My Summer Vacation: Rethinking the 5-Paragraph Essay

We’ve all had to write it. That dreaded 5-paragraph essay. That standardized, formulaic, sequential prove your point paper. In elementary school it probably started off with something along the lines of, “I went to the beach. I got ice cream. I slept under the stars. It was grand.” By middle and high school it became longer and the events included more specific details. Whoever your high school teacher was, I’m sure they scrawled onto the chalkboard this general outline:

Paragraph 1: Introduction…start with a “hook.” Your thesis is the last sentence.

Paragraph 2: Body…use transitional sentence between paragraphs…discuss theme.

Paragraph 3: Body…use transitional sentence between paragraphs…discuss theme.

Paragraph 4: Body…use transitional sentence between paragraphs…discuss theme.

Paragraph 5: Conclusion…restate thesis, reword introduction, wrap up themes…

When it comes to practicing writing conventions, this structure is…OK. It allows for an organization of ideas, gets students to think about flowing from one concept to the next, and imparts the belief that the paper must say something.

However, this model is outdated. It hinders creativity, restricts freedom of thought, and disregards the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge. It suggests that one’s story can be molded into a fixed structure, which is linear on paper…point A to point B.

Over the past few years I have come to realize that such narratives are not so easily defined. While storytelling does have a general format (a beginning, middle, and end), the synthesis that emerges from that story is selective in its discernment. The easiest way to think about this structure is the typical campfire tale wherein the storyteller emphasizes specific points of interest. She will use her arms and body movement as social cues in order to elicit a response (i.e. raising her eyebrows following a can you believe that remark). She will lower or raise her voice at certain twists and turns. She will engage the audience.

While the storyteller believes she knows the “message” that will be imparted upon the listener, she can never be sure. This is because the listener comes to the campfire as a person whose past experiences have contributed to the collective conscience that creates meaning. Two listeners can  hear the exact same story and leave with different impressions, illustrating one of the fundamental assets of art: it’s up for interpretation.

This active involvement between the teller and listener is largely absent from the 5-paragraph essay model. Why? The authorial voice usually reads as monotone, the sentences seem forced, and the appeal is drab. This is the essay you are forced to write and the essay you are forced to read. Your eyes scan the lines because they must, not because they are enthralled, and you are therefore not invested in discovering the story’s meaning for yourself.

So, how can we make this model work?

First, we have to get personal. To get personal we need details and the details must come from the quirky aspects that make the story and its teller unique. Let’s take for example the elementary mindset regarding that coveted summer vacation. When the teacher asks the class to think about their summer, the students will immediately go to the hyped-up events that made it so distinct. This is a good starting point, but the writer has to be cautious about not seeing the forest for the trees. It is not enough to say “Going to the beach was a highlight of my summer, because I like swimming.” We have to dig into the details and the deeper meaning. To do this, we must recreate that scene. The easiest way to make use of this is through asking questions via visualization. What was I wearing? How did the sun look against the surfboards on the water? What did the air smell like? Who did I go with?

It is usually easy enough to recreate the scene, but the tricky part is knowing which details are essential to the story. This requires an intuitive ability to sort through information in order to successfully impart that deeper message to the reader.

So…what does all of this have to do with everyday grace? It was Socrates who once acknowledged, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I believe that how we see our lives is how we live our lives. If we see our lives as the structured, formulaic, sequential prove your point paper, then we will be forever preoccupied with those restrictive definitions. We will set off in search of a linear path, instead of understanding that meaning comes from the details and the details are not always laid out in front of us like pieces on a game board.

Everyday grace insists that things that are seemingly unrelated are usually much more connected than first impressions might lead us to think. To demonstrate this concept, I have made a short video alternative to a 5-paragraph essay about my summer vacation in which I juxtapose tranquil, nature scenes with scenes from loud, human interaction. This was a central (to use the high school term) “theme” from my summer, as I would spend nine days at a time in the backcountry and then five days in the city. You can watch it below.

How does this video make you feel? Can you relate to it? What are some of the opposite ideas presented? Do they have a connection, even if they seem divergent? Take for example the movement of the dancers in Portland and the movement of the children on the rides at the county fair. Compare that with the deer moving up the hillside and the rushing noise from the waterfalls. What details are most important?

Remember Socrates…the unexamined life is not worth living.