My son is working on a high school English essay.
I've written several hundred essays at this point -- if you told me this would be the case when I was in high school, I'd probably have taken my own life. But the essay is an important form. Blog posts are a kind of essay, as are editorials, news analysis, and reviews. They really do have those famous parts we're taught in school: the premise, supporting arguments, conclusion, and whatnot.
My favorite essays are the funny ones: David Sedaris is an essayist; Woody Allen wrote three books of essays, Steve Martin has done quite a few, and columnists such as Dave Barry certainly have their moments. The humorous essays of SJ Perelman and Robert Benchley got me into the business in the first place; I'd hazard a guess that Thurber and Samuel Clemens got them into it. Nor is it just men: Dorothy Parker, Veronica Geng, Virginia Woolfe, Molly Ivins... many laffs to be had, and much to learn about the essay form. There are hundreds more to discover, of course.
The French have a great term for the short, light form: petites feuilles, 'little leaves.' But essays, of course, can be serious. Any time there's a single point to be made, requiring more examination than an epigram but less explanation than a monograph, there's your essay.
Here's why I recommend writing them: no other form sharpens up 'getting to the point' quite as well as the essay. The fictional equivalent of the essay is the short story, but short stories have some peculiar constraints because they are (despite their brevity) still required to establish a world, its characters, and their travails, just as a long novel, a screenplay, a stage play, or any other longer form must do. So short stories are these elusive, flickering things -- a glimpse of something more. So a short story may often not get to the point at all: it's indicating that there is a point, and directing us toward it, but often by design leaving the actual point itself unspoken. Essays live or die by whether you 'get' them or not.
My son would probably like to avoid writing another essay, ever. I'd like to be a great essayist, but I'm not. My funny ones have occasionally outlived their evanescent subject matter, but only for a little while. Mostly, writing them has been an opportunity to catch the diaphanous mayflies of my dim little thoughts and pin them to a bit of cardboard. Then again, that's also a fair description of life itself.
3 weeks ago