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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