- On The Art of the Essay
“You get the sense that it’s possible simply to go through life noticing things and writing them down and that this is OK, it’s worth doing. That the seemingly insignificant things that most of us spend our days noticing are really significant, have meaning, and tell us something.”
Back in my teaching days, I would assign a much-dreaded and labored project called a “paper.” Perhaps you’ve heard of this? Perhaps you’ve written some. My students wrote many and, no matter the caliber of student, most approached them with dread.
Many of my students also labored over them, but not all.
As teacher, I both dreaded and labored, because the work of evaluating said papers was often dread-worthy and laborious in the extreme, and there was decidedly an inverse relationship between the amount of labor a student put into a paper and the amount of labor I had to put into evaluating it.
In other words, the more poorly prepared the paper, the more challenging, time-consuming, and exhausting it was for me to evaluate.
I am sure this makes sense to you.
What I realized only recently is that I never (almost never?) called these assignments “essays.” We reserved the term “essay” for a portion of a semester exam or some sort of test the students were to complete during class. We never called papers “essays.”
Now I’m wondering why. After all, the word “essay” literally means “to try.”
What if that had been the assignment? In the wisdom of retrospection, I’m thinking this would have been an excellent thing to call my students’ papers. Doing so may have relieved some of the dread and given hope to the labor. In writing, what they needed was to try. Yes: Argue, support, prove, explain. Show, tell, justify, deduce. But still, all in all, the product was to be an effort at the thing. An essay.
To try is so much more approachable than, say, to accomplish.
The essay is a time-honored literary form, coming to us from Europe in the 1500’s, when French philosopher Michel Montaigne began writing about himself.
Oneself is the subject one (presumably) knows best–but writing about oneself is not enough to make an essay. A journal entry, yes, or a diary. Or maybe even a blog or Facebook or Instagram post, in which one reveals what one is thinking, feeling, doing, has suffered, is suffering, dreams/hopes/wishes for.
There is a place for this. I believe I have named some. But these are not an essay.
True, the essay does come “from a limited or personal point of view” (thank you, Merriam-Webster); and so what we have in the essay is not poetry or fiction, but neither is it journalism.
It is, in fact, “analytic or interpretive” work, a sustained, personal reflection on an idea, a thing, even a situation. And as readers, it is something to make time for, to dig into, to read actively and also to rest in as–if you are able–you watch the writer invisibly at work.
(Did I say to watch the writer working invisibly? Why, yes. Yes I did).
Because a good essay does work a bit of magic. As with the best poetry and fiction, reading it can be a transformative experience. The essayist links together ideas such that new understanding is suddenly laid bare. And the best essayists achieve this invisibly. The reader may never see it coming, but she reaches the end with altered perspective. The writer has lined up these words and these ideas, and the reader has followed them–and suddenly: Oh, look! I see! Here we are.
Maybe that is a bit too much to ask of our high school students on the regular.
It is, perhaps, a lot to ask of anyone. Many people are made to write, to pin down their ideas and experiences with actual words on actual paper (or screen). But the essayist has a specific function. Her view and experience are doors opened on to ideas, but she must go through those doors. She cannot sit on in self-reflection but rather, using her view and experience, must go somewhere, taking her readers with her.
How is this done?
Enter Charity Singleton Craig to help us. In a work of clarity and generosity, she shows us how to write essays, how she writes them. Anyone interested in writing essays (me! you?) or in uncovering, as you read them, some of that aforementioned magic, should read her The Art of the Essay.
In brief, thorough, and honest chapters, she sketches out how it’s done, beginning–as a gentle teacher might–with the beginning. How does one know what to write about in the first place? And when we’ve decided, what do we include and what leave out? If the subject doesn’t stem entirely from memory, our experience, the dark and less-explored corners of our minds, then can we do research? Craig says yes, giving permission to ask all the questions and do all the investigating.
Because not everyone, you know, is aware of the potential essays to-hand. Sometimes we need to go find them.
Craig goes on from there. We’re helped somewhat at this point (immeasurably, really), but still we need more: how to organize ideas; how to balance those three (!) essential components: “show,” “tell,” and “explain.” This was a portion I found particularly helpful. I think I do a pretty good job of showing and an adequate one of telling, but until I read this book, I thought that explanation was anathema. Should it be? Craig: “Exposition operates in the dimension of abstract ideas, examining and analyzing information and events.” It “often sets essays apart from other types of creative nonfiction…. It’s the X factor that allows for exploration, inquiry and even counterpoint to the life circumstances, the destination, or the story being written.” It is, in other words, essential to the essay. Thank you, Ms. Craig.
More essentials follow: the value of place in an essay–which elements are necessary to set the scene; the importance — and risks– of writing about people one knows; the value of finding one’s voice (through pursuit of clarity–novel and so true!) in one’s writing.
And Craig talks us through those difficult things: self-editing, the failure of a work to meet one’s expectations, the challenges and disappointments that come in the pursuit of publication.
This book is thorough and, as I’ve said, honest. But it is most of all generous: not just because of the appendices (invitations to respond to each chapter and to practice peer review; resources for publishing options), but because, throughout the book, Craig talks about her own experience as a writer.
She writes essays. She has been published in many places. And yet she is not free from the difficulties and insecurities that writing means. She is simply willing to help others learn what she has learned–and she’s willing to draw from her own experience to teach us.
An act of generosity is, by definition, a humble one. After all, true generosity means risk–and Craig’s willingness to expose her own misconceptions, mistakes, and frustrations as a writer all work here to help others improve their writing.
And an essay, I am realizing, is also a humble thing. It intends only to try, which means recognition from the outset of the project’s ambition– which, in the case of the essay, is no small thing: the essayist invites you into her perspective and experience and then deliberately takes the back seat. This piece of work is not about her at all; it intends, rather, to be a gift. She offers her experience as a view onto ideas so that the reader can think, perceive, learn and, yes, be changed.
But to try something is also to risk. The risk of exposure, embarrassment, failure. Writing–and writing essays–implies risk. It’s inherent in the project.
But Craig thinks it’s worth it.
I do, too.
The essay, as it turns out, is for you, even if you like the word “I” as much as any other word in the English language and want to use it boldly–or, if you sometimes start writing before you know what you want to say and discover something new by the time you’ve finished. The essay is your words and your mind, lit up.
-Charity Singleton Craig, The Art of the Essay
You will love this book. Head here for details. And see below for gifts based on your order!
Order The Art of the Essay before October 1, 2019, and receive free resources to help you turn your ordinary life into extraordinary words.
LEVEL 1: Order 1 copy of The Art of the Essay and receive the free downloadable guide “How to Plan Your Personal Writing Retreat.”
LEVEL 2: Order 2-4 copies of The Art of the Essay (one for you and one for a friend?) and receive “How to Plan Your Personal Writing Retreat” plus “12 Top Writing Tips Worksheets.”
LEVEL 3: Order 5 or more copies of The Art of the Essay (one for you and one for each member of your writing group?), and in addition to receiving “How to Plan Your Personal Writing Retreat” plus “12 Top Writing Tips Worksheets,” I’ll also offer you or your writing group a one-hour video session about essay writing, help with a specific project, or just Q&A about writing essays or any other issues related to the writing life.
All of the bonus gifts will be sent on or before October 1, 2019.