Essays

     The average person, on hearing the word "essay," has good reason to cringe.  (I don't mean wince, I mean cringe--curl up in a fetal knot.)  It's a damn shame.
     How do most of us encounter the “essay?”  Usually in school.  Write a five-hundred word essay on . . .  Which is a deadly recipe.  You’re forced to crank out five paragraphs on something you could care less about (while Julie Amis sits nearby, in a tank top that might as well be Saran Wrap).  The best writing proceeds from the heart.  Write five hundred words ... might be a useful exercise if the topic were: the first time you got in trouble bad enough that you made a bargain with God—especially if you’d never talked to God before.
     Also, the term "essay" continues to be associated with long-dead, 19th-century writers: men with three names (James Nathaniel Donaldson, or some such), stately, white-haired New Englanders writing something like “On Civility,” usually an interminable and withering eight-page cure for insomnia.   They might rattle on for 1 ½ pages about a lovely view of the Hudson River valley as the leaves change in autumn.
     To be fair, those 19th-century writers did fine work; that’s why it survives.  But their work is mostly unreadable today.  Who’s got time for it? —I gotta check my email.  English classes force-feed old writing with all the appeal of the tripe and cold porridge people ate when it was written.  Save it for dedicated students of literary history -- or at least, mix it in even measure with current material.  Virtually everything we study was written, in its time, for a contemporary audience.  Topics, ideas, style and voice were all in the style of the time.  (If Shakespeare wrote his plays today, they'd look and sound like Woody Allen movies.)
     To be read, you've got to write in a current voice, pace, and style.

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    For a current essay, read "Who Shot Johnny?" by Harvard law school-grad Debra Dickerson, about her nephew who was shot in the back.  Find out why her last paragraph begins with, "Fuck you, asshole. . . . "  You can find "Who Shot Johnny?" in America's Best Essays 1997.  (A new issue comes out each fall.)  Or, on a lighter note but ultimately no less serious, Roy C. Blount's "First Tell Me What Kind of Reader You Are" in the same collection (1997).
    An essay is a writer's mind -- and heart -- at work on something.  Today's essayist rarely tell you what to think.  Instead, they examine life and leave the thinking, the conclusions, to you, the reader.  Sometimes the stories are light, warm, funny; sometimes intense, agonizing; sometimes profoundly moving.  A "personal essay" begins with the raw material of firsthand experience and finds something in it that “transcends” the personal, to make the experience matter to the reader.
   The word "essay" comes from the French word "essai," a verb meaning "to try."  Often the writer has a thought or a topic, maybe an idea that won't leave him or her alone, so he/she examines it, looks at if from several angles; the writer "tries" the idea.  One writer said of the essay, "the writer takes an idea for a walk."
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    So, I write essays that are idea-driven.  Idea-driven, but the reader decides the final destination.

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