Writing Essays

This was supposed to be a writer’s blog, writing about my writing and others’ writings. But other aspects of life have funnelled in – politics, feminism, visual arts. I make no apology. What brings all of these disparate parts together is actually essay writing. Blogs for me are a warm-up activity, a brain and language stretch for writing essays.

Before I write another word, I should explain that by ‘essay’ I mean creative non-fiction. What I don’t mean, for those of you who have searched #essay writing and landed here, is the formulaic student essay – that academic rag of assessment that takes all of the fun out of essay writing.

Without the structural constraints or the timeliness needed for newspaper articles or columnists’ pieces, essays can have a more varied existence. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard once said ‘The essay is, and has been, all over the map. There’s nothing you cannot do with it; no subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed.’

Annie Dillard
Annie Dillard

In some of my essays, I’ve worked within an overriding chronological story-telling, but without fictional characters to get in my way and with space for more philosophical ideas than I can get away with in fiction. With other essays, I’ve used more of a mini-collection style, with each vignette on the same theme and some indirectly answering to other vignettes. I try to not ramble in my essays. Perhaps it’s because I ramble in my journals or perhaps because I fear the work won’t get published – being mistaken for bad writing.

That reminds me of something I read a few years ago in Prospect Magazine: ‘The essay is more than an assembly of literary conventions: it ought to be an examination of the facts of the world. This has become clearer with the emergence of new technologies, which threaten to deprofessionalise one of the main historical strands of the essay, the egotistical ramble.’ (P. Hensher)

Aside from the above comment about rambling, this quote is also interesting for its inclusion of ‘facts.’ One thing I’ve learned from writing essays over the years is that while they are not fictional, their ownership of ‘facts’ or ‘truths’ is a bit slippery. I write about what I know to be factual at the time, sometimes having to rely on elusive memories that I’m aware are from my viewpoint. I choose to write about some facts and not others because this fact or that fact has been meaningful to me.

My favourite essayists have been mostly male. In part this is because men are more likely to have collections of essays published as single volumes. I’m thinking Gore Vidal and Clive James. I suspect this has its origins in the essays of the great Western philosophers. Women’s essays appear more often in anthology form along side other authors, such as the works of Rachel Carson and Margaret Atwood (underrated as an essayist).  I’ve noticed the trend too of the rare collection by a single female author being labled ‘women’s writing’ or ‘feminism.’

Well, if I’m going to buck this trend, I had better stop by rambling – I’ve exercised enough with this blog – and get on with essay writing.

 

One comment

  1. “the formulaic student essay – that academic rag of assessment that takes all of the fun out of essay writing.”

    Maybe the teaching of writing should be reformed. I used to hate to have to write about a subject that the teacher chose, at a time and place that I had no control over. (I graduated from high school before the timed essay was added to the SAT, so I never had to write a timed essay.) I produced my best writing in school when the teacher gave us the freedom to choose the topic. In my opinion, school should be more about the students’ interests than about test after test. I only started to really enjoy creative writing years after I had graduated from high school and abandoned a course of studies in engineering.

    Liked by 1 person

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