Sarah: On the Essay

I’m probably violating several protocols here, but I can’t help myself. I want to make Sarah’s essay on the essay more than just a comment on my blog. I didn’t ask her permission. Forgive me, Sarah.

There is much to comment on Sarah’s essay.  But let me focus on Sarah’s break from the “essay” as a published text and certainly anything with a certain form and key moves (like moving from the particular to the general).  Rather, as Aldous Huxley described Montaigne’s essays, the essay is one damned thing after another.  This works for blogs. (I know–I’m doing violence to Huxley’s intent . . . still . . . )

Last year I taught I course on “Style in the Essay,” a lower division elective. I was bothered by the the definite article — THE essay?! — and spent a lot of time thinking about what “essays” have been and meant through time and across cultures. I pulled out my old copy of Lopate’s *The Art of the Personal Essay* and thought about how he chose pieces from around the world and across two thousand years. Drawing on what i learned in an MFA on nonfiction writing, and what I later learned about genres as social action, I asked myself again and again, What does the essay DO? What is it that makes each of these pieces in Lopate an essay? What, if any, is the common denominator, the shared aim?

What I finally came to is that we use the label “essay” to describe personal writing about matters of public interest. Topics may range from intimate matters (Montaigne’s headaches) to highly social issues (as in Addison and Steele’s publications), but the common thread is how the writer articulates her or his subjective experience in a way that invites identification and connection from others who do not personally know the writer. (It’s the latter angle that makes some letters “essays” while others remain merely personal correspondence.)

Having reached that understanding of what “essays” have historically done, I next asked myself, “What serves this function today? Is it published essays, or something else?” I rejected published essays pretty quickly, because I don’t think they have broad public appeal (another characteristic that I think it essential to the social function I had settled on); they are a genre by and for the hyper-literate, the readers of *The New Yorker* and of literary journals.

What I finally settled on was blogs. I think blogs are the essays of today: subjective experience and perspective presented in such a way as to engage public readers, inviting them to relate, to think, even to respond. They offer writers a chance to decide whom they want to engage, in ways that academic or literary essays do not, and they ask writers to make the difficult move of presenting their own perceptions or experiences in a way that is both true to themselves and to their readers.

I think it worked — that is, I think the students learned a lot about writing and about themselves as writers, including what it is about writing that lights them up and makes them enjoy the challenges of constructing publicly effective AND personally meaningful prose.

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