José Saramago, Portuguese novelist and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, once remarked, “In effect I am not a novelist, but rather a failed essayist who started to write novels because I didn’t know how to write essays.” Implicit in his remarks is a refutation of the easy assumption that people write essays because they are less difficult than novels. They are shorter, to be sure, and differently structured. But ease of writing is not necessarily one of their virtues, particularly when the so-called personal essay is involved.
In her Write on Wednesday prompt this week, Becca asks, “Do you enjoy reading and writing personal essays?” The fact is I do – primarily because I’m most interested in exploring the world around me, rather than inventing a fictional world from whole cloth. I’m intrigued by the challenges posed when attempting to communicate rich, densely-textured realities through an apparently simple form, and I prefer the freedom to move from one topic to another as my attention is engaged, rather than devoting months or years to the same project.
Alain de Botton, another prolific essayist whose The Art of Travel is one of my favorites, says, “I am conscious of trying to stretch the boundaries of non-fiction writing. It’s always surprised me how little attention many non-fiction writers pay to the formal aspects of their work.”
He goes on, “I passionately believe it’s not just what you say that counts, it’s also how you say it – the success of your argument critically depends on your manner of presenting it.”
The word essay itself comes from the French essayer, which means “to try”. Trying to communicate the richness of reality can be difficult at best. When Anita Diamant, in her introduction to Pitching My Tent, writes that her challenge as an essayist was “to pay closer-than-average attention and then shape…experiences and reactions into entertaining prose”, she suggests what I have come to believe: that vision comes first.
It is the essayist’s task to say, “This is what I have seen. This is what I have experienced. This is what I have discovered lying along life’s shore, waiting to be plucked from the sands of obscurity, turned and examined, magnified for detail, polished until its inherent nature shimmers in the light.”
After this seeing comes the shaping of context as the author seeks connections, probing for relevance, significance and truth. Speaking as directly and intimately as possible, the essayist says, “Here is my interpretation of my vision. This is how I understand my experience. I have come to believe this, or that, about these oddities of life which lie strewn about our years, and I offer my conclusions to you.”
It is this combination of vision and truth, of seeing and seeking, that leads naturally to the essay form. It is a different kind of writing, focused on drawing connections, plumbing unsuspected depths, turning the kaleidescope of words around and around until discovered bits of life, tiny, jewel-like fragments of reality, drop into new and utterly unexpected patterns.
With vision and truth so intimately joined, speaking one’s heart becomes possible. The most deeply personal convictions, the most privately held and deeply cherished beliefs about the world around us reside not in our head but in our heart, ready to inform our writing. For the essayist, conviction and belief are the lenses through which the world is seen, and our words reveal those convictions and beliefs more clearly than we might intend.
After six months of writing, my own convictions are becoming clear – and sometimes surprise even me. Despite significant evidence to the contrary, I believe that goodness abounds, and trust is possible. I believe there is a moral dimension to life, a realm of freely responsible choice far more terrifying than any book of rules. I believe that pessimism and negativity, like optimism and hope, are choices we make, that cynicism is an acid that eats away life, that problems can be solved and that, in the end, there is meaning and significance to even the most lowly gesture of compassion and care.
However difficult they might be to sustain in the midst of life, those are among the convictions impelling me to speak my heart, even as I confront and engage other voices which seek to contradict or destroy those convictions. Together with the visions and voices of others I admire, they have helped me understand my own passion for writing, and the requirements of the writer’s craft.
To put it simply, writing satisfying essays requires clarity of vision – an ability and willingness to see the world as it is, and not as we wish it to be.
It requires courage – a considered choice to express personal opinion, to roam beyond received wisdom, to move from feigned objectivity to self-revelation.
Ironically, It also demands a certain caution – a tentativeness, a willingness to suspend judgements and withhold pronouncements when treading through unfamiliar territory.
And finally, there must be commitment – not only to disciplines inherent in the essay form, but also to a lifetime of attentiveness. Listening for the unspoken word, watching for the half-hidden gesture, feeling the shudder as conflicted human hearts confront their destiny, it is also the essayist who speaks from a heart filled with hard-won knowledge, and more than a little truth.
“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” ~ Joan Didion, essayist