At least, that’s the implicit assumption in high school and college classrooms. It’s the default assignment, possibly because the essay is so conducive as a vehicle for expression—its greatest strength and its biggest weakness. The personal essay—even with its black-tie guise as the formal ‘academic essay’—is the most readily available form of writing as its genesis is simply the individual expressing ideas. It’s the form that most closely resembles the voice in our heads. Yet it’s also the most difficult type of writing to do well, since writing an essay that speaks urgently from the page—that forces or compels us to reckon with its existence—is akin to passing a driving test with eyes closed: we have to draw on everything we know and remember and also have faith and luck. The essay has become the common currency in school because we’ve developed a cultural belief—either mistakenly or not—that anyone who reads and writes can sit down and pound out a few paragraphs in the first person that interestingly or meaningfully deal with some topic or theme or idea.
I teach writing at a small New England college. I often find myself in bemused, harumphing conversation with other professors; we sit around lamenting the poor quality of student writing, sagely shaking our shaggy, pedantic heads and bemoaning the lack of insight and poise and depth—that word gets thrown around more than Frisbees on the quad—in student writing. It’s not our fault, of course; it’s just that student essays are so thin; dashed off with syntax that’s desperately in need of repair. We can’t even begin to edit developmentally—critically guiding them in constructing arguments—because we’re hung up on fixing grammar, spelling, and tense.
It’s not our fault they can’t write—is it?
Montaigne—who gave equal literary calibration to essays dealing with the political mores of 16th century France and his own farts, thereby codifying that the essay, when properly handled, can approach any subject—was 38 when he started writing. He pioneered an approach that has been replicated with success in myriad forms for almost 500 years: braiding self-reflection, personal experience, literary snippets, and historical context to get at some larger idea or question. It’s a tried and true technique, and one that can be taught. But that’s not really what we want from our essays or our students—didactic follow-through. The thing we want—if we’re honest with ourselves—is that essay that comes at us with a piercing, alley-cat caterwaul that wakes us at night; whispers seductively so we can’t help but acquiesce; nags at us for weeks after we’ve read it, insisting upon contemplation. What we don’t want from the essay is obedience.
Montaigne had lived his whole life—in terms of 16th century life expectancies—before he began writing. E.B. White’s famous essay ‘Once More to the Lake’ was written after White had been both a son and a father and visited the lake in Maine as both—it was the result of multiple incarnations of a life lived.
The essay is the most geologic of genres—it takes time, pressure, and the landscape scouring passage of epochs. I don’t think it’s coincidence that John McPhee wrote his epic study of United States geological history, Annals of the Former World, as a series of linked essays. All writing takes time, but the essay seems particularly well-suited to the sort of historical condensing and finely tuned insight built from sedimentary layers as time passes.
This is not to say that essays can’t be written in bursts—they can—only that taking time to wander around thinking about the world within the words is helpful, as is the passage of time that contributes perspective to both thought and event. For some of us, it’s a necessary function in writing essays.
I ask my students to write essays—due next week!—and either consciously or unconsciously judge them according to my own running list of what I consider to be exemplars of the form; Wallace’s ‘Consider the Lobster,’ Smith’s ‘Speaking in Tongues,’ Birkerts’ ‘The Other Walk.’ I’ve asked for an essay, but not provided the necessary ingredients—time; the vital compression of memory that leads to heat. I shouldn’t be surprised when they hand in dreck.
It’s not necessarily that our students are worse writers than previous generations. It’s a consistent myth that the current college generation is a bunch of texting, Tumblr obsessed non-writers. What is true—at least anecdotally—is that writing as a means of expression has changed structurally for the twenty-something set. Not all of them—there are students where I teach who hole up with novels and essay collections and work on setting down words one at a time to wrestle life into meaning. There are also those that have never read a book in their lives, but most populate the middle of that spectrum; Harry Potter and Hunger Games aficionados who begrudgingly churn out thousand word essays and resignedly read PDFs of Virginia Woolf and Geoff Dyer and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But based on my own admittedly provincial sample, students have moved away from the continuum those of us over the age of thirty are used to. As Ander Monson has noted, the essay is now game, hack, fragment—it is everything and anything that ventures forth. The medium has changed—now we all live our lives as writers online to a certain extent—and we know what McLuhan said. As a result, the essay has changed too—there are new hybrids and mutations that challenge our notion of what an essay is. Which is as it should be.
The role of a writing teacher is both proactive—we need to get our students to see essays and poems and stories the way we see them in order to give them a springboard for their own take on things—but it’s also reactive. We should respond to the way writing is changing by examining the way we teach—and the world within which we do.
Reading and writing essays will always be a boutique experience. It’s hard to find someone in daily life who cares enough to argue about the legitimacy of John D’Agata’s narrative hijinks in About a Mountain. But essays will always be valid because they are—ultimately—reflective both of our internal terrain and the world around us. Regardless of how the world we live in changes and becomes inundated by binary codes and screens, essays can morph right along with it—they are reflective at their core. Essays absorb change. They’re limber.
If we want better writers—and more voracious and demanding readers—then we have to recognize that the dreaded five paragraph academic essay can’t compete with the digital written landscape our students inhabit. But other adventurous forms can.
When we don’t think about what we mean when we say ‘essay,’ we set our students up for failure when we ask them to write them. Better to look at ‘dispatches’ from The Common Online, or pieces that appear in Brevity. These staccato bursts of prose—essayistic snapshots—are more in tune with the fractured idea-world inhabited by our students and ourselves (see here: Twitter, Snapchat, Imgur, Reddit, Instagram, texting). What is essential as a starting point for young writers is not form or formality but a conscious lack thereof. The essay serves as a means of exploration, and whether it’s a rough-hewn dugout canoe or a speedboat, all we need to do is get our students and ourselves navigating upriver to the source of our collective experience.
Erik Shonstrom has an MFA in nonfiction from Bennington College, and teaches writing and rhetoric at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. He has been published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Circumference, and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org