses doing. He demonstrates his expertise in the act of making assertions based upon it, increasing his authority to offer insights. Having simultaneous appeals to Aristotelian pathos and ethos promotes engagement with the work and makes it more authoritative; the two combine to make the essay more effective than it otherwise might be.

The introductory vignette serves as a particularly prominent example of how the essay deploys the two to effect. The opening sentence speaks to New York erudite culture–lox, a brined salmon fillet, and Ken Burns’s documentaries both loom large in the city’s lore and in the conversations of its many thinkers–and flatters those who participate in it, labeling as mature, thus refined and desirable, the attributes of that culture. Flattery tends to promote good feeling, and good feeling tends to entice further investigation and engagement–the development of which is one of the hallmarks of effective writing. Too, it situates the writer as long-embedded in the culture of New York City, asserting that he belongs among its people and among its writers. He is one of them, raised as such and therefore empowered to address them–and making that kind of appeal makes his writing all the more effective in reaching them.

Also effective are the patterns of presentation deployed in the article. The sections of the piece move chronologically, working from earlier in the process to later in the process; the order is sensible, easily accessed, and it reads well as a result. Similarly, the pattern of presentation within each section reads easily. Anecdotes occupying one or two brief paragraphs each are followed by one or two other paragraphs explaining both what the lesson in the anecdote is and how it applies to the task of fiction writing. Demonstration precedes explanation, following a common and effective teaching model. Again, the familiarity breeds ease of access and effectiveness of presentation, and motion from the concrete to the more abstract and general mimics some common understandings of learning. That mimicry allows the points Dolnick makes to reach the reader more fully, making his writing all the more effective.

The lesson Ben Dolnick teaches in “Puzzling through My Fiction” has implications for other writing than fictional. Poetry and drama both suffer from the problems of composition attendant on prose fiction; poets and dramatists suffer the traditional tyranny of the blank page and benefit from taking time away from work when it frustrates them, and they exult in the opening of their projects and the appreciation of their completion no less than their prose-writing counterparts. The same is true for writers of nonfiction, problematic as that definition may be. Essayists, for example, do as much to create as their “creative” counterparts, and they therefore encounter much the same kinds of difficulties in their creative acts as do poets, dramatists, and fiction writers. They, and all writers, potentially benefit from practice with word-puzzles–cross- and otherwise–as much as Dolnick reports doing.

Work Cited

  • Dolnick, Ben. “Puzzling through My Fiction.” New York Times. New York Times, 15 August 2015. Web. 30 September 2015.
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