Make Your Own A Few Words About Breasts Assignment

Ephron in the early 1970s, when "A Few Words About Breasts" was published.

Ephron in the early 1970s, when “A Few Words About Breasts” was published.

This assignment comes after re-reading “A Few Words About Breasts,” a Nora Ephron essay that seemed to be included in every essay anthology, coming up in college and then as a teacher. While I thought the essay was good, I held it at some distance. I was male, first off, and didn’t think the essay would register with me, and then it seemed to be too obvious a choice to assign my students.

Then Ephron passed away, and I read “A Few Words About Breasts” again in what seemed to be 15 minutes. I was blown away by how great it was. It has everything I treasure about the personal essay. It’s provocative, for one–even 42 years after it’s first publication in Esquire magazine, the title pops off the page. It goes off on tangents: from the very first line, it up-ends reader’s expectations. It uses cultural touchstones, personal anecdote, and, most of all, it addresses how much weight we put on our formative experiences, no matter how illogical. Instead of just confessing an obsession, it honors them, sticks up for them, defends them.

It’s just so, so good.

I couldn’t help trying to write something like it, to look at the structure, and see if students could do the same.

First, select a term or specific object, preferably a body part.

Whatever you choose, you need to be obsessed by this subject, the more irrational the obsession the better. Eyebrows? Toilet paper? Biceps?

Use this term/object to fill in the blank for your title, which will be the following: A Few Words About _______.

Ephron’s title alone reflects at least two classic conventions that I can think of. It centers around a single word or idea: Breasts. It has, or purports to have, an explanatory title. There are many classic essay titling conventions: “In Defense of [Blank].” “On Being [Blank].” “I Was a Teenage [Blank].” And, the OG of them all, “On [Blank].” What all of these have in common is it introduces the essay’s subject, term, or object, right off the bat. For Ephron’s title, there’s another effect: modesty. Just a few words, Ephron promises. I won’t take too much of your time.

Also: incompleteness. This essay will not be the final word on breasts. It’s just, modestly, a few. So keep in mind, or take heart that, your essay won’t be the last word on your subject.

Picture2 Jane RussellGive your term/object some history and context.

Cultural touchstones and shorthand work really well here. You’ll likely need to research to jog your memory and ours.

Ephron, being a master, accomplishes a lot with one sentence and two sentence fragments:

It was the 1950s, for God’s sake. Jane Russell. Cashmere sweaters.

She knows her audience will know who Jane Russell, she of the  over-stuffed cashmere sweaters, ranks as a touchstone for her readers.

If your subject is “boys,” for example, what did “boys” mean in the personal anecdotes you are recounting from 2001? 2010?

Each time period sheds its own specific light, if you dig deep enough.

Picture April Love

Write (at least) two personal anecdotes.

Keep them short, and don’t worry about relating them to your subject, at least at first. Ephron includes one girl and one boy. Well, two boys, or one boy’s crazy mother.

The girl is Diana Raskob, who develops breasts over the course of a summer. Preceding that, however, is a portrayal of how Ephron and Raskob would snack on munchies for hours on end. (I have this hunch that this pre-pubescent portrayal addresses androgyny, but I might be over-reading.)

Anyway, the details in that story offers more historical context: Seventeen magazine, Bar-B-Q potato chips, Sorry and Parchesi games, Beverly Hills.

The boy is Buster Klepper, and if he’s the subject of one of the greatest opening sentences of an essay section you’ll ever read: “Buster Klepper was the first boy who ever touched them.”

Here we have the reference to April Love, a Pat Boone movie–more opportunity for history and context, as well as humor. I mean, look at the poster.

Picture2 Mark EdenInclude a list.

Here’s Ephron’s.

Here are some things I did to help:
Bought a Mark Eden Bust Developer.
Slept on my back for four years.
Splashed cold water on them every ·night because some French actress said in Life magazine that that was what she did for her perfect bustline.

Notice how we know what “help” means by the time we get to the list. She means “help make her breasts bigger.”

The paragraphs that follow that list, related to the items, add to the idea that Ephron really worked on this problem, obsessed over it.

Give your list a specific purpose–don’t just have them be related to your object. If you truly are obsessed over your subject, you should have no problem with this.

Picture2 Esquire 1972

This is the issue of Esquire where Ephron’s essay was first published.

At some point, you will need pick another subject to write about, one that is related to the one in your title, but, ideally, not obviously so. Start with that.

In Ephron’s essay it’s “androgyny.” In an essay that promises to be “about breasts,” for Ephron to start with

“I have to begin with a few words about androgyny”

That’s tantamount to writer suicide, at least in the context of a men’s magazine article.

I like to think of those readers, mostly male, in 1972, looking at the table of contents, interest piqued by the title, then turning to read about … androgyny?

In a way, Ephron has tricked her readers into reading a true essay, instead of a straightforward article about breasts, breasts, breasts.

Confess or explain how your irrational obsession with this subject continues. 

Ephron’s phrase, “And even now,” begins this passage. It’s informal, it’s explicit, it presents many of the reasons why Ephron should let go of the obsession, and then says: not a chance.

