Monday, February 4, 2019

Reflections on Writing the Short Essay: Hesitations and Possibilities

Vanessa Calderon, Casey Dawson, Grant Dufrene, Diarra English, Waverly Evans, Dana Gainey, Carissa Harlow, Ryan Mayer, Anahi Molina, Sarah Neal, Margaret O’Connell, Sophia Rataj, Brian Recile, Christopher Schaberg, Rayana Windom, & Dari Zeltser
This semester at Loyola University New Orleans we took a new class together, a workshop called Writing the Short Essay. We read some samples at the beginning, including a piece at the Rumpus by Chelsey Johnson, a recent essay by Alison Kinney in the New York Times, and even a Twitter thread by Jami Attenberg. Our goal was to wrap our minds around this wide-ranging and slippery subgenre, and then to try our hands at writing (then workshopping, pitching, and ideally submitting) our own short essays. But as we discussed and workshopped, we found ourselves asking questions about what this form requires of writers, and of readers. For many of us this was our first experience writing something in between academic and creative—if that binary can be used, at least tentatively. As a final project, we reflected on writing the short essay: our experiences, the conundrums we encountered, and more.

SR: On the first day of class, our professor tells us we can write about anything. But we must write. Shit. Not only have I never written a short essay, but it is notoriously harder to write when your subject matter can be anything. I rack my brain. I get four sentences in, hate it, delete everything. I try again, searching through my mind for a thought worth sharing with some unseen audience, but to no avail. It’s not until the night before the piece is due that I realize I just have to write. Who cares if it’s terrible? That’s why we’re workshopping it. I now realize how freeing it is to word-vomit onto a page and dig through the mess until I find a small seed of truth. And maybe there’s a tree metaphor that can be pulled from that last sentence, but I’m not gonna go there.

CH: The short essay is intimate; it’s about obsessions—the things that grip you endlessly; the things that people often tell you you think too hard about. It’s about body image, gender identification, religious scrutiny, ice cream, soap, sex, love, cemeteries, alcohol, aging, dolls, crickets, etc. While these topics seem to be meant for late night conversations with your best friend, or coffee shop talk with your table neighbor who desperately wants to drink their soy latte in peace, the short essay expands the topic just enough that it pops into something different. Like a bubble, stretching into a new space before disappearing back into thin air.

CD: The short essay can get a bad rap. Misunderstandings about this form can lead to bitter conversations about clickbait headlines, a growing public disdain for expertise, and our collective, crumbling attention span—all discussed with a sigh/eye roll combo that my thirteen-year-old self would be proud of. To quickly capture a thought, idea, experience, or response to a cultural moment without expertise, but not without care, can make this an unruly form of writing. It can quickly magnify the insecurities experienced by aspiring writers of all stripes. (Hello, impostor syndrome.) But if our thoughts and ideas are only accessible to those with enough student loan debt to prove their qualifications, then maybe we are failing as writers. The short essay format covers all the opposites of what we have been trained to write—but it might be forcing us to do better work.

VC: My initial fear with writing the short essay was that I had not read enough of them. I wasn’t even sure what one looked like. Maybe I needed a New Yorker subscription (or at least the tote bag). But I soon realized that I’ve read innumerable short essays in my life—whether in the form of a nuanced twitter thread or a shitty Buzzfeed listicle. The short essay is everywhere. I guess it’s the season, as it seems to be the perfect form to write “on the pulse” pieces. Without realizing it, I’ve also written a few by accident: a Google Doc of short paragraphs divulging my favorite celebrity sex stories, an extended Facebook post about getting a parasite in Mexico, and an iPhone notes review of public restrooms in New Orleans. The short essay could be a diary entry, personal reflection, or niche commentary… Those count right? Either way, they’re entertaining.

