Below is a note I wrote to my students about the next kind of essay we want to write. I think my students have been writing wonderful essays–I have certainly enjoyed reading them. If you read some of the samples I have linked to in my extended description, you will see why.
This has been a wonderful class—forming a close community of writers. I have been thinking that my job is to create conditions for students to do the best writing they can do—and that clearly involves having them write about something that drives each one of them, something they are clearly passionate about. Several of them have written about the link between passion and writing (and what happens when there is none).
Here is my description of the reflective essay:
Many people have wondered what this kind of essay is like. People have tried to define “the essay” (by which they meant the reflective essay). It has a long history, beginning in the late 16th century with a French physician named Montaigne. The best definition I have heard was by the writer Aldous Huxley when describing Montaigne’s essays: They’re just “one damned thing after another.” (Huxley [one of our great writers], by the way, was plagiarizing. Some sixty years earlier, Mark Twain defined life as “just one damned thing after another.” And then Toynbee, a contemporary of Huxley, said that “history is just one damned thing after another.” Apparently, quite a bit is just one damned thing after another.
A more extended description:
This kind of essay mirrors the journey of the mind as the writer thinks through writing about a particular subject. The essay might begin with the writer recalling a particular incident the way Karen
remembered when she couldn’t make it up the hill. The incident provides an occasion for reflection, as the writer thinks about the incident and follows her thoughts, wherever they lead. The writer doesn’t wander without purpose, but she might seem to be wandering in her thoughts—this is the journey. If she is lucky she will discover at the end of the journey something she didn’t know when she began.
Many of you have been doing this kind of writing without knowing it. Think of Zoe’s
deciding to follow a different path, although she has no idea where it will take her (kind of like a reflective essay), of Rachel’s
, of Abbey’s about Tommy
, of Kayla’s about death
. I could refer to many of your essays where you have gone deep in your thinking. I think the essential characteristic of this kind of writing is a willingness to think through writing and to travel without knowing where you are going; but at the end of the journey, you seem to have realized what it all meant. This might be like life.