You probably think I am crazy to go on like this: here I have set out to write confession that is meant to hit you with the shock of recognition and instead you are sitting there thinking I am thoroughly warped. Well, what can I tell you? If I had had them, I would have been a completely different person. I honestly believe that.

What order should you have these sections or subjects? That’s up to you. One philosophy I have is to try to imitate as close as possible on the first draft. That might not work for you–you might think it’s too color by the numbers, which is fine. But if you want to try, here’s an outline I made for myself:

1. Androgyny/Grammar School
2. Breasts “for most girls”/50s’and Jane Russell/Cramps
3. The First Period
4. The First Bra (28AA)
5. Libby and “Intercourse”
6. Diana Raskob and Junk Food
7. The next September/Diana’s development
“A Few Words About Breasts”: An Outline
8. “Some things I did to help” list
9. Padded Bras
10. “And the bathing suits”
11. Buster Klepper
12. Necking with Buster
13. Breaking up with Buster/”April Love” Pat Boone/Coming back
14. The all-italics flashback scene with mother of boyfriend
15. Reflection on the scene (“This is a true story”)/segue into other women
16. “As for men”
17. “And even now”—
18. Therapy and friends
19. “I think they are full of shit”

More Reading

I found reading “Why’s this so good?” No. 56: Nora Ephron and the thing about breasts” by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Wesley Morris really helpful and inspirational in trying to figure out Ephron’s genius.

Tracy Young’s “A Few More Words About Breasts,” [pdf]written in 1992, commemorates the essay’s influence twenty years on.

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Assignment Choices for English 105

Handout_Ballot Template

Here are your choices for your first assignment. Come to class on Thursday, August 28 with your choice.

Immersion Writing
The Worst Song I Ever Loved
Ridiculous Argument
Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

Also: look over this getting started exercise, the Metaphor Quiz.

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Week-by-Week Class Plan for WRT 563: Nonfiction Writing: Theory and Practice

WRT 563: Nonfiction Writing: Theory and Practice
Section E1, Course #2255, The College of Saint Rose
Fall 2014, Thursdays 6:15pm-8:55pm, Albertus 301
Daniel Nester, Instructor
E-mail: daniel [dot] nester [at] strose [dot] edu
Phone: 518-454-2812
Teaching Blog:
Office: Dolan Hall, 442 Western Avenue, First Floor #1
Office hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays 3:00pm-4:00pm and by appointment

Under construction now, and updated often during course of semester.

Week 1

Syllabus; choose assignments (Ephron, Sontag, or Didion)

Week 2: September 4

Make Your Own “A Few Words About Breasts” AssignmentRead: Ephron, “A Few Words About Breasts”; Young, Tracy “A Few (More) Words About Breasts”; Lecture on Ephron (PowerPoint with sound or Windows Media Video .wmv)

Week 3: September 11

Make Your Own Notes on “Camp” Assignment;

From Essayists on the Essay: Aldous Huxley, “From the Preface to Collected Essays” (88); Michael Hamburger, “An Essay on the Essay” (91);  Cynthia Ozick, “She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body” (162)

Week 4: September 18


Week 5

Week 6

Week 7

Week 8

Week 9

Week 10

Week 11

Week 12

Week 13

Week 14

Week 15

Week 16

Week 17

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Week-by-Week Class Plan for English 105: Expository Writing, Oral Communication, and Research

English 105: Expository Writing, Oral Communication, and Research
Section E5, Course #1509, The College of Saint Rose
Fall 2014, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 4:15-6:00pm, Albertus Hall 112
Daniel Nester, Associate Professor of English, Instructor
E-mail: daniel [dot] nester [at] strose [dot] edu
Phone: 518-454-2812
Teaching Blog:
Office: Dolan Hall, 442 Western Avenue, First Floor #1
Office hours: Tuesday and Thursdays 3-4pm and by appointment

[under construction]

Week 1: August 28 and 30

Go over syllabus, introductions. Choices for first assignment. Pick an assignment and get start on exercise.

Your Metaphor Quiz: name your assignment LastnameFirstnameMetaphor and put it in your folder by Saturday, August 30, 11:59pm.
Things to include/specifications:
– You should write at least 300 words.
– You should have one sentence that uses a comma and a coordinating conjunction, as we went over in class.

Week 2: September 1 and 3

Lecture on Style Guides. Please view the Lecture on Style Guides in our folder. I went over a lot of this in class, but some of it I did not. It’s a Powerpoint with recorded narrations, so you will have to go to Slide Show > From Beginning. I also saved it as a video file. Let me know before next class if you have trouble viewing or hearing this.
Readings. In our shared Dropbox folder (“01 ENG 105 Readings and Class Materials”), you will see four short readings, all of which are immersion writing pieces. Please read them for Tuesday, September 2, so we can talk a bit about what your final products might look like.
Your Immersion Pitch. For Tuesday, September 2, you will all come up to the front of the class to pitch your immersion idea. This only needs to be 1-2 minutes, but you do need to be prepared.
Week 3: : September 9 and 11

Saturday, September 6: Pre-writing, notes, and rough drafts of your Immersion Writing Assignment; name document LastnameFirstnameImmersionPreWriting and place in your Dropbox by 11:59pm. Include 1. An explanation of your immersion stunt/experiment; 2. History of, or behind, or surrounding your immersion stunt/experiment; 3. An explanation of your news peg

In class, we’ll talk about Ledes/Leads.