RW: If the academic essay is the strict, authoritative parent, then the short essay is the fun, spontaneous aunt. The short essay can be a creative outlet, political standpoint, or practically anything the author desires. Go on vacation and write about navigating the crazy rides at Disney or the new Diagon Alley in Universal Studios. Even better, describe the cherry blossoms and culture of Japan, and how the over fifteen-hour plane ride and screaming babies were worth it in the end. I would read that; but the author had better be real with me. Educate me on the difficulties of traveling and learning the native language. Share your emotions on witnessing outright racism for the first time. A short essay takes readers along for the ride, exposes relatable and peculiar experiences in short bursts that keep our attention and end right before you would have lost it. You’ll find me long past bedtime, snuggled up, and laughing as I walk with someone along The Great Wall of China.

SN: I can’t write right now because I’m too stressed about another assignment for work. It’s not the right time of day. I can’t write right now because I’ve looked at a screen too much today. My writing needs to be inspired. Hold on. I can’t write right now because the sunlight looks good through my window, and I gotta look at that. Plus, I got this Amazon package that I have to make an event out of opening. I have to wait until the water for my tea is boiling. I can’t write because I haven’t done my research for the piece yet. I can’t write right now because I have to feed my guinea pigs their hay. I have to wait for my tea to be cool enough to drink. I have to check my email just one more time. Has my tea fully steeped? I can’t write right now. Let me jot something down in my phone real quick.

CS: I wonder what the short essay is for, these days. It’s the form I feel most inclined to write, and it seems like the form with the best chance of being read. But I also worry that my writing is getting pulled into the mill of digital media, where short attention spans reign. On the other hand, even a short essay seems like a small act of resistance! Asking readers to linger with me for five or ten or even maybe fifteen minutes, to play out a scenario, consider an unappreciated object, or reflect on a counterintuitive phenomenon. To try out an uncomfortable or strange idea, to tarry with a half-formed thought, a hunch or an eerie premonition. I write short essays as a matter of coping with the craziness of our times—even, though it may sound hyperbolic, as a matter of survival. It’s a way to organize and sort through the vectors and variables of our days, and to put something in the world that feels like a small outcropping, a breakwall amid the crashing surf that are our oceanic, immersive digital media shorelines.

MO: Recently, Time magazine published a short essay stating that humans now have eight-second attention spans, shorter than that of a goldfish. This particular article—itself cleverly brief—took me 39 seconds to read, which amounts to the attention span of 4.33 goldfish or 4.88 humans. The author of the Time piece asserts that the cause of the shift in the average human attention span is most likely a result of our “increasingly digitalized lifestyle[s].” So it makes sense that our media should adapt accordingly: in recent years, the short essay has gained and continues to gain popularity and literary credibility. Short essays force the author to put seemingly unrelated ideas into conversation without extended transitions. The form requires more interpretation while still being intended for a wider audience of casual readers. Like a poem, you get what you give from the short essay, and I find that reciprocal exchange both thrilling and apt for the current times of the goldfish.

RM: The short essay functions similarly to a seasonal Halloween store: its genius lies in its resplendent evanescence. The short essay seeks to agitate the reader, momentarily plunging them into its subject matter like a baby into baptismal water, and they emerge from the text with an altered perspective. The subject of a short essay can linger in the reader’s mind longer than those of more protracted literary forms because concision correlates with impact. In the essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe notes that “if any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression.” If a short essay cannot be read in one sitting, it sacrifices its potency. The short essay’s pithy length allows it to hold the reader’s attention: to descend, maintain for a moment, and then drop, like a spider from its silk.

GD: I’m still not sold on this whole “short essay” thing. As a still (barely) recovering internet addict, the short essay doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s because my newfound quasi-Luddite aspirations seem at odds with the format. Short essays never stick with me the same way that other forms of writing do. Though, maybe they aren’t meant to stick with you in the same way. I can never remember the author or the details so I tend to lose track of whether these ideas came from a late-night drunk phone conversation, from a stranger who asked to borrow a pen in a bank, or from a short essay I read when I was supposed to be doing research for a term paper. That could be the point I’ve been missing: ideas should flow freely without worrying about their origins. The concept should take precedence over the arbitrary details. Still, the short essay feels like the fast-food-alternative to other forms of writing: as though it was meant to be quickly consumed, discarded, and forgotten as soon as you close out of the tab. Packaged in polystyrene.

