by Micah McCrary
Essaying about essays is, inevitably, a gut-wrenching and tergiversating process. A stroll or jaunt in some park or through some field of thought, bringing one back to an idea or nugget of understanding just a bit more glossed over than when one had begun. It’s a process upon processes, meta in every respect, certainly defining of what essaying as activity is. Essays are thus a byproduct rather than an objective, and those who essay, and especially those who essay upon essays, are wont to find strange surprises in the spheres of text, image, and thought.
To essay is to succumb to happy accidents. It is to find rich meaning in personal, thematic, or topical exploration. It is to meditate. It is to extrapolate. It is to examine carefully with a surgeon’s precision the significance of large and small things, and through this examination ask questions (Rilke’s most beloved of pastimes) one could not, and would not ask were they not essaying. To essay is all these things, no more than writing poetry as exhibition and writing fiction as adventure.
Scholars of the essay will no doubt follow the lead of its father, Michel de Montaigne, who defined essaying through the French verb essayer, meaning “to try” or “to attempt,” and embark on these endeavors with an adept curiosity about essayistic decorum. These scholars will no doubt both create and question ambiguous definition set against certainty—while we know and have known what the essay is not, we often discourse on what the essay is.
What’s appropriate when writing the essay? Do we stick with the Montaignan form of organic writing on a particular subject (even using the self as a subject) and allow our thoughts to visibly grow on the page as this subject is explored? Do we emulate the styles of contemporary essayists like Lia Purpura, Anne Carson, or Maggie Nelson? Do we take an academic stance, telling our reader this is what I’m going to show you and add creative, edgy spins? Do we treat the essay as a blending of prose and poetry? Do we treat the essay as technical evaluation and inspection? The answer, as it stands today, is all of these. We treat the essay as both art and craft, and we never for a second allow ourselves to forget that its versatility is not one found in any other form of writing we’ve created. We’ve adroitly engineered the essay to be its own species.
Robert Atwan categorizes essays as “personal, informative, and argumentative,” surely for clarity of explanation to those unfamiliar with the distinction of essay types. We’re taught first to write the five paragraph essay beginning with an introductory paragraph, a body of text exploring our topic, and a concluding paragraph restating our most important points. Later on we’re shown how to stretch five paragraphs to five pages, adding citations from writers who’ve written something similar or related to our own essays and incorporating their words with ours. And then, if we’ve gone the so-called creative writing route, we begin to think meditatively on form and content and how they instruct one another—does this essay need to be written in block paragraphs? Can I use a footnote as the text and not as the supplement?1 Should an essay on lightning be written in quick, jolting sentences?—and begin to play around with essaying as process in an organic, developmental fashion. L’essay est l’enfant—and it requires patience and time to watch it grow into a fully-formed, mature body.
Essays instruct. Through Woolf we know better how to enjoy solitude in a room of our own, through Walter Benjamin the noticeable differences between speech and thought, and through Roland Barthes that the reading of a text can be both sensual and sensuous (“the whole effort consists in materializing the pleasure of the text, in making the text an object of pleasure like the others.”) Even William Hazlitt noted that “the proper study of mankind is man,” and by man studying man through the essay we’ve both instructed and been instructed on how to do a great many things. It’s not without proper examination that we can accurately note our triumphs and follies.
We claim with alacrity that essays are sometimes poetry, and that even the craft of fiction writing is part and parcel of essaying. The essay is a dress with pockets, a seamless blend of style and function that forces us to be discursive about what does and does not qualify as essay, our opinions based mostly on the thoughts of scholars before us and partially on those of our contemporaries. It’s 2012, and proponents of the “next” American essay like Anne Carson and Carole Maso will aid in supplementing the definition of essay (as a body of writing) as new forms continue to be invented and explored. David Shields compiled Reality Hunger wishing for it to be a companion to internet research, and I for one wait for someone to jump on his train of thought with the hypertextual essay—the click-through essay, if you will—as we move further into a digital world that values all types of innovation. It’s no longer required that one be Montaignan to be an essayist, and the essays of 2013 and 2014 may very well be written with the touchscreen in mind. What happens to our level of stimulation when those of us who enjoyed choose your own adventure novels as children are now given the option of a choose your own footnote essay? Intrigue.