Week 4: September 16 and 18

Saturday, September 13: Rough drafts of your Immersion Writing Assignment; name document LastnameFirstnameImmersionRoughDraft and place in your Dropbox by 11:59pm.

Week 5: September 23 and 25


Week 6: : September 30 and October 2


Week 7 : October 9 and 11

Week 8

Week 9

Week 10

Week 11

Week 12

Week 13

Week 14

Week 15

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Essay Title Conventions: Some Ideas

The list below reflects some classic essay-naming tropes. Fill in the blank with your own, specific object, term, or idea, and you might end up with a title for your essay.

Against ___________

What We Talk About When We Talk About ___________

On Being a ___________

I Was a Teenage ___________

___________ and Me

Notes On ___________

Death of a ___________

Confessions of a ___________

Variations on ___________

A Few Words About ___________

Consider the ___________

The ___________ Variations

___________: An Essay

___________: Some Thoughts

Some Notes on ___________

Field Notes on ___________

Meditations on ___________

The Art of ___________

The World According to ___________

___________: A Look Back

The Rules of ___________


You might get some ideas here.



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Handing in Work, Naming Files (All-Online Class)

1. All work is to be emailed by the deadline directly to your instructor (that’s me). You must send your work in from your Saint Rose email address to the instructor’s email address. Any work sent from another email address will not be accepted.[1]  In face-to-face classes, students usually upload to a Dropbox folder. I require sending work over email in my online classes because I need to verify it’s really the student who is handing in work.

2. All files must be either Microsoft Word or, if you use another word processor, Rich Text Format (RTF). If you use some other word processing program, find out how to save your files as RTFs before the first assignment is handed in.

3. We also name our files and email subject lines very specifically. This is a good practice to get into for other classes as well as your post-college, professional life. Safe to say, if your instructor got 18 files names “essay 2,” it would drive him crazy! Seriously: you need adhere to the file-naming convention described here. I won’t accept your work if you don’t.

Here’s how you name your files.

Begin your file name with your last name, followed by your first, followed by the assignment’s name.


Make sure you put your Last Name first, so I can alphabetize the assignments. The Name of the Assignment is usually one agreed upon in class or one I email to you.

For example, if a student named Jane Doe sends along her first draft of her persuasive essay, and we agreed in class to call the assignment “RoughDraft1Persuasive,” Jane Doe would name her file like so:


To: nester[at]

From: doej12345[at]stose.edy

Subject: DoeJaneRoughDraft1Persuasive

….and attach the file.



[1] The purpose of this college email-only policy is to ensure that The College of Saint Rose operates in compliance with the provisions of the United States Federal Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) concerning the verification of student identity in distance education. All credit-bearing courses and programs offered through distance education methods must verify that the student who registers for a distance education course or program is the same student who participates in and completes the course or program and receives academic credit. According to the HEOA, one or more of the following methods must be used:

a) An individual secure login and password issued by the College
b) Proctored examinations, and/or
c) Other technologies or practices that are effective in verifying student identification.


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Freewriting for Your First Personal Essay

Directions: Here below is a list of writing tasks to do in advance of writing your first personal essay. Please write as much as you can but not more than is needed.

1. Write a list of your 25 favorite words. Just list them. No need for an explanation, unless you want to write one. Make a Wordle of your Facebook posts, or a Word Cloud of your Tweets.

1a. Pick one of those words and write about it: tell us the first time you remember thinking of that word as one of your favorites, or tell us a story where that word became important for you, or tell us why the word is beautiful or significant in your life. Be specific. Try to avoid general statements. Try to make it to at least 500 words.

2. Make a list of “25 random things about me.” This was a popular thing for people to write on Facebook and blogs, and it lives on in celebrity magazines. For examples, Google “25 random things about me” or just “random things about me.”

2a. Pick one of these random things—maybe it’s the one that most surprised you when you write the list, or maybe it’s the one that needs that most explanation—and write about a person, thing, or memory connected with that random thing. Try to make it at least 500 words.

3. Make a list of 10 things of which you’re a master. Include talents, skills, hobbies, qualities of character. Examples: Washing a car. Making hot salsa. Building a campfires. Getting free drinks. Writing thank you notes. Collecting old records. Procrastinating. Changing a diaper.

3a. Pick one of the things from #3 and write about a person connected with this mastery. Maybe it’s the person who taught you how to do it, someone you’ve done it for, or someone who discouraged you from doing it. Include details that capture the person’s personality or mannerisms.

Name the document LastnameFirstnameFreewrite1 and email to me by Thursday, May  22, at 11:59pm.



#3 and #3a From Sherry Simpson’s “Tiny Masters: An Artful Trick to Writing the Personal Essay”

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