DE: Each day, we move through a series of interactions or events that we dismiss as insignificant, and later, there are some we can’t stop thinking about. We replay how we said “hi,” if how we opened a door was too aggressive, and whether or not that afterschool program our parents forced us into helped us or scarred us for life. The short essay writer goes one step further and plucks these endlessly fractal moments that we all fixate on and pours them onto a blank document until they can make some (some) sense out of what it all means. At the end, there is (sometimes) an essay with a concept that someone on the other side of the world or in your own neighborhood may relate to. The short essay, when done well, eases the reader with the feeling that they’re not the only one.

DZ: How do I know when an idea is done? Is an idea ever done? (I’m about to graduate, so maybe I am scared of tying myself to anything particular for fear I’ll back myself into a corner.)  If I can make an argument, does that make it true? (No.) Does that mean I should make it? (I think about what thoughts I want to put out in the world, and the difference between useful ideas and harmful ones.) What should I write? What I believe? What I can get published? Who am I asking to listen to me? (What if I want the privacy that I’m not used to and that advertisers don’t want me to have.) Should a short essay take a short time to write? How do I decide what to say? Do I ever know? Do I pretend to know? How do I know when I know what I know? Is publishing just immortalizing a time that I pretended to know? Should I wait until I have it fully thought out? What is “fully thought out?” Does it matter? (Maybe I’m taking this too seriously.) What are we trying to do here?

BR: When I write a short essay it’s usually sparked from a spontaneous idea or emotion. If I want my essay to be 100 words, I am allowed exactly that freedom. This restrictive freedom allows writers to put their thoughts down without getting into bullshit territory. (Or is some material in short essays precisely bullshit, and that’s okay too?) The short essay allows for exploration of off-the-wall ideas. That’s because you don’t have any long term commitment to the concept. All you have to do is get the idea off your chest, onto the internet, and let it breathe for itself.

WE: The short essay helps me order my thoughts one step at a time. Thinking about the world and all of its problems can be overwhelming, so why not try to attend to little issues that might illuminate a larger problem? As a dancer, dance always helps me take a break from my wandering mind. I can focus on contorting my body to achieve bizarre angles and stark shadows—similar to the short essay. But I don’t have to engage in the physical activity that fatigues my body. Instead, the short essay tires my brain, squeezes each drop of question onto a page, and spreads it into a wonderful mess. Maybe someone will accidentally stumble upon an article online while crying over their recent breakup and discover that he did her dirty through a particular article on sexual harassment or cheating spouses. That’s all I can hope for in my essays: that someone will get stuck on my little burr of confusion and carry it along on the hem of their pant leg for a while.

DG: My drawing teacher tells her students that “just because something is true doesn’t mean it’s necessary.” In a drawing, this translates to not needlessly overcomplicating a piece and screwing with the composition because you see something else in the initial image. The criticisms I got on my first short essays were along the lines of “it seems like there’s a lot here” and “try having a central focus.” My classmates were talking about the same concept as my art teacher—that I need to focus on simplifying the composition rather than emphasizing content. What I like about the reductive quality of the short essay is that reading a successful piece is often akin to feeling and thinking in a way that mimics someone else’s reality. It’s easy to write off fiction as constructed and therefore not realistically applicable, but the short essay demands empathy and focus on something that’s true and worth considering, even if for only ten minutes.

AM: I used to think the short essay was my best friend, but I realize now that the short essay is just myself, cut down and copy-pasted into a Google Doc. In that sense, I kind of hate the short essay, since I kind of hate myself. But I also love it and am obsessed with it since I am obsessed with myself. I’ve got a Gut Feeling.

The authors are students of writing at Loyola University New Orleans.

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