While articles, essays’ cousins, are rooted in the Latin artus (joint) and require timely topics, essais (attempts) adhere to their semantic roots, remaining exploratory from the very beginnings of Montaigne asking “Que sais-je?” (What do I know?), for what do we know? How are we both knower and known? How do we broaden this to connect with readers and show that we are not merely diarists? Part of what reinforces Montaigne’s greatness, and what separates him and his essays from today’s commercial memoirists, it should be noted, is that he does not pontificate. “The worthiest essays are ventures into the unknown,” writes Scott Russell Sanders, “from which we return bearing fresh insights and delights.” Montaigne incessantly and relentlessly ventures into the unknown, failing completely to lecture on the page as if of utmost authority. The essay, Montaignan or not, does not generally move into textual lecturing, does not become self-righteous, and does not budge from its original humble professorship or lose its ability to examine the quotidian with a careful eye. The essay is and should continue to be microscopic, telescopic, and macroscopic all at once, possessing an infinite understanding within finite space and able to examine either a nail or a war, willing to defend itself against any scrutiny. The essay should maintain its power with virility and ardor.
In “Soul and Form” (1910), Georg Lukacs writes that the essay “is a judgement, but the essential, the value-determining thing about it is not the verdict (as is the case with the system) but the process of judging.” We can, if we wish, judge the efficacy of a file (Fabio Morabito’s “File and Sandpaper”) or the ethics of photographing war victims (Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Torture of Others”), but the point is not the judging itself—the point is how we reach for these judgments through a process of wandering thought on the page. In what other media do writers visibly jump from one thought to the next as a question begs another?
It’s this question-begging that gives the essay its uniqueness. In a discipline where writing and inquiry can instruct one another, even enhance one another, the essay stands out as an adaptable form that other methods of writing haven’t yet achieved. Close second: Milan Kundera and his interweaving of fictional story with historical explication—The Unbearable Lightness of Being, along with novelsImmortality, Ignorance, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, etc. are all what one may call transgeneric work. Is Kundera, then, at heart an essayist essaying through story? Are The Curtain, Testaments Betrayed and his recent Encounter his joies de vivre and his novel-writing merely pastime? Is he, like Woolf or Anne Carson or Maggie Nelson, expressing the interests of the next (un)American essayist, willing to dabble everywhere to find an individual truth?
The essay has never needed to fit in anywhere.
And “bad essays are just as conformist as bad dissertations,” writes Theodor Adorno, who knew that a bad essay, like a too-complaisant child, would fail to explore. “The bad essay tells stories about people instead of elucidating the matter at hand,” he says, and he is right. Though there’s no consternation at the thought of essays as narrative (as many, many essays are narrative), the worst ones do not reach in and pull something out for us to embrace with our curiosity. For the essay to remain in good standing, narrative or not, it must use its power of autonomy (in genre, form, function, etc.) to inspire thought. And more importantly, to inspire interest.
Many times we wonder, when scribing nonfiction, why the work should be regarded by anyone other than the author him/herself. We ask our Composition students to figure out why their stories or their topics are important. We prod memoirists for the inspirations behind their writing. We look so deeply, critically, skeptically at the importance of the nonfiction genre that it has become almost taboo to be labeled purely as an essayist. Memoirs sell better than essay collections because we hoard what we believe should be authentic in a world with so much inauthenticity thrown in our direction—talk shows, celebrities who are celebrities because they’re fools, nationalist politicians—yet we scrutinize the stories we hear and immediately regard them as untrue until they’re verified. As stated, again, by Scott Russell Sanders:
We are a question-asking animal. That is our burden and our glory. It’s a burden because, unlike creatures governed entirely by instinct, we puzzle over how to behave, we wonder about where we’ve come from and where we’re going and what, if anything, the journey means. The inveterate questioning is also our glory because it leads to our finest achievements—to all the ways we ponder and praise this life, this universe, into which we’ve been so mysteriously born.
