The craft of discursive writing

In 2019, NESA introduced a new text type for HSC English students – the discursive text. While this initially sent Year 12 students into a tizz (and let’s be honest, teachers too!), it has proved to be a wonderful alternative to the more traditional imaginative text form.

Discursive writing is now taught to both Standard and Advanced students within The Craft of Writing module, assessed in HSC English Paper 2. Students are typically given a stimulus text and question, to which they must respond by composing an imaginative, persuasive, or discursive piece of writing. Interestingly, when given the choice, more and more students are choosing the discursive text form. It’s something of a hybrid text, allowing students to explore a topic by bringing in their own personal experiences. They can draw on literary texts they have read or studied, reference popular culture, politics, current affairs – anything really! It’s what the English Department likes to call an entertaining ponder, allowing students to bring in the lovely figurative techniques of imaginative writing but with a genuine personal voice.

Perhaps the best way to understand this text form is to read an example. The following piece was composed this term by Year 12 Advanced English student Quynh Anh Le.

Pen to Paper (Kill Your Master)

By Quynh Anh Le (Year 12)

“Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naïve or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this ‘ll look in print.”

David Foster Wallace

I’ve always admired David Foster Wallace for his openness. His position was always that the real job of fiction was to grapple with death – that all of us will die and die in a lonesome manner, which won’t make a dent on how the world functions. In 2005, the year I was born, Wallace took the stage of Kenyon College to deliver the commencement address:

“Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master.”

Thus emerges the cruel, terrible humour in Wallace taking his life not by firearm, but by hanging. But resist the urge to induct him into the Tortured Genius Canon Hall of Fame – life was not what killed him.

Today I find it disturbingly easy to find our terrible masters. I guess there is a larger meaning I can link this to; perhaps a link to Zizek’s analysis of Fight Club and Taxi Driver – “You must violently detach yourself from ideology.” But I am not Zizek – I am an 18-year-old Year 12 student drowning in self-loathing and teenage ennui, and my terrible master, who I assume is similar to Wallace’s own, is one of cynicism and irony. Postmodernism has swallowed itself, and this is a post-Vonnegut, post-Jon Stewart, post-the-guy-you-know-who-got-his-misogyny-from-Nietzsche world – that is, post-post-irony. That means that we are now past Wallace’s time, and in reaction to his radical vulnerability, we have a newer, stronger wave of cynicism. But what they don’t realise is that behind every great cynic is a world of emotion. Holden Caulfield was not so fantastic because he resented the world. Perhaps he was to you initially, but to me, the beauty of him is picking the book up years after, and seeing the scared little boy in not only Holden, but J.D. Salinger himself.

Radical vulnerability. New sincerity. Wallace never tried to hide his depression – he never needed to speak of it in public, because those of us familiar with the stench of self-hatred and self-slaughter can sniff it out from a mile away everywhere in his work. The magic of his fiction was how he gave those emotions life – the colourful unreality of his fiction gave new dimensions to the agonies we know, inaccuracy giving way to an accurate portrayal of the depth of such aching. He knew that the psychic pain of depression was, in every way, physical, and the somatic distresses, illnesses and disabilities of his characters, their physical wounds and mutations, were deeply resonant. Somehow, to me, that was my way of shooting my terrible master: I read his books, I saw the person he was, I felt his pain, we cried together. I think it was his, too.

But everything swallows itself. Wallace swallowed himself, like how Mark Fisher swallowed himself, like how Nietzsche swallowed himself. But the sick, disturbed optimist in me points still to the enduring resonance of his work as proof that he will never be really gone. He didn’t die by firearm – he didn’t need to. Little in fiction ever exists in a vacuum – fantasy books are often allegories for the real world. Slice-of-life fiction wants to recreate the warmth of real life. Thus, I don’t think it is so far-fetched to say that often, how fiction operates and acts is indistinguishable from reality, disguised forms of propaganda or self-help or critique. The radical, revolutionary refusal to put on a brave face is what touches me – that willingness to stand on the soapbox and say, ‘I’m scared,’ is what is so incredible. There are books that have left me breathless, nauseous, dizzy, often not because of the content of the book itself, but because I felt the author between the lines, and me reading this book, it feels, is like me reaching out to hold their hand and say, “I know. I get it. I understand now.”

If there is any magic in the world, it is in the attempt to understand each other. Thus emerges what seems to be the antidote to post-post-irony: radical vulnerability, once more. To dare to say ‘I love you’ and ‘I know you’ in the face of an indifferent world that is threatening to destroy us. So shoot your terrible master. Know that in this universe, little of our experiences are unique; your pain is my pain. As the world swallows itself, we shall wallow in our words and find love in such connection.

Put your pen to the paper.