About two and a half years ago, I took a job teaching expository writing to freshmen at Rutgers University. Initially, I had taken the job out of desperation; I needed money and was unable to find any adjunct teaching in theater departments anywhere in the city. An hour into the first training session, as I sat in the middle of a large group of English MA and PhD candidates and recent grads, a thought started to nag at me: You have no idea how to write a good essay. When we broke out into smaller groups, everyone introduced themselves and I stuttered a bit before telling the group that I had a masters degree in playwriting. You have no idea how to write a good essay. We read examples of student work, everyone arriving at a consensus about what grade to assign various papers. You have no idea how to write a good essay. References to The New Yorker were endlessly tossed around, pontifications about secondary theses, debates about paragraph organization, references to grammar terms that I hadn't heard since I was in the eighth grade. Dear God, what's the difference between a gerund and a participle? YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO WRITE A GOOD ESSAY.
The first day of teaching, I gave my students a preliminary assignment to complete in class so I could get an idea of their writing, some benign prompt about what they hoped to accomplish throughout the term, how they hoped to improve their writing. On the train home, I pulled out their assignments and began to read: "I believe that there are many aspects to writing. I think I am good at many of these aspects, but I think it is good to improve on these aspects. I am a good student. In conclusion, my goal for this class is to improve on aspects of writing for myself for essays."
After reading the first couple, I had a revelation. I had been thinking that teaching this class would be a process of me desperately teaching myself how to write essays while simultaneously trying to teach the same thing to these students. But at that moment, I realized that I wasn't just teaching them how to write good essays, I was teaching them how to think. I was teaching them to come up with original ideas, giving them the ability to have an independent thought and put that thought into words on paper. In many ways, writing a good essay is almost exactly like writing a good play—it takes original ideas, development, complication, revelation. Perhaps most importantly, it takes the ability to treat your subject with respect and a lack of judgment. It takes empathy.
About two weeks later, I started taking notes during my train ride on a play about connection and empathy, a play that would eventually grow into The Whale. In many ways, the main conflict in the play grew directly out of my interactions with freshmen at Rutgers. Though the story of The Whale is fundamentally a story of a father trying to reconnect with a daughter, he's doing so by trying to teach her how to write a good essay. But in teaching her how to write a good essay, he's trying to teach her how to think independently and how to relate to other people. Ultimately, he's teaching her how to have empathy.
There are many elements that circle around the story in The Whale—morbid obesity, Mormonism, small-town America, etc.—but ultimately the play grew out of this struggle to teach independent thought and empathy. Though much of the play is dark, like many a dark day of teaching I had in New Jersey two years ago, the hope in the play is the same hope I felt during some infrequent but amazing moments when reading an essay from an apathetic college freshman. Moments in which, for one shining second, I was reading something that was profound, true and original. They were moments of naked sincerity that would strike like lightning and then, like the moments of empathy from the college freshman character in The Whale, disappeared as quickly as they came, leaving me with the lingering sense that somehow, in some way, I had taught someone how to write a good essay.
This piece was originally written for the New York premiere of The Whale at Playwrights Horizons.