It’s this mysterious birth that is constantly, with vigor, sought by essayists through time and around the globe.
“The essay,” writes Adorno, “presses for the reciprocal interaction of its concepts in the process of intellectual experience.” This reciprocity, entreated by both the reader and the writer of the essay, is not something that is asked for by other genres. It is never so implored that both reader and writer explore new thoughts as it is in the essay, and for this reason essayists can and should find topics about which our interests may be piqued. Patrick Madden’s Quotidiana, for example, not only explores issues outside the self but literally focuses on the quotidian, and does it so fascinatingly that both reader and writer have a sense of engagement with the text that’s unique to the essay form itself. The writer is engaged in expansion, and the reader is engaged in the writer’s process of discovery. To add with Phillip Lopate:
The essayist attempts to surround a something—a subject, a mood, a problematicirritation—by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the heart of the matter.
This is why the essay has been, for me, the “realest” form of writing: because of the way it equates itself with memory and cognition. The essay is about coming to terms with oneself and one’s audience honestly, and to see this unfold reveals the palpable magic of the essay—as a reader, it’s great to see an author’s mind unfold on the page.
But it’s also great to be that author. And that’s why I write essays.
So often do essays become digressions. More than seemingly, essayists enter into a spiral of thought always unexpected by the reader and hopefully unexpected by the writer him/herself. Essays are sometimes digressive, as even Montaigne stated in his “Of the inconsistency of our actions”:
If I speak of myself in different ways, that is because I look at myself in different ways. All contradictions may be found in me by some twist and in some fashion. Beautiful, insolent; chaste, lascivious; talkative, taciturn; tough, delicate; clever, stupid; surly, affable; lying, truthful; learned, ignorant; liberal, miserly, and prodigal: all this I see in myself to some extent according to how I turn; and whoever studies himself really finds in himself, yes, even in his judgment, this gyration and discord. I have nothing to say about myself absolutely, simply, and solidly, without confusion and without mixture, or in one word.
This gyration and discord, this digressive spiral, is a sure result of the writer’s essaying, of his attempts at self-understanding. It is exactly as Lukacs has said: “Ever since there has been life and men have sought to understand and order life, there has been this duality in their lived experience.” In other words, one is sure to emulate Picasso when painting themselves honestly.
What do other essayists think about the essay? Where does their trouble and questioning begin? A few examples:
An essay, for me, must go past the facts, an essay must travel and move. Even the facts of the essayist’s own history, the personal memoir, are insufficient alone. The facts of personal history provide anchor, but the essayist then swings in a wide arc on his anchor line, testing and pulling hard. (Alan Lightman, “The Ideal Essay”)
“The elements in any nonfiction should be true not only artistically—theconnections must hold at base and must be veracious, for that is the convention and the covenant between the nonfiction writer and his reader.” (Annie Dillard, “Essays and the Real World”)
“…in the most brilliant essays, language is not merely the medium of communication; it is communication.” (Joyce Carol Oates, “The Memorable Essay”)
Just a few more:
“Essay writing is about transcribing the often convoluted process of thought, leaving your own brand of breadcrumbs in the forest so that those who want can find their way to your door.” (Lauren Slater, “Why Essays Can Confuse People”)
It is not only that the essay could be about anything. It usually was. The good health of essay writing depends on writers continuing to address eccentric subjects. In contrast to poetry and fiction, the nature of the essay is diversity— diversity of level, subject, tone, diction. Essays on being old and falling in love and the nature of poetry are still being written. And there are also essays on Rita Hayworth’s zipper and Mickey Mouse’s ears. (Susan Sontag, “The Essay’s Diversity”)
So we see that in the roughly four hundred years that essays have been written, change has occurred and various foci have been suggested to keep the essay’s vitality fresh, to be sure that as methods and processes change the fact that we are essaying does not. Essayists on the essay seem to agree on a few values that the essay must possess no matter the type of essay: the essay must remain versatile, the essay must act as a conversation, and the essay must be inventive:
An essay is a thing of the imagination. If there is information in an essay, it is by- the-by, and if there is an opinion in it, you need not trust it for the long run. A genuine essay has no educational, polemical, or sociopolitical use; it is the movement of a free mind at play. Though it is written in prose, it is closer in kind to poetry than any other form. Like a poem, a genuine essay is made out of language and character and mood and temperament and pluck and chance. (Cynthia Ozick, “Essays and the Imagination”)
The essay, then, such a superb thing of the imagination, can “puncture the stiffness of formal discourse with language that is casual, everyday, demotic, direct,” according to Adorno, remaining a spontaneous form separate from the formality surrounding the histories of fiction and poetry. The essay has been, in effect, less formal in its form, as essayists throughout the ages have written their many variegations and called it “essay” while being questioned by those wishing to study them. Woolf liked to call her work “fiction,” writing from a specific, concentrated persona in whatever it was she authored. M.F.K. Fisher preferred not to be defined as a food writer simply because she was, rather, an essayist with a topical penchant for the gastronomical and the intricacies about it which could be written in poetic and affectionately attentive ways. But it is merely that “the essay does not make do with general concepts—even language that does not fetishize concepts cannot do without them—nor does it deal with them arbitrarily” (Adorno), and the public does not always seem to understand that the essay requires no general concept or widely spoken language that does not fetishize these concepts. The general concept is devoid of personality, and therefore lacks humanity, and the essayist must write what the essayist canpersonally write, and (s)he must write it with as much fervor as humanly possible in order to make the experience of essaying convergent with the experience of reading—that is, for the writer and reader both to make an attempt at reaching the essay’s occasion. As the essay has been established to be a conversation, its poetics must be used to lure the reader in for discourse on the matter at hand.
The truth is that essays are far too independent not to be questioned, and as the validity and verisimilitude of essay writing is placed in the interrogation room the essay will continue to draw even more attention to itself. Whether in lyric or libretto (see: Anne Carson), dissection or macroscopy, the essay’s spirit alone will not be understood empathetically by all, and because essays are so often written under the guise of an attempt, further curiosity will ensue about how essays ever manage to find their form—how can a cracked egg become a flapping bird when all it began as was a disjointed, broken possibility? It’s this possibility the essay embodies that will have the reader befuddled time and again until they’ve seen with their own eyes some kind of evolution in essay writing that acts as a shift upon a precipice.
Happy Accidents, really, are all essays are. Avoiding the polemic, the sociopolitical, helps the essay to maintain its essence and keep it whole not only in form but also in function. By this it is meant that the essay exists as a unique body, an individual and autonomous imagination. It is with deep adoration of the essay’s struggle that essayists will persevere in their efforts to keep the essay topical, confessional, exploratory, inspective. And essaying as a collaborative effort between writers who teach and learn from each other how we’re able to essay will never be an exercise in the blind leading the blind—both experts and scholars of the form are always eager, always willing to embark on this continuous path of scholarship. The essay itself, and its malleable and relentless form, will be our seasoned, veteran guide.
1 See: Jenny Boully’s The Body, Jalal Toufic’s Distracted, Robert McClure Smith’s essay The Spit: A Memoir of ’77, all of which fondle the essay as form by treating the footnote not as a note but as an essential part of the text—a mouth to the face, a navel to the belly, a member to the vulva—andreinforce the essay itself as experience and experiment in form, not merely exposition of content.
McCrary is a Graduate Student Instructor and MFA Candidate in the Nonfiction Program at Columbia College Chicago. In addition to being a regular contributor to Bookslut and Chicago-based Newcity. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in South Loop Review, The Heated Forest, and TimeOut Chicago, among other publications, and has received mention in the online edition of The New Yorker. He serves as Assistant Editor at Hotel Amerika, is a Diversifying Faculty in Illinois (DFI) Fellow and, in the summer of 2012, was a John Woods Scholar in Western Michigan University’s Prague Summer Program.